Curating The Ladies’ Paradise: A Hidden History

PhD student Jo Lance offers a view of her exhibition on early twentieth century fashion illustration for department stores at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery.

The Ladies’ Paradise is a fashion exhibition in the Norwood Gallery at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, September 2019- June 2020, which I created with support from the Museum’s curatorial team. Its core is a collection of Edwardian fashion drawings c.1905-1914 by an illustrator named Ida Pritchard [1889-1948].

Figure 1. Ida Prichard. Illustration showing evening cloak, c.1910. Worthing Museum and Art Gallery.

I first came across Pritchard’s fashion drawings while volunteering at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, prior to commencing my PhD studies. I was immediately intrigued by the drawings, as it seemed unusual for a young woman to have had a career as a fashion illustrator in the period before the First World War. We know from her relatives, who donated her drawings to the Museum in 1993, that Pritchard was raised and educated in London and that she worked as a commercial illustrator for Peter Robinson department store producing images for advertisements in fashionable publications such as The Queen, Country Life and The Ladies’ Field before she left work upon marriage in 1914. We do not know how common her career path was; little is known about female graphic artists in this era.

Traditionally, histories of early twentieth-century fashion illustration have looked at fashion plates by celebrated avant-garde artists to emphasise the relationship between fine art and Parisian couture. Such accounts focus on elite fashion and do not include the many artists like Ida Pritchard who worked in the rapidly expanding advertising and magazine industry. This exhibition was an exciting opportunity to show the work of one of those unknown artists, and to frame her work within the context of the department store phenomenon and ideals of femininity at the time. Pritchard had an amazing eye for detail and her work captures the sumptuous textures of the clothing and stylised, staged femininity of the Edwardian period.

Figure 2. Ida Pritchard. Illustration of day ensemble with hat and feather stole, c.1905. Pencil / gouache on card. Worthing Museum and Art Gallery.

Pritchard’s drawings provide a valuable glimpse into the working life of a female commercial artist just before the First World War, in the heyday of the West End department store. She and her colleagues sketched from live models, who often posed in the large shop windows, wearing the latest fashions. The illustrators sat in the windows and sketched them. This was a clever publicity stunt that drew large crowds on the busy pavements outside.

Pritchard’s drawings skilfully capture the exaggerated characteristics of the feminine ideal of the 1900s and early 1910s, from the dramatically corseted “S” bend silhouette to the high-waist Empire line that replaced the hourglass style. The opulence of the Edwardian era, the layers of lace, feathers and furs are delicately modelled in a largely monochrome palette of pencil and gouache. A selection of dress from the museum collection, c.1900-1914, including pieces from Peter Robinson, is displayed in the exhibition alongside the fashion plates. A monochrome colour scheme, relieved by touches of pink and gold, reflects the colours Ida Pritchard used in many of her drawings. Where possible, outfits that echoed the silhouettes and textures of Pritchard’s work were juxtaposed.

The Edwardian period saw the commercial peak of the major London department stores, which were at the forefront of fashion retail for the rising middle classes in the early 1900s. Like many department stores, Peter Robinson’s had begun as a modest draper’s shop in the 1830s and expanded to become “Black Peter Robinson’s” mourning warehouse, capitalising on the Victorian cult of grief. The enterprise expanded rapidly in the late Victorian consumer boom and by the 1890s Peter Robinson was a prosperous business, with premises on Oxford St, Regent St, Great Portland St and Argyll St. A purpose-built flagship store was completed on Oxford Circus in 1912, which still stands, occupied today by Topshop.

Figure 3. Ida Pritchard. Illustration of three female figures showing lace blouses, c.1905. Pencil / gouache on card. Worthing Museum and Art Gallery.

The nineteenth century department store offered a new cultural space for women. Consumption was integral to the identity of the New Woman and shopping was seen as a form of liberation. During the Victorian period there were few public spaces which a respectable woman could enter unchaperoned or without the company of a male relative. Modern department stores such as John Lewis and Selfridge’s made use of new building technologies such as cast iron and plate glass to create open galleried spaces and large inviting windows filled with innovative displays, including fashionably dressed mannequins. Customers were encouraged to browse, try items on, relax and socialise in refreshment rooms. Shopping was a leisure activity and the new department store a place to see and to be seen.

Department stores offered a vast array of haberdashery goods and a comprehensive dressmaking service. They were also at the vanguard of ready-to-wear fashion production. Throughout the Victorian period clothing was made to measure but as the nineteenth century progressed, technological innovation moved the garment industry towards mass-production. Mantles and capes, gloves and hats were among the first types of women’s clothing to be ready-made and retailed in luxurious surroundings. Examples of capes, including an extravagant Poiret-influenced c.1910 opera cloak in gold and pale blue satin with Oriental motifs and embroidered silk tassels, made by Peter Robinson, were included in the exhibition alongside complementary fashion plates by Pritchard.

Department stores had large dressmaking departments with seamstresses producing outfits to order. Peter Robinson pioneered ready-made costumes with a seam left open at the back so that clothes could be adjusted to fit at home. Peter Robinson was also among the first fashion retailers to advertise in the press, taking out advertisements in the Illustrated London News for mantles and waterproofs as early as the 1860s. The second half of the nineteenth century saw an explosion in print culture and many new periodicals were aimed at a female audience, featuring columns of style and etiquette advice and, latterly, engraved fashion plates. By the early twentieth century, when Pritchard produced her drawings, the company were producing beautifully illustrated full-page advertisements. Worthing Museum is fortunate to have Pritchard’s original drawing, c.1908, of a satin petticoat, a copy of the magazine in which the advertisement was published and a near-identical example of a pink petticoat and camisole from the period, meaning that they could all be exhibited in conversation together.

Pritchard’s drawings, although they indicate subtle variations, adhere to a specific feminine type until c.1910. The fashions of the turn of the century were characterised by a dramatic hyper-femininity. Images of modish women in newspapers and advertising were shown swathed in luxurious fabrics and dripping furs. Hats were huge with ostrich plumes atop hair rolled around pads and augmented with hairpieces to increase height and volume. The increasing availability of commercially produced cosmetics and perfumes added to the general mode of theatrical artifice and exoticism, all of which is reflected in Pritchard’s drawings for a mass audience.

Ida Pritchard’s work had never been exhibited before in its own right. The Ladies’ Paradise was designed to complement the Female Voices exhibition, representing women through the collections, in the main Museum gallery. It shone a spotlight not only on an unknown female artist but also upon the subject she depicted, the fashionable woman on the eve of the First World War. Framing Pritchard’s work within department store culture of the period reveals how women were linked with modernity through the consumption of fashionable goods, and how shopping was linked to leisure and liberation (for those who could afford it). As the Suffragette banner on display in the Female Voices gallery reminds us, the period of unprecedented consumer temptations was the era of the struggle for female emancipation. This offers pause for reflection on the nature of choice, freedom and progress.

Update: As this exhibition has had to close as a result of Covid-19, a dedicated webpage including further images and exhibition texts has been provided by Worthing Museum.

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