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‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’

Into my possession a few years ago came about a dozen copies of The Drapers’ Record from 1896 and 1897.

Our magazine was 10 years old by the second date and had long since boldly claimed on its front cover that it enjoyed “The Largest Circulation of Any Trade Paper In The World”. It cost one old penny each week (younger readers, please note, there were 240 pennies in the pound before we went decimal on February 15, 1971).

The Drapers’ Record issue of Saturday June 5, 1897 (Edition No 514) is a “Special Export Number” and the 90 or so pages are packed with advertisements for a vast range of products that mainly British manufacturers wished to sell to foreign as well as domestic customers.

The magazine, which physically is only slightly taller and narrower than the incarnation we have today, is a fascinating reminder of how complicated the fashion industry was, even in Queen Victoria’s day.

Top of the five advertisements on the front page is the wholesale drapery business of Debenham & Freebody, the precursor of today’s department store group, which was advertising “44-inch batiste - range of 40 light shades” from its lining department. Then, as now, it was based in Welbeck Street in the West End. Other familiar names advertising in 1897 include Jaeger (“Best is cheapest. Fixed Moderate Prices”), Viyella and Courtauld’s (offering waterproof crape [sic] for mourning dress).

The revolution in the way we dress now is perhaps best exemplified by the difference in women’s lingerie. Anyone who has ever thought that a modern underwired bra is a complicated bit of engineering ought to consider what went into a corset. There are an astonishing number of advertisers selling corsets and parts thereof, including “Antarctic Whalebone” and the long-forgotten “Inflato” capped bodice steels.

An entire page ad sings the advantages of the “Pineesi” Patent Safety Pin. I wonder what the margin was on safety pins in 1897.

Entertaining and intriguing as the old adverts are, the thing that most fascinates me about these issues from more than a century ago are the similarities they reveal between business concerns then and now.

For example, in a letter to the editor, a William Ponting of Kensington writes: “It occurs to me that it would be greatly to the interests of West End tradesmen if they were to combine to delay their summer Sales until the second or third week in July … I would suggest that a committee of influential drapers be formed in order to fix a date for general adoption … A few years ago we used to have our Sales in July, but now it is the custom to have them the last week in June, almost in the middle of season, instead of at the end, as they should be.”

I don’t know whether to be comforted or frustrated that some 116 years later the great Sale date debate rumbles on.

The prospects for international trade are examined in some depth in this “Special Export Number”. These days Drapers does not do export specials, but on November 21 our annual Drapers Fashion Summit has retail international expansion as its theme and we have put together an impressive agenda for the day, which can be viewed at www.fashionsummit.co.uk.

I like to think our Victorian forefathers would approve. In another link to the present day, the June 5, 1897 issue has as its back cover an advertisement celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Similarly to last year and this, several correspondents complained that the royal celebrations were disrupting sales. It is nice to know that retailers were as hard to please in 1897 as they are today.

  • PS A big thank you to all the businesses that have entered the new Drapers Independents Awards 2013, the deadline for which is now closed. The Drapers team is now sorting through the entries before visiting those shops that have reached the shortlist. For details of how to attend the celebratory lunch on November 7 in London, visit www.drapersindependents.co.uk - I look forward to welcoming many of you there.

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