It all began when I was examining a dress and jacket suit recently accessioned to Walsall Museum’s Community Costume Collection. It was a green crepe ‘sunday best’ style outfit, with a cheery pink rose print. It is from late 1950s or early 1960s (though I could do with doing a bit more research to confirm this). In my more fanciful moments, I can picture Edith or Flora Hodson wearing it whilst bustling off to church or to some family occasion.
Sheila Shreeve found the outfit in a wardrobe at 54 New Road (the property was both the family home and business premises) and there had been some discussion regarding the relationship between the ensemble and the Hodson Shop Collection. The outfit has some very clear signs of wear – soiling around the neckline, evidence of altered hems and repairs and there is even a brooch pinned to the right hand bust. The Hodson Shop Collection is defined as unworn shop stock, with ‘unworn’ being the operative word in this case. Based on the evidence of wear, the outfit was ultimately accessioned into the Community Costume Collection with a note making the relationship to the Hodson Shop clear.
My own study of the garment involved examining the garment inside and out. It was during this process that I noticed the marking under the arms, the repairs in subtly different thread and the clear line of an adjusted hem. I also came across a paper label stitched into the left hand seam of the dress. I can’t find the photo of the label so I will try my best to take one on my next visit to the museum (you can see similar here). From my research notes:
A rectangular paper label is stitched into the left side seam. It is reinforced with a textile mesh on the reverse side. Measures 30mm W x 40mm H. Text is printed in black serif: “MORRISH, LONDON, W1 Ref. C. Style (stamped, red) 194 Prod. (stamped, red) 20035 Mach. (handwritten, pencil) 15 Fin. (stamped, red) 46 Presser Size (stamped, red) 44”
This is where I went wrong. Based on my own experience of clothing labels, I assumed that Morrish were the manufacturers of the outfit. After all, the labels in modern clothing always give the name of the manufacturer, right? This is where the Prownian approach (description, deduction, speculation) to analysing garments proved to be most valuable. It was time to test my hypothesis!
And it turns out that it was very, very wrong. I spent a fascinating afternoon trying to find out who Morrish were. It began, as do many modern adventures in dress history, with a hunt on eBay. I came across several vintage items listed as “Morrish & Co.”, including one rather pretty organza party frock that I came dangerously close to buying (in the name of research, of course). Things got interesting on Etsy where I noticed that listings were far more cautious, referring to ‘order labels’ bearing the name Morrish & Co., as opposed to the stating the company as the manufacturers of the garments. Lots of the garments I came across were listed as appearing to be handmade and there was no real continuity in their style (a sweet party frock one minute, a leopard print-lined leather coat the next). The next phase of my online odyssey took me to an entry on a Vintage Fashion Guild forum. A user called ‘Leonardo da Vintage’ was enquiring about a 50s wiggle dress baring a very similar label. She asked the following questions:
It has a paper hand written label sewn into a seam – what does that indicate? I’ve looked up Morrish & Co, London W1, and the only possibly relevant company made stationary, bags and then shop fittings – so perhaps they made the label, rather than the dress?
Maybe Morrish & Co. weren’t clothing manufacturers after all? Armed with the company name and postcode I decided to search through some trade directories. I hit gold in the Post Office London Directory, 1915 (you can access them via University of Leicester’s wonderful Special Collections Online ‘Historical Directories of England and Wales’) . Listed under ‘PRI’ (which is possibly short for ‘Printers’?) on page 471 I found the following entry :
I then Googled ‘Morrish & Co 56 Great Titchfield Street’ and the first result was for a company called Morplan. Morplan are suppliers to the fashion industry – they provide labels, ticketing, bags and hangers amongst numerous other bits and pieces essential to clothing retail and manufacture. The ‘About’ page of the website informed me that the ‘Mor’ part of the name was taken from Mr Morrish of Camberwell, SE London who founded the company in 1845. They operated using the names ‘Morrish and Chalfont’, ‘ Morrish & Co.’, ‘Morrish’ and finally ‘Morplan’. They have been operating from Great Titchfield Street, W1 since approx. 1894.
So there’s one mystery pretty much solved: Morrish & Co. made the labels NOT the dresses. I’m not sure how much of this is common knowledge within dress history and vintage circles but it is clearly a red herring that catches many vintage sellers and students like me out. As one mysterious case closes, another one has opened: who made the green ‘Sunday Best’ outfit? I can see this turning into a mammoth trawl through the Hodson Shop Archive. I’ll let you know when I find anything out!
I’m also now beyond intrigued in the history of Morrish & Co. and their links with the fashion industry. Please let me know if you are aware of any research on them. I’ve never really stopped to think about who makes the labels in my clothing, they are one of those small and largely ignored parts of everyday life and dress. There’s a nice project in that somewhere!
Several months ago, I (half-jokingly) mentioned my plans to write a paper about religion and underwear marketing. It was one of those situations where I knew there was something in the idea but it took me a while to get to the bottom of exactly what it was. After mulling the idea over and getting over the fits of giggles that struck me down every time I saw Cardinal Wolsey’s face on a pair of knickers, I decided to seriously pursue the idea.
I submitted an abstract for the Centre for the History of Retailing and Distribution workshop on retailing and the human body and was delighted when I was told that it had been successful. Since then I’ve become immersed in the world of early-twentieth century underwear, Thomas Wolsey and St. Margaret.
The CHORD workshop ‘Retailing, Commerce and the Human Body: Historical Approaches’ takes place on 14th May 2014 at University of Wolverhampton. Visit the CHORD webpage for more information.
I’ll publish a summary of my paper on here after the event, but for now I wanted to share some of the images I have gathered whilst researching the paper:
As always, massive thanks to the team at Walsall Museum for allowing me to study and photograph these items!
Let’s talk about underwear.
The Hodson Shop contains a lot of underwear and analysing it has been quite an eye opening experience! Let’s just say that there’s nothing like a pair of pale brown 1920s woollen knickers to make you eternally grateful for a humble pair of M&S cotton briefs.
The drab, frumpy and substantial (in both cut and fabric) nature of some of the underwear that I have been examining has highlighted one of the key dangers when using the collection to make generalisations about fashions and dress from particular eras. It is quite easy to look at items from, say, the 1920s and use them to create a vision of what people wore during that period. Yet caution is required.
Garments in the collection are there for a simple reason: no one ever purchased them. This could be a case of the Hodson sisters buying in far too many items and refusing to have stock clearance sales or it could be that they were simply stocking things that no one wanted.
Take this 1930s woollen combination (below). It is made by the fabulously named ‘Rameses’. The first thing I noticed was the sheer weight and thickness of the fabric, I then noticed the open crotch and I have to admit that that there were giggles. To 21st century eyes, the garment has an almost comic quality. It is a world away from the ‘sexy’ briefs and bras that stuff underwear drawers across the country. In fact, it is a world away from ‘sexy’ fullstop!
Forget Agent Provocateur or Coco de Mer, this is underwear that was intended to perform a function. The open crotch, for example, was there to enable the wearer use the toilet without having to get undressed. That’s not to say that the wearers of such garments didn’t get frisky when the urge so took them…
The Hodson Shop would have needed to cater for their older customer. So during the 1920s and 1930s when many of Willenhall’s young ladies would have been donning shorter skirts, some Hodson Shop customers were possibly still sporting Edwardian-era ankle length skirts. In that context, a knee length woollen combination with a split crotch begins to make something resembling sense.
These are items that were out of fashion even at the point of potential sale. They make regular appearances throughout the collection as the customers who would have worn them were dying out or adapting to new styles of underwear.
There is a general trend emerging through the collection of undergarments becoming smaller (and often prettier) as time progresses. A Utility bra is made in a delicate shade of rose, with ribbon straps; a 1950s slip has chiffon flounces printed with trailing flowers (see above). I am also beginning to notice a shift in the promotional text used on swing tickets and labels. Earlier garments are accompanied with copy that emphasises their value, durability and quality. Vests are ‘Unshrinkable’ and ‘Protective’ (see image of the ‘Rameses’ combination above). There is also an emphasis on the ‘purity’ of the fabrics used. I am yet to observe such text accompanying underwear from 1940s-50s. This possibly gives a few hints about how social attitudes towards women, dress and sexuality were changing.
Studying unworn historical clothing is an unusual experience. I’m constantly looking for minute and subtle points of interest – be it a loose thread here or a tell-tale price tag there. I’m always looking for clues to a story, albeit one that doesn’t involve contact with a body.
What I never really anticipated was to find anything close to resembling ‘signs of wear’. Being ‘unworn’ is such a crucial and defining part of the Hodson Shop Collection that I’d put such matters to the back of my mind, that was until I encountered the mysterious case of the blue slippers…
They are a pair of mid-blue synthetic leather (what I prefer to call ‘pleather’ in non-academic settings!) house slippers, with a chunky curved heel, an ‘opera slipper’ style curved raised vamp and a bow at the front. They look quite smart and passable for daywear until you see the fluffy white fleece lining. My guess is that they are from the 1930s, though they may be earlier. Their condition in generally very good but I’m starting to suspect that their few scratches and creases hold a secret.
Time for a fun game of spot the difference: look at the pair of slippers below, can you spot any differences between the slipper on the left and the one on the right?
Don’t worry if not. I didn’t at see much first, but after an hour of examining them some subtle and potentially very interesting differences began to become clear.
The first thing that I noticed was that the bow on the right shoe (pictured above left) was far more curled and misshapen. This then lead me to noting scratches and worn stitching on the right shoe but not on the left. Close examination of the soles also presents a difference – there are lines of vertical scuffing on the right slipper but not the left, and some notable scratches close to the sole edge. Then I spotted something that could hold the key to these small differences. In the image below left you’ll notice that the right slipper (on left in picture) is far more collapsed than that of the left – almost as if it has been ‘trodden’ down. ‘Trodden’ being the operative word here.
This is where I start to get far too excited…
…could one of these shoes have been worn?
My initial (and the cause of my excitement) theory is that the right shoe was the ‘trying on’ slipper. We are all familiar with walking into a shoe shop and trying on shoes from display. I’ve certainly experienced that oh-so-disappointing feeling of buying some bargain shoes only to get home and discover that one is discoloured from bright shop lights and slightly crumpled from repeated trying on in-store. Maybe the Hodson sisters allowed customers to try on a single shoe in the store, retaining the matching shoe in storage?
Before I get carried away, I have to remember that there are numerous explanations behind these differences and the likelihood of me ever reaching a definitive one is very slim. Possible explanations include:
- Storage: Conditions in the Hodson Shop were far from ideal. Boxes were piled up and stock was scattered about. All it would have taken is for one shoe to get crushed by a box above or for the pair to have become separated amongst the chaos.
- Age: These shoes are approximately 80 years old. Worn or unworn, they are bound to show signs of deterioration in condition.
- Manufacture: The differences could merely be the result of inconsistencies in manufacture.
- Display: The shoes could have been on display at the shop or even during their museum life.
There’s also the argument that my brain has become so receptive to ‘signs of a story’ that I could be seeing something where there is really nothing to see.
If it were to transpire that these slippers had been tried on, I am still left with the question ‘how does this change the object?’. This question goes beyond the physical realm and raises issues around interpretation and biography. Also, it opens up a discussion around defining ‘wear’. At what point does something become ‘worn’? Can a shoe that has been slipped on and off a human foot be considered ‘unworn’?