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Wednesday, 2 March 2011

'Who is it That Does Dictate the Fashions?' Or: Some Notes on Ladies Shops

A recent Victorian Book acquisition of mine is the 1893 edition of the handbook:  “London of Today: An Illustrated Book for This Season, and for All Seasons” Which, as well as containing lots and lots of brilliant Victorian advertisements, is essentially a guidebook for the socially aware denizen or visitor to London. It offers advice on the best of theatre, opera, clubs, restaurants, attractions and shops, as well as the events of the season, and even suggestions for things to do on Sundays in London. (When, in the nineteenth century there was virtually nothing to do.)

I was delighted to find a few chapters concerning fashion, and decided to make fashion this week’s theme.

The chapter I have chosen is extremely long, so I have not reproduced it all, but selected a section from the beginning. Establishments mentioned are in bold.

Some Notes on Ladies Shops
The Quarterly Review, least flippant of all periodicals circulating in London today, condescended a few months since to devote a very learned article to the consideration of the subject of Women’s and men’s costume.

The writer founded his paper on a recently published work – originally, of course, from the French; for the French alone among nations devote time, thought and money to the writing and publishing of such books – entitled “Ten Centuries of Toilette.”

“The question of costume,” said the Quarterly, “when treated not as gossip, not as illustrating only the caprice of various times, is full of interest and instruction.”
Having, at this very moment of writing, a very bulky volume in our possession, some five-hundred pages more, or less 8vo size, full of woodcuts, entitled the “Illustrated Book of Costume,” which volume we have from time to time carefully studied, we make bold to declare our entire agreement with aforesaid paper in the Quarterly Review.
The subject is full of interest and instruction, when discussed as the writer says. But it is scarcely less so when it is regarded as mere gossip; gossip of the moment, wafted from the boudoir, the ball-room, the drawing room, club, “the Park,” “the turf,” the moors, the yachtman’s rendezvous on the Solent, and last not least from the sacred inner room of the tailor, the man-milliner, the dress-maker, the fashionable purveyor of costumes, mantles, and lingerie – of those, in a word, who dictate the fashions.
 Who is it that does dictate the fashions? Whence do they originate? I always like a few quiet minutes for pondering that deeply-interesting problem. Who is it that issues the summary decree, “it shall be ‘Frock-coats in London this year;” and behold, it is ‘Frock-coats’;
and who’s the personage that says “all women shall appear hump-backed and angular this season”; and behold all women, from a peeress to a lady’s-maid, are hump-backed and angular?
Moreover, whence emanate the innumerable fashion plates – simpering ladies of the doll-face kind, straight-limbed and tall – monthly and weekly published in the several journals devoted to the instruction and entertainment of women?

I fancy I can tell whence some few of these fashion-plates, at all events, emanate. They find their beginnings in a lady friend’s sketch-book, an artist friend, whose occasional duty is to seat herself in the stalls of a London theatre, at the first performance of a new play, and to make pencil-sketches of any striking and original lady’s costume that may take her fancy. The rough outline is later elaborated in the studio in pen and ink, and presently appears in the columns of a journal circulating among the fair sex. If the fashion “catches on,” as the vulgar saying is, a “lovely-new-dress-my-dear,” sooner or later, becomes the talk of Bayswater drawing rooms. Then Brixton copies it, then Clapham, then Peckham; and by that time the fashion is dead – played out.
When the belles of Peckham get hold of a new dress, it may be considered as good as done for as regards London.
In Mayfair and Belgravia, fashions do not originate in this haphazard way. A lady of degree goes to her dressmaker in Bond, Dover, or regent Streets. “Madame” (or “Sir”) we may suppose her saying, “I want a dress absolutely original. No one is to have its counterpart, please understand that. It is to be designed exclusively for me.” The material is to be of silk (or whatever may be decided on), and made and trimmed in such or such a style – for the Queen’s drawing room, the ballroom, the dinner or garden party, the lawn at Ascot, what not.
No haggling as to price takes place. But the costume, dress, gown or whatever it may be, must be “original,” designed exclusively for the customer. Once she has made her appearance in it in public, the “copyright” lapses, so to say. The dress, however, has served its purpose. A full, and particular description of it, with the name of the wearer appended, duly appears in the ladies journals.
In some such way as this, a new fashion is created, and the lady whose enterprise has paved the way has the satisfaction of knowing that henceforth she may claim the distinction of ranking among so-called “Leaders of Fashion.”

London being the centre of the world’s civilization, in which, as it is needless to remark, Fashion plays an important part, its Temples are very freely distributed throughout its area. Regent Street, Bond Street and Piccadilly are almost wholly given over to them; Oxford Street will be found to comprise not a few; and in most of the thoroughfares west-ward, the most conspicuous and attractive buildings are those where ladies congregate.
In Brief, the Shops for Ladies comprise no inconsiderable part of the shops in London; and if you wish to see the best of these, and the latest novelties direct from paris, go into regent Street, Bond Street, Piccadilly and Oxford Street. Go to such establishments as Messrs. Lewis & Allenby’s, in Regent Street, or Messrs. Redmayne’s, or Russel & Allen’s in Bond Street, or Messrs. Marshall & Snelgrove’s, in Oxford Street, or Messrs Debenham & Freebody’s, in Wigmore Street. A mere glance at the windows of these several establishments will suffice to assure you of the wealth of beautiful things to be found within, selected with infinite taste and care from the first factories in world: silks, satins, velvets, brocades, laces, embroideries, ribbons, flowers, shawls, etc, etc.

Lewis & Allenby (Conduit Street and Regent Street) are among the oldest established Silk Mercers of London whose reputation has run for at least fifty years.

At the western end of Conduit Street, having adjoining premises in Bond Street, the house of Redmayne & Co. may be found, likewise long and favourably known to the grand dames of the grand world. Here you may inspect all the novelties in the shape of costumes, ball, dinner, and bridesmaids’ gowns, mantles, velvets, satins, lace etc, and all other necessary complements of ladies attire.
The shop of Russell & Allen is not far away. Messrs. Marshall & Snelgrove, of Oxford Street, are another firm of first-rate repute.

As indeed, are Debenham & Freebody, of Wigmore Street, not far westward from the Langham Hotel. This is one of the most extensive establishments of its class in West-end London, not merely at retail, but wholesale; designing the mode, and manufacturing the thing designed as well. It transacts much business with personages of the “upper ten”; and a lady could hardly go to a place in London more sure of affording her the opportunity of studying the latest novelties in the way of fashions and styles of dress, whether emanating direct from Paris, or accepted as the prevailing mode in London.
Not far from Debenham’s, at No. 43 Wigmore Street, is Donegal House, the depot for Irish Industries, supervised by Mrs. Ernest Hart. It makes a speciality of Irish homespuns, poplins, hosiery, lace, napery and household linen, handkerchiefs, embroideries; and is competent to undertake the best class of work in the way of trousseaux, layettes, and ladies’ outfits for India and the Colonies. This establishment has earned quite a reputation for Irish linen-goods.

As likewise has the firm of Walpole Brothers, of 89, New Bond Street, in the manufacture of Cambrics and Damasks, Linens and such like articles of the household. They are well known as manufacturers in Belfast, with a branch house in Dublin. At either establishment you may purchase anything in the shape of Irish linens, cambric handkerchiefs, etc, of the best quality.

There are many places in London where ready and courteous attention will be found for the value of the contents of the little inner-pocket of a purse. There is Shoolbred’s, for example, in Tottenham Court Road, one of the most popular of the general retail stores of London; for mercery, drapery, millinery, dressmaking, furnishing, provisions. The premises are ever increasing, and fine statuary, old oak, and all the requirements of household decoration, are to be bought here.

There are Woolland Bros., and Harvey, Nichols, & Co. of Knightsbridge; Gorringe, of Buckingham Palace Road; Wallis & Co., of Holborn Circus; Tarn, of Newington Causeway; and of course, Whiteley, of Westbourne Grove, the principal attraction of whose establishment is its vastness.
For the privilege of moving about in this vast emporium of retail commerce, ladies will journey from the uttermost ends of London.
In High Street, Kensington, Barker; Derry & Toms; and Seaman and Little cater in the most enterprising way for the wants of society folk.

North of Hyde Park, on the east side of the Edgware Road (Nos. 150-153), a short distance from the familiar Marble Arch is the large retail establishment of Messrs. Garrould, arranged on the plan of Schoolbred’s and similar places, where every thing may be purchased in the way of ladies’ dress, millinery, silks, satins, lingerie, hosiery, bonnets, cloaks, jackets, boots, etc. and every conceivable thing for the household in the shape of furniture, china, bric-a-brac, and so forth, and withal at an outlay more moderate than commonly rules at the west-end of town.

The leading authority on Ladies’ Mourning in London is Jays, at the top of Regent Street. This is not a particularly inviting subject to comment upon. Nevertheless, let it be noted that for all the various articles of ladies’ attire comprised within the term, Jay’s exhibits all things necessary; whether in silks, satins or woollen-stuffs; whole-mourning, half-mourning, or mere complimentary-mourning; Paris or London made; robes, gowns, dresses, mantles, jackets, what-not; inclusive, of course, of crapes, ribbons, and gloves.

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