Store Fashion Overview (1909-2008)
Woolworth stores sold fashions throughout their century in the High Street. But the items sold before the World War II were very different from the stylish Ladybird clothing of more recent times. Our Fashion and Ladybird Gallery explores how tastes and lifestyles changed over the century, drawing on an archive of photographs, advertisements and reminiscences.
When the first British Woolworths opened in Liverpool in 1909, the world was a very different place. Many more mums made clothes for themselves and their children, rather than buying made-up garments.
Woolies sold everything that was needed to get started. The Haberdashery department stocked paper patterns which were kind of 'join the dots' guides to making clothes. It also carried wool, cotton and ribbons, as well as needles and pins of all shapes and sizes, scissors and tape measures.
The highest price for anything was sixpence, the equivalent of 2½p at the time or £2.11 today, but many Haberdashery items was just one old penny.
For beginners, the stores stocked sixpenny starter packs with everything needed to make a simple garment. The baby's bonnet on the right was one of the first items ever sold. The pack had cloth, needles and thread. Customers could buy the ribbons separately, if required.
Twelve years after the first pack was sold, they were still popular in the hundredth store at Mansfield.
Making clothes was a popular winter pastime for women of all ages. Many were made under gas light, before homes had electricity, let alone TV. Most girls were taught dressmaking and basic mending at school, where it was considered a key life skill, that could also save them money.
Before World War II the stores also offered an ever-changing selection of made-up garments at bargain prices. To supplement regular ranges of stockings and socks, the Buyers sought out manufacturers' surplus and seconds, which they were able to sell cheaply. Silk knickers were a favourite sixpenny line; signs in the stores claimed that they were surplus from 'Regent Street Fashion Houses', rather than the Lancashire factories that made them.
In the Thirties there was a craze for 'Vanity Veilings'. At the time women rarely ventured out without a hat. The veilings provided a cheap way to spruce up old headwear The picture shows a 1935 window of 'Fashion's Latest Vanity Veilings'.
Escalating prices after the outbreak of World War II forced the High Street chain to drop its sixpenny price maximum, opening the door for a wider fashion range. Between 1950 and 1980 the Buyers worked hard to establish a cheap but stylish family clothing offer with mass-market appeal.
Patterns enjoyed a renaissance after World War II. Clothing remained rationed after fighting ended, inspiring a new generation of seamstresses and knitters to make their own outfits using hand-me-down garments and more than a little ingenuity with the needle.
Woolworth made certain that its pattern selection was up-to-date, and consciously targeted younger shoppers with eye catching wall displays of patterns with full-colour lifestyle photos on the front. The pattern covers were like their shop window. Time and money was invested to find photogenic models and to arrange poses that aped both the stars and scenes on the silver screen.
While on a nearby counter Penguin paperback books had trebled in price between 1940 and 1950, the Buyer kept the paper patterns at the pre-war price of threepence (1¼p), hoping they would go on to entice shoppers to buy their wool, cotton and needles from Woolies.
Woolworths' relationship with Ladybird started in the 1930s when the manufacturers, Pasolds, showed samples from their new factory in Langley, Buckinghamshire. The Buyer, Herbert Cue, liked what he saw. He paid a little extra for a large opening order. The companies went on to enjoy a cordial relationship for the next sixty years, until the store bought the Ladybird brand name outright just before the millennium.
However, in keeping with its policy, until the 1980s Woolworth sold under its own name, rather than using the Ladybird brand. You can see pictures of some of the Fifties and Sixties displays later in our Fashion Gallery.
The stores were remodelled after the chain changed hands in 1982. The new owners dropped adult clothing so that they could concentrate on fashion for children, particularly the very young. Executives amazed the City by announcing that they had licenced the respected Ladybird brand, which would be sold exclusively at Woolworth stores in the UK. The brand owner, Coats Viyella, worked closely with the Buyers to improve design, quality control and supplier selection. The partnership fulfilled a longstanding dream of the visionary behind the Ladybird brand. Eric Pasold had always wanted to his well-made, stylish clothes to be available nationally and to be affordable for ordinary people.
Our Fashion Gallery includes pictures of the first test store for Ladybird at Reading, Berkshire and brings the story up to date with Shop Direct rescuing the Woolworths brand and continuing to offer the latest Ladybird fashions on-line through a revitalised website. It's a tradition that started more than 400 years ago and is still going strong today!
Ladybird and Woolworths are now brands of Shop Direct Group. All trademarks are acknowledged.
Shortcuts to other exhibits in the Woolworths Museum
The Ladybird and Fashion Gallery