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.

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