On-line taster seminar: Retailing and Distribution in the 20th Century

Tuesday 8 September 2020

On-line via Zoom


CHORD invites participants to an on-line seminar that explores retailing and distribution in the twentieth century.

This seminar is intended as a ‘taster’ before we can hold the full conference at the University of Wolverhampton (hopefully in September 2021: watch this space!)

Participation is free, but registration is required: please see below for details.


11.00 – 11.30   Phil Lyon and Ethel Kautto, Umeå University, Sweden

Care, cookery and commerce: advertising invalid foods in 1920s-1930s Britain

11.30 – 12.00    Jenny Gilbert, University of Wolverhampton, Black Country Living Museum and University of Birmingham

Dressed Better than in Birmingham? Clothing Wholesale, Catalogues and the Communication of Fashion from Birmingham to the Black Country, 1900s-1960s

12.00-12.20     Work in progress presentation:

Rosalind Watkiss, University of Wolverhampton

‘Paris forgets…’: The New Look in post-war Britain

Arndale centre


The seminar will be held on-line, via Zoom.

For more information about Zoom and to down-load the software, see: https://zoom.us/

The seminar is free, but registration is required. To register, please fill in and submit the form below, or e-mail the details directly to Laura Ugolini at: l.ugolini@wlv.ac.uk

For further information, please e-mail Laura Ugolini at: l.ugolini@wlv.ac.uk


Jenny Gilbert, University of Wolverhampton, Black Country Living Museum and University of Birmingham

Dressed Better than in Birmingham? Clothing Wholesale, Catalogues and the Communication of Fashion from Birmingham to the Black Country, 1900s-1960s

Birmingham’s role in the mass-market fashion industry has been overlooked in scholarly accounts of the twentieth-century British clothing industry. Yet this paper will show how the city was at the forefront of shifting business and consumer attitudes towards fashion – from a luxury for the elite few to an integral part of everyday life for all.

This paper examines the printed catalogues, print communications, branding and other ephemera of four Birmingham wholesalers, highlighting the local and national significance of the city’s clothing wholesale trade. Drawing upon Walsall Museum’s Hodson Shop archive, documents in Birmingham Archives and Collections, and the University of Nottingham’s Wholesale Textile Association (WTA) archive, it outlines the companies that were referred to nationally as the Birmingham ‘Big Four’. Wilkinson & Riddell, S. C. Larkins & Sons, Bell & Nicolson, and R. Lunt were located close together within the city centre. Whilst ostensibly competitors these companies worked together to protect their mutual interests and communicate the emerging idea of mass fashion to the region’s shopkeepers, through print communications.

Wholesalers will be framed as a means of both creating and communicating ideas around fashion, as well as the main distribution channel for clothing during the early-mid twentieth century. The Birmingham wholesale houses went well beyond the role of intermediary between manufacture and retail, they were active agents in the creation and communication of an altogether more accessible form of ‘urban fashionability’. This fashionability was not limited to the relatively cosmopolitan environs of the city; the wholesalers spread both physical garments and fashionable ideas to the nearby Black Country through their dealings with local independent clothing and drapery retailers.

Phil Lyon and Ethel Kautto, Umeå University, Sweden

Care, cookery and commerce: advertising invalid foods in 1920s-1930s Britain

Serving special meals to invalids is long-established as a way to encourage better nutritional uptake and improve patient well-being. As recently as the 1920s and 1930s, the term ‘invalid food’ was still widely understood as a special category of food for people with chronic conditions, and those who were convalescing from illness or injury.

At a time when there was still limited capacity to restore full health with effective treatments, even for those who had access to the best medical attention, being an invalid was often protracted. Care at home, usually by family, was commonplace especially for poorer households in a period of substantial economic and social change. Generally, the impact of nutritional science on doctors was minimal and households often turned to mass market cookery books, newspapers and the newly-available radio for practical advice about the preparation of meals to stimulate the appetite, or to give some other benefit to the patient.

Alongside the special meals that might be prepared at home, several commercial products were advertised to improve health in some way. These classified or display advertisements were regularly seen in period newspapers and little regulation existed to ensure product safety or dietary effectiveness. However, considerable claims were made: ease of digestion and appetite stimulation were the usual selling points although sometimes the fear of inadequate domestic efforts was used to suggest the value of a consistent commercial product. For reassurance, professional endorsement suggested product usefulness for a broad range of feeding needs. This profitable invalid food market even attracted the attention of more prosaic branded goods that might be advertised also as beneficial to those with delicate appetites.

By reference to period materials, primarily cookery books and digital newspaper archives, this paper explores the problems confronted by invalid households and the role of commercial products at a time when nutritional science was developing but not widely embedded in medical education, and was even less well understood by the carers who needed to provide meals every day with little to guide them in the task.

Rosalind Watkiss, University of Wolverhampton

‘Paris forgets…’:[1] The New Look in post-war Britain

When Christian Dior launched his latest fashion collection, on 12th February 1947, there was an immense crowd at the entrance to 30 avenue Montaigne.  Vogue fashion editor Bettina Ballard described an ‘electric tension’ as the show began and Dior’s models paraded in gowns with voluminous skirts, four inches below the knee, nipped in waists, softer silhouettes, and all made from luxury fabrics.

Contemporary reactions were varied. Many women had grown used to the practical clothes of the war years. Women in America formed protest groups, with objectors claiming that the style was regressive and impractical. In Europe the economic situation was dire. Britain was in the grips of a severe cold spell that blocked transport, affected industry, and resulted in domestic energy restrictions.  Clothing was still on ration, Utility clothing was still the norm, and it was claimed that ‘ordinary’ women would have scant interest in these inaccessible, beautiful, yet frivolous, garments. Nevertheless, interest was such that the question of this fashionable ‘New Look’ was raised in Parliament, where the President of the Board of Trade subsequently complained that ‘there should be a law’ against this new attire. Labour MP, Bessie Braddock called the longer skirts ‘the ridiculous whim of idle people’. Yet, within a year Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret wore these stylish clothes, they were available in shops, and magazines provided readers with suggestions for altering existing garments to suit the latest fashion trends.  This working paper seeks to use memoirs, diaries, advertisements, oral testimony, and newspapers to examine working-class reactions to Dior’s contentious fashions.

[1] Picture Post 27th September 1947, p. 26

street lights

Photo by Jose Francisco Fernandez Saura on Pexels.com


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