Post-war planning: reconstructing the West End as the national centre for fashionable consumption

Fig. 1. Bombing map of the West End, 1945 c. City of Westminster Archive

Fig. 1. Bombing map of the West End, 1945
c. City of Westminster Archive

In the early hours of 18 September 1940, several high explosive and incendiary bombs struck John Lewis’s flagship department store at 278 Oxford Street. Fire ripped through the store’s West House and, aided by wind, spread across Holles Street to the East House. It took thirty fire engines nearly two days to tackle the blaze, by which point the store was little more than a burnt-out shell. As the dust settled on Oxford Street after the Second World War, it became clear that retailers needed to do more than simply plan for the physical reconstruction of consumption infrastructure; they were challenged to re-imagine consumption entirely as they taught Londoners how to consume fashion in a new, modern era. The experiments conducted in the immediate post-war years by retail pioneers radically changed the look of West End shops, and would go on to shape both fashion retail and the city’s image for the rest of the twentieth century. 

The combination of the West End’s heritage as a centre for fashion retail and the level of damage inflicted on the area during the war left it uniquely placed to lead the nation in reimagining fashion retail. While broad swathes of the city were damaged during the Blitz, the detailed bomb maps and ARP reports held in the City of Westminster Archives paint a particularly devastating picture of disrupted consumption across the West End. (Fig. 1) On 24 September 1940, Savile Row, the home of British tailoring, was hit by a high explosive bomb, badly damaging the tailoring firm Sandon and Co; on 17 April 1941, a parachute mine exploded in Jermyn Street, damaging luxury men’s retailers Dunhill’s; the Burlington Arcade, a grand symbol of Regency retail, was badly damaged by a high explosive on 11 September 1940 and during the same raid, another high explosive damaged the windows of Austen Reed’s flagship Regent Street store.[1] From the high-end department stores of Oxford Street, stocked with ready-to-wear clothes, to the areas around Bond Street that were traditionally associated with luxury consumption and bespoke clothing, the bombs that fell on the West End left an extensive trail of broken glass, flattened buildings—and damaged stock.

In spite of this, the shopping streets of the West End seldom feature in the grand story of London’s post-war reconstruction, which is instead dominated by the large-scale (and largely unfulfilled) plans of architect and planner Patrick Abercrombie.[2] Unlike the retail centres of Bristol or Coventry, where the level of bomb damage necessitated almost total rebuilding, enabling a modern reimagining of the shopping space, London’s West End was, for the most part, largely recognizable as the same place in 1945 that it had been in 1939. The backbone of London retail remained in the undamaged street patterns, bending from Oxford Street into the curve of Regent Street before sweeping onto Piccadilly. Although, walking down them, the frontages of these streets would have contained many prominent gaps, the majority of shop buildings still stood, and the continued trading of many of the same retailers on the same sites gave the impression of business as usual in the post-war era. It was the very familiarity of these shopping routes that masked the startlingly modern changes to London retail that occurred behind the white Portland stone facades during the immediate post-war years.

That this retail modernisation remains largely unacknowledged is due, at least in part, to the vested interests of retailers in preserving the heritage status of West End consumption. The West End was already by this time a long-established centre for fashionable consumption,[3] and although the shops of Oxford Street especially could be seen as a mismatch of tired and old-fashioned Victorian relics, retailers and consumers placed a high value on the historic fabric on which the area’s reputation was built.[4] Abercrombie’s ‘County of London Plan’[5] (Fig. 2) may have advocated decentralization and zoning,[6] but the West End’s historic street pattern and mixed land use, where retailers operated cheek-by-jowl with small-scale garment workshops, would remain the bedrock of London fashion consumption in the immediate post-war years and provide a foundation of heritage on which retailers could build their new image.

In spite of continued trading, the broken windows and lost shopping floors disrupted the social practice of pleasurable consumption in the West End.[7] The destruction caused to the fabric of London’s shopping centre provided an opportunity for stores to reinvent the London shopping experience, using interior (re)decoration to change the environment in which customers shopped. For some very badly damaged stores, such as John Lewis, rebuilding would have to wait until the 1950s, but most stores were able to modernise within their existing, albeit damaged, buildings—combining historic legacy with contemporary design. Even shops that had escaped bomb damage were in need of modernisation, having been neglected since the outbreak of war, meaning that London’s retail spaces were poised for mass modernisation on a previously unprecedented scale.

London’s shops redecorated at a rapid pace between 1945 and 1950, exemplifying the pressures felt by fashion retailers to compete for custom at the highest level and arguing against the common portrayal of shops enjoying a sellers’ market during the late 1940s. Facing frustratingly small government quotas on building materials, West End stores adapted promotional ideas and store layouts in creative and imaginative ways, using the limited resources available to them. The sleek, modern aesthetics of many refurbished post-war fashion departments hid a distinctly make-do approach. Perhaps the most successful of these was the creation of the Young Liberty department at Liberty & Co. in 1949, the work of architect and designer Hulme Chadwick, who was later to work extensively on the 1951 Festival of Britain. Chadwick deliberately turned his back on the heritage of the Liberty brand, rendering the interior of the famous Arts and Crafts style department store unrecognizable by completely covering its dark wood paneling with white painted panels and mirrors, lit by stark halogen strip lighting. In doing so, the Young Liberty department was visually separated from the rest of shop, known for the exposed wood beams that overlooked its stacks of richly decorated oriental rugs and intricately printed fabrics. In stating its modern fashionable credentials through this new interior, Liberty’s laid the foundations for the fashionable rebirth of the old Tudor shop and its dress fabrics in the Fifties and Sixties.[8]

While women’s fashion departments were redecorated according to unquestionably modern aesthetics, in line with the Young Liberty approach, many popular menswear retailers were a little more cautious, keen to balance modernism with the brand values of British heritage that had long associated London with high-end luxury retail for men. Menswear specialist Austin Reed, in particular, demonstrated this balance in the redesign of their Regent Street store interior. Rather than opting for a bright and open modern look throughout the store, they incorporated elements of open space and modern industrial design into their ground floor ready-to-wear department, while retaining lush décor and wood paneling on the upper floor, which was the home of their upscale made-to-measure services.[9] The far-reaching influence of London’s consumer heritage on the post-war rebuilding of the West End can be seen in the differences between the design of Austin Reed and Liberty’s retail spaces, highlighting the complex relationship between modernity and the architecture of the area’s fashionable legacy in a space still mourning the cultural losses to the built environment inflicted during the Blitz.

Seventy-five years on from the start of the Blitz, the successful legacy of post-war retail reconstruction can still be traced in the continued importance of the West End’s retail backbone, with Oxford and Regent streets enjoying an international reputation and flourishing as London’s foremost destination for fashionable consumption.

Fig. 2. Map showing proposed zoning for ‘home, work and play’ in Patrick Abercrombie’s ‘County of London Plan’, 1943 Carter, E. J. and Goldfinger, E. (1943) The County of London Plan Explained by E. J. Carter and Erno Goldfinger. London: Penguin. p79.

Fig. 2. Map showing proposed zoning for ‘home, work and play’ in Patrick Abercrombie’s ‘County of London Plan’, 1943
Carter, E. J. and Goldfinger, E. (1943) The County of London Plan Explained by E. J. Carter and Erno Goldfinger. London: Penguin. p79.

[1] ARP Message Form, Savile Row, 24 September 1940. Westminster City Archives.

[2] Self, P. (2002) ‘The Evolution of the Greater London Plan, 1944–1970.’ Progress in Planning vol. 57, no. 3-4: pp145-75.

[3] See Breward, C. (1999) The Hidden Consumer; Masculinities, Fashion and City Life 1860-1914. Manchester: Manchester University Press and

Rappaport, E. (2000) Shopping for Pleasure: Women and the making of London’s West End. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[4] Edwards, B. (2006) ‘Shaping the Fashion City: Master Plans and Pipe Dreams in the Post-War West End of London’ in Breward, C. and Gilbert, D. (eds.) Fashion’s World Cities. London: Berg. p159.

[5] The County of London Plan was a 1943 proposal for the development and reconstruction of London, prepared for the London City Council. See Carter, E. J. and Goldfinger, E. (1943) The County of London Plan Explained by E. J. Carter and Erno Goldfinger. London: Penguin.

[6] It can also be argued that 1940s planners were largely hostile to fashionable consumption due to its associations with feminine frivolity. See Edwards, B. (2006) p164.

[7] Customers were denied the visual pleasure of window displays, with large plate glass windows boarded up, leaving only the occasional peephole, and Selfridges famous roof garden was closed due to bomb damage, never to reopen. See ARP Message Form, Selfridges, September 1940, Westminster City Archives.

[8] Buruma, A. (2008) Liberty & Co. in the Fifties and Sixties: A Taste for Design. London: ACC Editions. p7.

[9] Display (August 1947) p18.

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