Concentrating on Fashion: the Home Market Retail and Distribution Structure for British Dress Textiles, 1919-40




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CHORD Retailing and Distribution History Conference, University of Wolverhampton



Peer reviewed


This paper will examine changes in the home market retail and distribution structure for British dress fabric. Increasing concentration of retail firms, with a transition to sales of ready-to-wear clothing rather than drapery fabrics for home dressmaking, was combined with challenges to the existing wholesale distribution structure by both manufacturers and retailers. This encouraged the establishment of a volatile fashion-driven consumer market in the interwar period. The retail structure in the home market changed significantly during the period, with the expansion of chain stores, establishment of manufacturers’ brands (supported by fixed retail prices) and broadening of access to consumer goods through the increasing availability of credit. Retailers and wholesalers changed their ordering practices in response to uncertainty of economic conditions and changes in demand, with smaller stocks held and a wider range of lines offered. A concentration of drapery sales in department stores, due to the costs of carrying a wide variety of lines, was intensified by the amalgamation of department stores. Further concentration away from the small independent drapery stores and wholesalers occurred with the establishment of large urban Co-operative retail stores and expansion of multiples that focused on sales of ready-to-wear clothing. A more dynamic competitive environment developed, with forwards integration from producers and backwards integration from retailers. The increase of branded lines by manufacturers and printers demonstrates their emergence in a more active entrepreneurial role rather the usual, passive commission-processing system. Some retail chains initiated controversial direct trading with manufacturers while department stores took on a merchanting role and commissioned textile prints or even produced small experimental ranges themselves. A fundamental shift in the production/ consumption process was the widening of the relevance of fashionability to all classes of textiles and across the social scale, with the consequent displacement of the ideal of durability. These changes led to a disappearance of the trickle-down time lag from couture to mass fashion whilst increasing market volatility. The establishment of the new model of consumption was viewed with concern by print companies due to the unpredictability of demand and higher production and promotion costs. However, the establishment of a fashionability model for all price levels of dress fabric increased personal choice and raised the significance of design in mass-market printed dress fabrics. These changes in the textiles retail and distribution structure indicate the transition to a recognisably modern mass consumer society.



consumption, drapery, retail history, ready-to-wear clothing, interwar period


Baines, E. (2015) Concentrating on Fashion: the Home Market Retail and Distribution Structure for British Dress Textiles. 1919-40.CHORD Retailing and Distribution History Conference, University of Wolverhampton, 10 September 2015.


Research Institute

Institute of Art and Design