[My Chamber of Textile Thoughts. No: LIII | By Viveka Hansen]

Display windows became popular in the last decades of 18th century in London giving rise to clear improvements for showing off such goods as drapery in the most desirable way – a novelty which was also introduced in many other English cities and towns around the year 1800. This innovation was primarily due to the technical advancement of producing larger glass windows, but secondarily this also had an important role in the growth of a consumer society. Previous expositions towards the shop front had been through much smaller cased windows, with a limited view for prospective customers to admire luxury goods or decide for purchases of necessary everyday cloths for one’s family. A few illustrative examples will form this brief study, giving some evidence for the change in how drapery and ready-made garments were presented in the shop windows for a period of more than one hundred years.

An informative depiction of an early shop window by a Linen draper, Hosier & Hatter in Tonbridge 1793. The shopkeeper took the liberty of displaying muslins, linens and perhaps also silks hanging in folds in the large windows. Notice the lady customer and shop assistant positioned by the counter in the poor lighted shop. Courtesy of: © Trustees of the British Museum, Trade cards, Banks 80.15. (Collection online).

An informative depiction of an early shop window by a Linen draper, Hosier & Hatter in Tonbridge 1793. The shopkeeper took the liberty of displaying muslins, linens and perhaps also silks hanging in folds in the large windows. Notice the lady customer and shop assistant positioned by the counter in the poor lighted shop. Courtesy of: © Trustees of the British Museum, Trade cards, Banks 80.15. (Collection online).

This case study of the drapery trade will give a glimpse into how the larger display windows increased the shop-keepers possibilities to present imported luxury goods, the draping of fabrics and further on in time ready made garments of the latest fashion dressed on wax dolls or adjustable stands. However, the smaller windows were in use parallel with the novel display windows, particularly in many old properties built before the invention and desire for large scale models. Even if the new design from the late 1700s and first half of the next century stretched almost from floor to ceiling, each window was made of up of twenty or more separated glass panes – like on the image above.

The outline for this type of corner warehouse of Clark & Boyd linen drapers in Holborn/London dated 1803 in pencil, opened up further possibilities with its larger number of display windows – drapery goods showed off in folds, gathered in various decorative ways and neatly rolled. Courtesy of: © Trustees of the British Museum, Trade cards, Banks 80.39. (Collection online).

The outline for this type of corner warehouse of Clark & Boyd linen drapers in Holborn/London dated 1803 in pencil, opened up further possibilities with its larger number of display windows – drapery goods showed off in folds, gathered in various decorative ways and neatly rolled. Courtesy of: © Trustees of the British Museum, Trade cards, Banks 80.39. (Collection online).

It must also be emphasised that the opening hours after dark in many ways limited the view of goods for sale, despite the large-size display windows. Daylight was overall of greatest importance for the traders and customers alike, which among many matters is thoroughly described in the excellent book Shops and Shopping 1800-1914 by Alison Adburgham. This meant that oil lamps became replaced by gas-lighting in the early to mid-19th century and at the end of the described period electric lighting was gradually introduced. Unsurprisingly rural environments often had a somewhat late introduction of innovations such as display windows, effective lighting compared to urban environments and even to a greater degree in comparison to London.

A third example of trade-cards showing display windows is illustrated from a small drapery shop in 1807 – who sold a large selection of printed muslins, linens etc at Oxford Street in London. Courtesy of: © Trustees of the British Museum, Trade cards, Banks 80.37. (Collection online).

A third example of trade-cards showing display windows is illustrated from a small drapery shop in 1807 – who sold a large selection of printed muslins, linens etc at Oxford Street in London. Courtesy of: © Trustees of the British Museum, Trade cards, Banks 80.37. (Collection online).

A very informative observation was made by the young Swede J P Bager who travelled via Denmark and Germany to his destination in England in 1840. Already during his second day in London (29th August) he noticed the busy central streets;

‘A Considerable obstacle for making headway on the streets is, more than the swarming crowds of people, through which one quickly learns to negotiate on the excellent wide pavements, the seductively inviting and constantly beautiful and tastefully varied boutiques… In these windows one can see either a lady or a proud man, made of wax, dressed in the most fashionable clothes, hats, millinery and other adornments so several people can inspect from all sides as they slowly wander around. The owners of houses with such exhibitions are mostly perfumery or fashion traders… But how would it be possible to count all these unusual curiosities that are displayed in the countless London boutiques that in multifarious ways attract the attention and interests of strangers and tempt them to buy, and with constantly changing ingenuity for speculation and capricious fashion, they bring fourth new items.’

 This drawing/watercolour by unknown artist of “The Panorama, Leicester Square” in London additionally gives a rare view in colour of window dressing in circa 1840s, with cloaks and matching hats etc arranged in a colourful display. Courtesy of: Museum of London. (A17529, Google Art Project, Electronic Source).

This drawing/watercolour by unknown artist of “The Panorama, Leicester Square” in London additionally gives a rare view in colour of window dressing in circa 1840s, with cloaks and matching hats etc arranged in a colourful display. Courtesy of: Museum of London. (A17529, Google Art Project, Electronic Source).

Shop windows also became an important part of everyday town and city life making it possible for more and more inhabitants – when the standard of living rose for many during the 19th century – to buy goods displayed in such windows. Shops and shopping became more visible and even if you could not afford to purchase the desirable luxury items or fashionable clothing on display, the existence and the rapid changes of such merchandise became more widespread than ever before to larger groups of the society.

 The oil on canvas depicting a shop girl or “La demoiselle de magasin” in Paris, dating 1883-1885 by James Tissot furthermore presents an unusual view of a shop window. By looking out on a marketplace through the window – it is not only possible to study the interior and the daily work of the shop assistants, but also the window arrangements and in particular the exquisite jacket-bodice (lacking sleeves!) placed on the adjustable stand. Courtesy of: Art Gallery of Ontario. (67/55, Electronic Source).

The oil on canvas depicting a shop girl or “La demoiselle de magasin” in Paris, dating 1883-1885 by James Tissot furthermore presents an unusual view of a shop window. By looking out on a marketplace through the window – it is not only possible to study the interior and the daily work of the shop assistants, but also the window arrangements and in particular the exquisite jacket-bodice (lacking sleeves!) placed on the adjustable stand. Courtesy of: Art Gallery of Ontario. (67/55, Electronic Source).

A Guide to Window-Dressing for the drapery trade printed in 1883 was additionally the first book describing how to professionally arrange a window display. This fact gives evidence for that before this year personal taste and experience, inspiration from other traders, traditions etc must have been the main influence available for shop-keepers together with their assistants and apprentices alike for attracting as many customers as possible to their decorative shop windows.

For the 1890 to 1914 period it is easier to find examples of larger and larger display windows in the ever extending department stores in many towns and cities, these snapshots are immortalised in contemporary photographs often with passers-by or via art works or printed advertisements in magazines/newspapers/catalogues. However, even if luxury goods may be associated with window displays most shops in smaller towns arranged ordinary clothing in their windows, like for example The Misses Scott’s establishment in Whitby circa 1895 – a trader described in detail in one of my earlier posts. (Courtesy of: Frank M. Sutcliffe, Whitby Museum, Photographic Collection, part of photograph.)

For the 1890 to 1914 period it is easier to find examples of larger and larger display windows in the ever extending department stores in many towns and cities, these snapshots are immortalised in contemporary photographs often with passers-by or via art works or printed advertisements in magazines/newspapers/catalogues. However, even if luxury goods may be associated with window displays most shops in smaller towns arranged ordinary clothing in their windows, like for example The Misses Scott’s establishment in Whitby circa 1895 – a trader described in detail in one of my earlier posts. (Courtesy of: Frank M. Sutcliffe, Whitby Museum, Photographic Collection, part of photograph.)

Sources:

 

PLEASE REFERENCE AS FOLLOWS:

  • Hansen, Viveka, ‘Shop Windows – The Drapery Trade in the Long 19th Century’, TEXTILIS (January 3, 2016); http://textilis.net/ (Accessed: Day/Month/Year)