When researching towards my book, British Fashion in the 1920s (Shire Books, 2013), I ordered a newspaper from the company Historic Newspapers, who run an impressive archive of original newspapers and supply academic researchers, the media and members of the public seeking special gifts:
My copy of The Daily Mail, 8th March 1921, arrived beautifully presented and in extraordinarily good condition. As hoped, its pages were full of fascinating illustrated clothing, accessories and hair care advertisements – a wonderful resource for studying fashion and popular consumer goods.
Department stores who advertised their fashion ranges in the newspaper include large companies that have survived into the 21st century, like D H Evans and Selfridges, as well as other names that are familiar to many of us (perhaps from childhood), but which sadly no longer exist, such as Gorringes and Swan & Edgar of Piccadilly.
The diverse and numerous notices in this Easter-time issue of just one daily newspaper demonstrate the power of advertising nearly 100 years ago and the attraction of seasonal sales and bargains to our mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers who were responsible for clothing themselves and their families, often on a tight budget.
From children’s underwear, clothes and shoes to women’s raincoats, corsets, stylish hats – from Paris, no less – and ‘dainty frocks’ with contemporary names like ‘Laura’ and ‘Lydia’, through these advertisements we see a snapshot of precisely what was fashionable in early Spring 1921.
Traditionally Victorian women’s gowns, which emphasised individuality of appearance and required a perfect fit, were made-to-measure by an experienced dressmaker. However the plainer, more practical ‘tailor-made’ ladies’ costumes that became fashionable for everyday wear during the 1890s could be mass-produced, like men’s suits. British textile and tailoring companies seized this new manufacturing opportunity, their pioneering mail order garment ranges representing the beginnings of the ready-to-wear female clothing industry.
Researching Victorian fashion, I found several illustrated newspaper advertisements dating from the mid-late 1890s relating to John Noble Ltd of Manchester (est. 1893) and Allen Foster & Co and Arthur Campbell & Co of London for ‘Half-Guinea Costumes’ available direct from their factories. A limited range of colours and materials were available, but the choice was reasonable and in inviting customers to specify the model or pattern required and supply their personal bust, waist, sleeve and leg measurements, these manufacturers effectively combined elements of bespoke tailoring with a convenient ready-to-wear service.
Fabrics on offer included cheviot and serviceable serge, while colours ranged widely from black, navy, brown, fawn and electric blue to cinnamon, bronze, ruby and petunia. Naturally each company claimed to be the largest costumier, providing the best service and greatest value for money; perhaps their models were, as stated, unique, but they all followed fashion closely, as seen in the 1897 advertisement below, which displays the very latest style of puffed ‘leg-o’-mutton’ sleeve.
Priced consistently at 10s 6d, the new ‘Half-Guinea’ costumes may not have been of the highest quality, but nonetheless they provided respectable and affordable outfits for not only middle-class ladies out shopping or paying morning visits, but legions of young working women including typists, telephonists and shop assistants. Such economical, fashionable costumes helped to disseminate new styles and played a significant role in the growing democratisation of late-Victorian dress.