The Ladies' Paradise

This digital exhibition brings you The Ladies' Paradise exhibition that would have been on display in our Norwood Gallery. WTM are committed to providing the community and our customers with the opportunity to continue engaging with arts and heritage during the Covid crisis. Although we were incredibly sad to have to close our venues we are looking forward to welcoming you all back as soon as possible, in the mean time we are creating digital content such as this that we hope you'll enjoy!

Edwardian fashion viewed through the illustrations of artist Ida Pritchard (1889-1948)

This selection of fashion drawings are the work of Ida Pritchard, who was employed as a fashion illustrator by the London department store Peter Robinson’s of Oxford Street, c.1906-1914. The archive of her drawings was donated to Worthing Museum and Art Gallery by her family in 1993. Despite not receiving any further artistic training after leaving school, Ida worked for years as a commercial artist, producing images for advertisements which appeared in fashionable publications such as The Queen and The Ladies’ Field.

They provide a valuable glimpse into the working life of a female commercial artist in the period just before the First World War, which was the heyday of the West End department store. Ida’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, tubular 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. Displayed alongside the fashion plates is a selection of dress from the museum collection, c.1900-1914, including pieces from Peter Robinson and other London department stores.

Objects of Desire: The Edwardian Department Store

The beginning of the century saw the flowering 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. Their arch rival, Jay’s Mourning House of Regent Street, followed a similar business trajectory from retailer of mourning essentials to a fashionable emporium of numerous departments. The enterprise expanded rapidly in the late Victorian consumer boom and by the 1890s Peter Robinson’s was a large and prosperous business, with premises on Oxford St, Regent St, Great Portland St and Argyll St. A new, purpose-built flagship store was completed on Oxford Circus in 1912, which still stands, occupied today by Topshop.

The department store was the first retail environment designed specifically to entice women consumers. During the Victorian period there were few public spaces which a respectable woman could use unchaperoned or without the company of a husband or 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, to try items on, and to relax in refreshment rooms. Shopping was viewed as 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 services, however they were also at the vanguard of ready-to-wear fashion production. Throughout the Victorian period clothing was made to measure, specifically for the individual, but as the nineteenth century progressed, technological innovation moved the garment industry gradually towards mass-production. Items such as mantles and capes, accessories such as gloves and hats, were among the first types of clothing to be available ready-made, and retailed in luxurious surroundings. Department stores in this period all had large dressmaking departments with seamstresses producing outfits to order. Peter Robinson pioneered ready-made costumes with an open seam at the back so that clothes could be purchased mail-order and adjusted to fit at home.

Peter Robinson was 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 specifically at a female audience, featuring columns of style and etiquette advice, and as, print technologies developed, engraved fashion plates.

By the early twentieth century, when Ida Pritchard produced these drawings, the company were producing beautifully illustrated full-page advertisements. Ida and her colleagues sketched from live models. Frequently the subjects modelled in the large shop windows, wearing the latest fashions, while the illustrators sat in the windows and sketched them, a clever publicity stunt drawing large crowds on the busy pavements outside.

Adverts featuring ready-made blouses, petticoats and camisoles appeared in publications such as The Ladies’ Field and The Queen, which were aimed at the aspirational middle class female consumer. The advertising pages of such magazines reveal a cornucopia of products aimed this audience, from clothing to cosmetics, to foodstuffs, patent medicines and household gadgets. In this way, a whole new world of consumer delights could be experienced by the fashionable Edwardian female.

To the left are two fashion studies (1912) by Ida Pritchard.

There two figure studies show an eveolution both in the artists drawing style and the fashions of the pre-war period. In these drawings, Ida uses ink sketches to create a more youthful, modern female ideal than the types depicted in her pre-1910 fashion studies.

While below is a photographic portrait of Ida Pritchard.

Below are five studies of female models wearing hats and stoles, by Ida Prtichard c. 1900-1910. All Gouache and watercolour on cardstock.

Curating The Ladies’ Paradise: A Hidden History

This exhibition was curated by Jo Lance, a PhD researcher in 20th Century Dress History with the University of Brighton. Jo came across the archive of Ida Pritchard’s fashion drawings while volunteering at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery. Jo was intrigued by the drawings, especially 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.

Little is known about female graphic artists working in this industry in this era. We know that Ida Pritchard was raised and educated in London and that she worked as a commercial illustrator for Peter Robinson department store for several years before she left work upon marriage in 1914, as was customary for the time. We do not know, however, how common her career path was for women during that period.

Traditionally, histories of early 20th Century fashion illustration have focused on avant-garde artists such as Paul Iribe and Georges Lepape. Such accounts focus on elite fashion and do not include the many artists who, like Ida, worked in the rapidly expanding advertising and magazine industry in the early decades of the 20th Century. This exhibition was therefore an opportunity to show the work of one of those unknown artists.

Items from the dress history collection, many from department stores, have been selected to complement the drawings, and to present in three-dimensions the types of clothing that Ida Pritchard illustrated. She had an amazing eye for detail and her work cleverly captures the sumptuous textures and stylised, staged femininity of the Edwardian period.

Being able to engage with the arts and creativity is more important than ever during challenging times. We are doing everything we can to keep bringing you access to exhibitions like this - as well as other digital content - until we are able to reopen and welcome you back in.

If you've enjoyed this digital exhibition we would be very grateful if you would consider making a donation to us, if you are able to. All donations, big or small, will make an enormous difference to us at this challenging time. You can donate here.