More Than Window Dressing

I recently presented a paper on 1940s window displays at the Glasgow School of Art’s ‘Crafting the Look: Styling as Creative Process’ conference. Here is an extract from that paper, looking at the work of display manager Eric Lucking at Liberty’s: 

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At first glance, London’s West End in 1946 does not look like the most promising place for a retail revolution. London’s shops emerged from the Second World War to face a very steep uphill struggle: many had suffered severe cosmetic and structural damage, and others, such as Oxford Street’s John Lewis, had been bombed out completely. On top of this, they faced both a shortage of display props, such as mannequins, and a shortage of merchandise to display. Window displays were subject to a series of government restrictions, including a 10% quota on the amount of windows that shops were able to fit with new glass, very high purchase tax on mannequins, limitations on the amount of lighting that could be used and restrictions on the use of raw materials such as paper and wood for creating displays. 

It was into these challenging circumstances that a newly Demobbed Eric Lucking arrived at Liberty & Co. Lucking’s appointment as Liberty’s first ever display manager speaks for the forward looking nature of Liberty’s then director, Arthur Stewart-Liberty, who had attended courses at the newly launched Reiman school of display design and appreciated the importance of display styling in a way that many of his west end counterparts were yet to catch up with. Lucking’s appointment gave the shop a coherent vision for the first time, as previously individual department had been allocated windows to dress separately, and Arthur Stewart-Liberty later reported that this even inspired buyers to procure better stock, hoping that their items might be selected for use in one of Lucking’s windows.

Window displays were of particular importance in the late 1940s due to the limitations on other marketing techniques; for example, Liberty’s did not release its first post-war catalogue until 1952 due to paper shortages. In order to achieve the necessarily striking visuals, Lucking needed to be extremely resourceful. In late 1945 and early 1946, Display magazine is dominated by distinctly ‘make do and mend’ ideas, including the use of dyed sawdust and autumn leaves to cover damaged floors, creating backdrops of coloured water in glass tumblers, and updating old pre-war mannequins with plaster of paris ‘facials’ and improvised paper wigs. Even the high-end store Simpsons of Piccadilly was using found objects, such as leaves and pebbles, as price labels. 

Perhaps the biggest problems facing display stylists at this time was a lack of mannequins on which to create clothing displays. When Lucking joined Liberty in 1946, Display magazine was carrying numerous adverts for mannequin refurbishment services and even the flagship national design exhibition ‘Britain Can Make It’, held at the Victoria and Albert museum later that year, was dogged by problems trying to procure mannequins. In order to update old-fashioned pre-war models, Lucking created abstract and surrealist displays, removing heads and replacing them with bunches of flowers or suspending hats as if perched on invisible heads.

Lucking took this disassembling further, and in his displays disembodied hands hold up gloves and bags. Often the body is dispensed with entirely, and dresses are draped or hung on hangers as if floating out of wardrobes. By creating these surreal models, Lucking was able to evoke a feeling of animation through abstraction, and clothes in window displays came to life as never before, aided by the imagination of the shopper outside.

One of the more innovative solutions to the mannequin shortages in London was to be found in hand made wire mannequins. Eric Lucking adopted the wire model concept and emphasized their uncanny nature through his surrealist displays, for example in the image below, where the missing head and arms place emphasis on the exquisite wire foot, highlighting the alluring nature of the dresses drape over the leg, while a series of props float around the model as if in orbit to it.

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Another way in which Eric Lucking worked with limited props was to make a feature of empty space, often creating striking scenes that highlighted the merchandise on display to great effect. In order to create a spectacle, Lucking used nylon wires against a plain backdrop from which he suspended garments to give the impression of some ghostly presence, attracting the viewer with this uncanny visual trick. Realizing the visual power of suspension, Lucking worked with artist Lyn Chadwick, displaying his mobiles as props in a way that interacted with the store’s merchandise, as if the mannequins in the window were themselves observers at an art gallery.

Probably Eric Lucking’s biggest contribution to display design is to be found in his use of draping. Lucking is repeatedly praised in the contemporary press for his masterful grasp of fabric draping, and this was noticed by several trade associations, including the British Nylon Spinners Association and the International Wool Secretariat who engaged his services for several major national and international trade fairs. Lucking was deeply interested in the properties of fabric and what could be done with them, as can be seen from his many sketches of falling and draped fabric. His skill can be seen in this draped figure from 1947, complete with one of his trademark floral heads.

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Eric Lucking’s decade at Liberty’s was more successful than even Arthur Stewart-Liberty could have hoped. His view was highly practical, believing that creative display should be used first and foremost to sell merchandise, and there is evidence that he succeeded on this front, with archive letters from department heads congratulating him on window displays that had lead to the featured merchandise swiftly selling out.

For individuals, the window displays they passed represented more than just an advertisement. They became part of the symbolic struggle against austerity regulations, and designer Sally Tuffin recalls how “From a war-torn childhood, where everything seemed grey, my first visit to Regent Street was a pure fantasy of delight”. The surreal, imaginative fantasies produced by Eric Lucking do not conform to our usual grey image of post-war austerity. Instead, they offer a vision into the hopeful and optimistic side of the national mood, indulging in escapism whilst dreaming of a brighter future. The floating and seemingly magical figures in these displays are able to transcend the reality of shortages that plagued many London lives, but their very construction under the shadow of these same shortages proved to onlookers that it was possible to achieve individuality in a world of uniformity.

What’s in a Stitch?

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When using the material object as a historical source, one of the more difficult boundaries to negotiate is the acceptable line between deduction and speculation; how far from the material evidence can our interpretations wander before they become invalid?

This question commonly arises when contemplating damage and repairs to garments, when we often have few clues as to when or how the garment was damaged, or who completed the repairs. However, I often find that contemplating a range of possible alternatives can help broaden my understanding of the material object and its social and cultural role. In order to demonstrate this, let us return to the Museum of London’s item 64.128, the checked wool dress, which has two patched repairs, one at the waistband and one at the hem.

The woolen checked tweed is a heavy fabric, especially given the relative fullness of the skirt, and as such it is unsurprising to find evidence of the weave pulled and stretched thin at the waistband, close to the area that has been patched. It is likely to have been this structural weakness that caused the fabric to tear here, although the specific location, at the front left hand side towards the seam, implies that the immediate cause may well have been a vigorous stretching movement. This is not to undermine the quality of the garment, as can be seen from the durability of its stitching and quality components, including the heavy brass zip, but is a clear indication of the heavy wear this dress has seen.

To mend this wear and tear, a patch has been sewn into the underside of the garment by machine. Curiously for a high quality item, very little care has been taken to minimize the appearance of the patch, as can be seen from the long rows of brown stitching that extend above the damaged area on the outside of the garment. These are irregular and densely packed, implying that it was the strength of the mend rather than its appearance afterwards that was of prime concern to the mender. The quality of this patch might be seen as an indication of a lack of skill by the mender. However, while we do not know the level of sewing skills possessed by whoever enacted this repair, it is not entirely unreasonable to assume that they would have been reasonably proficient; they clearly had access to a sewing machine, and it is unlikely that they would have remained untouched by the previous eight years, during which time the sewing skills of the middle classes* had been improved through the efforts of the ‘Make do and Mend’ campaign, government sewing classes, the prioritization of sewing under the 1944 education act, and the necessity to sew, and especially repair, created by wartime shortages.

The lack of care taken in this mend may mean that the repair would not have been visible when worn under the accessorizing belt, although, due to the extent of the repaired area, this seems unlikely. As such, perhaps the more likely explanation lies in the evidence that this repair covered damage caused by heavy wear over time, and as such was inflicted upon a garment that had long since ceased to be seen as ‘best’. This scenario represents the life cycle of a garment during this period, when, for the vast majority of Londoners, even the most fashionable item was purchased to be worn frequently over a long period of time, representing a period when women’s wardrobes were considerably smaller than they are today, and the purchase of a garment was a serious investment.

The damage to the hem reflects the heavy wear seen on the rest of the garment, probably having been torn after getting caught on a static object while the wearer was moving with some speed. This also confirms the activity the dress was subjected to, and the mobile nature of the wearer. The hem is mended with a similarly crude patch; leaving loose threads uncut and the thinness of the worn wool weave exposed in the remaining white warp threads. This would seem to confirm that the mender took little joy in the process of sewing. Many observers of the late 1940s noted that one of the consequences of the preceding years of shortages plugged with ‘Make do and Mend’ was that sewing became more commonly associated with mending and adaptation than creative dressmaking, and as such was more likely to be associated with boredom and drudgery than the fantasy of sartorial transformation.

While some may say that speculating so far from descriptions of the garment cannot be useful, I would argue that, providing we acknowledge that these are just one set of possibilities, such contextualizing helps us understand the broader life of the garment, relating it to its environment. Above all, it helps to remind us that what we actually see in front of us is a dress that does not only represent fashion as conceived, pictured and sold, or as merely a product of government policy, but fashion as worn, displaying the battle scars of a London life in all their messy plurality.

 

* There is evidence to suggest that working class sewers largely found the ‘Make Do And Mend’ campaign at best ineffectual, as they already possessed these skills, and at worst highly patronizing.