I’m thrilled to be able to share this audio file of my recent conference paper with you.
This recording is by no means the finished article but I have noticed that the subject really captures people’s attention so it felt right to share it. There is a lot more work and research to be done on the subject – especially concerning anxieties around the adulteration and cleanliness of fabrics.
In the meantime, I hope that you enjoy listening and I welcome any thoughts or ideas in the comments below.
Thanks to the wonderful Katrina Maitland-Brown for making this recording and to everyone at CHORD for the opportunity to speak at their workshop. As always, massive thanks to the team at Walsall Museum for their ongoing support.
C. Willett and Phillis Cunnington, The History of Underclothes, (London: Faber, 1981).
Keith Jopp, Corah of Leicester 1815-1965, (privately printed, 1965). (read the PDF here)
C.W Webb, An Historical Record of N.Corah & Sons Ltd., (privately printed, 1947). (read the PDF here)
Elizabeth Ewing, Everyday Dress 1650-1900, (London: B.T Batsford Ltd., 1989).
Also see the ‘About’ section of the Wolsey website for their take on the brand’s history.
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!
Back in November 2013 I posted a selection of colourful and charming images from the Hodson Shop archive. Fast forward to today and I’m still working my way through the archive, though the images I’ll be sharing in this post are far less colourful and, perhaps, not quite so visually striking. Yet that’s not to say that the images are without interest or intrigue…
The archive contains invoices and paperwork as well as the catalogues and other ephemera. I have spent the past few weeks working my way through piles of invoices and delivery notes, searching for any links between the items listed and the objects that I have been analysing within the collection.
The aim of the process has been to build as full a biography as possible for the items. The invoices have the potential to answer a lot of questions. Where did an item come from? Who supplied them? How much did they cost? And when did they arrive? These answers can help to trace the life story of the items before their life in the Hodson Shop and Walsall Museum.
It hasn’t been easy. The invoices rarely give much in the way of descriptive detail – information regarding size or colour is a rarity and brand names tend to only crop up for specific items like corsets, hosiery and toiletries. There have been times when I have cursed the 1920s sales clerks for having such sloppy handwriting and not bothering to tell me the colour of a ‘frock’ ordered in 1923! Yet I have found some fascinating matches.
This non-descript brown paper parcel believed to contain children’s cashmere hose is likely to be the “5914 ¾ Hose” item listed on a N. Corah invoice from 2nd February 1923:
These green ‘mock wing’ feathers? They are listed as ‘Wings’ on this S.C. Larkins & Sons invoice from 18th August 1921:
In both of these cases, I’ve been fortunate enough to have item codes to match up. Utility items have been slightly easier to trace, as have some items with the St. Margaret brand due to N. Corah and Sons being both manufacturers and their own wholesaler.
There have been some amusing moments – such as the terribly polite letter from a wholesaler informing Edith Hodson that she wasn’t entitled to the discount she had applied to an order. There’s also the repeated insistence of wholesalers to address Edith and Flora as ‘Sirs’ or ‘Mr Hodson’. Whilst comical to a point, I believe that this error serves to highlight quite how extraordinary Edith and Flora were, operating a business in what was very much a man’s world. They were bold and would often correct such errors. They weren’t afraid to push their luck if it meant saving money:
Something that has struck me is how much stock was coming into the shop. Invoices from some of their major suppliers are often at weekly or two weekly intervals. I need to look into it further but my initial view is that they regularly over-bought, which provides an explanation as to why the Hodson Shop Collection is so large. Another observation is that the sisters tended to only go to the trouble of returning items if they were from local suppliers, such as Walsall-based Ennals & Co. Ltd.. There are far more credit notes from this supplier than others. Maybe travelling to wholesalers further afield was too time consuming and too expensive? Or maybe their goods simply weren’t up to Edith and Flora’s standards?
The invoices themselves are visually interesting. Some feature images of the wholesalers premises, such as S.C. Larkins & Sons Ltd. of Livery Street, Birmingham:
There are still hundreds of pieces of paperwork for me to look through and I’m hugely looking forward to being able to cross reference my invoice findings with some of the links I’ve already made between certain items and trade catalogues. It has also been a thrill to see aspects of Edith and Flora Hodson’s personalities show through something as generic and functional as invoices.
Many thanks to Walsall Museum for providing me with access to the archive and for allowing me to photograph the items.
If you wish to explore the Hodson Shop Collection and Archive, please contact Walsall Museum.
Tel: 01922 653116
After a busy few weeks (more on which in a future post), it has been a pleasure to finally get back to hands-on archival research. I’ve spent a few days digging through the Hodson Shop archive of trade catalogues, seeking out links to any of the items I have encountered during my object analysis. Plenty have emerged as I’ve worked my way through piles of trade brochures for Birmingham wholesalers such as Wilkinson and Riddell, S.C Larkin and Sons and Bell and Nicholson. The images below are of some of the things that have caught my eye. They aren’t always hugely relevant to my research but they are the things that have raised some intrigue, a smile or a giggle.
I’ve attempted to give as much detail as possible for each image, though I forgot to note the date and wholesaler for this Christmas apron image. I think it is late-1940s/early-1950s Bell and Nicholson, though I’ll double check when I am next at the museum and update the caption accordingly.
I’ve posted before about underwear and how the collection highlights changing attitudes and approaches to undergarments from 1920s-1960s. The 1920s Queen of Scots promotional material is a prime example of this: hygiene and comfort, alongside endorsement from a pious historical figure (c.f. Cardinal Wolsey and his stockings). This is something that I really want to do some more research into (proposed paper title: Piety, Purity and Pants). If you know of any existing work on early-20th century underwear marketing, please let me know!
The 1930s Wilkinson and Riddell catalogue covers are especially stunning – with their Japanese influences and bold artwork. There is something rather charming about their Greyhound logo, especially when placed next to a bonsai tree. The pink and yellow gladioli cover is a personal favourite.
The S.C. Larkin and Sons brochure, New Designs for 1930. Maids’ and Nurses’ Caps, revealed links to Walsall’s famous Sister Dora – the nurse and nun who revolutionised approaches to nursing during the mid-ninteenth century. She created a simple cap for nurses to wear and the brochure shows the design in a number of styles ‘suitable for bobbed hair’.
The final image is of some scribbled notes that I found inside a 1954 Bell and Nicholson catalogue, possibly by Edith or Flora Hodson. There was something eerie about coming across these notes and doodles – as if they were a direct link back to the women and what was going on inside their heads. I’ve seen their handwriting many times before but it has mainly been scrawled numbers or scrappy receipts. These notes seem more personal. And that little sketch of a head? Well, I’m filing that under ‘a bit creepy’.
Many thanks to Walsall Museum for providing me with access to the archive and for allowing me to photograph the items.
If you wish to explore the Hodson Shop Collection and Archive, please contact Walsall Museum.
Tel: 01922 653116
What does the Hodson Shop have in common with Marks and Spencer? “Not a vast amount beyond selling clothes” would have been my initial answer but that has changed somewhat since spending a day at the M&S Archive.
I was there for the CHORD 2013 conference on historical perspectives around retailing and the senses. The papers were fascinating, as ever. I particularly enjoyed Anneleen Arnout’s paper on the sensory aspects of the Galeries Saint-Hubert in 19th century Brussels and Ai Hisano’s history of cellophane in US food packaging. Ben Highmore’s take on Habitat’s “sensual orchestration” really got me thinking about shops as both retail and educational spaces – where people learn about design through their senses. There are clear parallels with museums within this, though this post isn’t the place for me to ramble on about those!
Instead, I want to tell you all about the M&S Archive and explain how it links with the Hodson Shop Project.
The archive contains approximately 70,000 items and is located within the Michael Marks building, University of Leeds. There’s an exhibition space on the ground floor, which is well worth a visit. The display cases contain items that tell the story of M&S over the decades – from the Penny Bazaars of the 1890s to the present day of Per Una and Percy Pigs. Researchers can also arrange access to the collections and there are excellent facilities for study.
There were some fabulous items on display. I couldn’t get over the floral print on this pair of early “Shapewear” pants (above)! The knitted swimwear from the 1920s also raised a few smiles. Yet it wasn’t all about clothing. In fact, garments only account for 1,700 items within the archive, with the rest being mainly documents relating to management, finance and product design and innovation.
Our guide, Katherine Carter explained to us that it is often a mad scramble to ensure that evidence and artefacts are collected and archived due to the fast pace of 21st century retail. Their collecting policy for clothing is to keep samples of ‘high volume sellers’ (this could be something as simple as a plain white t-shirt), garments seen on celebrities and public figures (e.g. Samantha Cameron’s polka dot dress) and garments incorporating significant innovations in textile technology.
We got to look at the ‘strong room’ where the collection is stored. I was impressed by the high-tech racking system they have in place and the pristine orderliness of the clothing collection. The garments may not have huge monetary worth and be distinctly ‘everyday’ but M&S clearly value their history.
During our tour of the exhibition space, Katherine explained how the company had evolved from a market stall in Leeds to the globally recognisable super-brand of today. It is strange to think that one of the earliest big sellers was sheet music that sold for one penny. The inflation of the 1920s made the ground breaking ‘everything’s a penny’ sales strategy impossible to maintain, leading the company to diversify and experiment with new products and branding. They introduced their first bra in 1926 and started to sell a range of simple, loose fitting garments (the loose fit was necessary due to the infancy of mass production techniques).
I was intrigued to hear that M&S technologists had worked with the government during WWII to develop what would become the CC41 (utility) scheme. It was striking to see a simple, yet elegant, utility dress next to the full and flouncy fifties floral frock. Katherine used the phrase ‘wonder fabrics’ when talking about the scientific breakthroughs of the fifties that kick started the period love affair with man-made fibres.
The 1960-1970s case was a delight. It was amusing to see how the company had attempted to keep up with the youthful freedom of the period – their first campaign with Twiggy was launched in 1968, whilst their Young St Michael range was endearingly innocent and ever-so slightly wide of the mark!
Ready meals and convenience foods were highlighted as the next major breakthrough. The not very appetisingly named ‘Boil in the Bag Ravioli’ was launched in 1971, with Indian ready meals and lasagnes following in 1972. Apparently, they were edible status symbols – with high price tags.
Fast-forwarding to 2009 and M&S celebrated the 150th anniversary of Michael Marks’ birth. The display featured limited edition archive-based garments. This anniversary marked the point when the design team began to search through the archives for creative inspiration.
There were also displays of staff uniforms from across the decades – from the early floor length black dresses worn with crisp white aprons, to the man-made fibre extravaganzas of the 1950s. A visitor assistant called Janet kindly talked me through these displays. She had worked for M&S since she was a teenager and even showed me a picture of her young self in a smart M&S uniform! She told me how her employers trained her in everything from grooming to dental hygiene. There is a clear sense of ‘family’ amongst M&S employees.
Janet also pointed me to a cabinet containing diaries belonging to Michael Marks and Tom Spencer for 1894 (the first year of the partnership). They detail Tom Spencer’s initial £300 investment in the company – humble items that capture a turning point in retail history.
So what exactly do the Hodson Shop Collection and M&S archive have in common? My first thought was that they are both collections of stock and documentation of a single business. They also cover a similar time period. In both cases, items are not spectacular, expensive or glamorous. The garments in the M&S collection are not displayed in relation to a specific wearer – making them, in a sense, ‘unworn’ (I would love to establish how many of the garments in their collection have been worn and how many have not). On a more practical level, I noticed that some of the brands featured in earlier displays were the same as found in the Hodson Shop Collection, such as Dewhurst’s and St Margaret (the latter being the inspiration behind the St Michael brand name which was dropped in 2000).
Whilst there are some parallels, I am aware that the items in the M&S archive are there due to their association with a much-loved and renowned brand and business. Michael Marks and Tom Spencer have a lofty position in retail history whilst Edith and Flora Hodson are minor players. People visit the M&S exhibition because it resonates with them on a personal level and this resonance is widespread, across the country and generations.
Massive thanks to: the team at the M&S archive (especially Katherine and Janet), Laura Ugolini and Karin Dannehl from University of Wolverhampton who organised the CHORD conference and all of the speakers at the event.
It has been a while since my last post. I’ve been busy over the past few weeks – finishing the object analysis stage of my research, preparing for interviews with museum staff and delivering two presentations about the Hodson Shop Project.
During this time, I’ve been lucky to attend two CHORD workshops and a study day at the University of Chester about the Textile Stories project, organised by Professor Deborah Wynne. It is always a pleasure to go along to such events and meet people who are passionate about clothing and history. It is especially exciting to have a chance to talk about my research with these people!
I’m still very much in the thick of it research-wise, so this post is more a collection of some of the gorgeous images that I have captured in the course of my studies over the last month or so.
It is quite refreshing to step back from detailed analysis and to simply appreciate something because it is pretty. Some objects and garments make people smile, a factor which is arguably undervalued in studies of material culture. And sometimes that smile is enough. There are no long-winded descriptions or complex biographies for any of the items picture below. Enjoy.
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’?