A post by Jennifer Sweetapple, Masters student on the University’s Art History: Dress & Textile Histories programme.
I am working on my MLitt in the Dress and Textile Histories program here at UofG. Through my program, I have been able to be a part of a work placement digitising fashion and product catalogues within the House of Fraser Archive.
My work placement began with exploring the circulars and products listed on the House of Fraser Archive’s online catalogue. I was drawn to the Army & Navy Co-operative Society Ltd due to list of records under the term “Jewellery”. I am an American, and whilst unfamiliar with British department store chains, I did grow up shopping in a military commissary for groceries, clothing, and toys. Jewellery as an object sold by a military-operated store was still surprising however, as I was unaware that such operated outside of the States. Nonetheless, I began to delve into the company records due to personal interest and the quantity of available records.
Searching for dress and textile objects—even in fashion-based records—is not always easy. I am interested in Victorian and Edwardian clothing, and the early circulars during the Victorian era do not typically contain many images. However, this began to evolve as department stores gained prominence and became a staple in Western society. Department stores of the time—late 19th to early 20th centuries—contained a plethora of other goods besides clothing, especially groceries and homeware—china, silverware, and even used weapons from the Franco-Prussian war to display above your mantle (FRAS 504/2). A number of the circulars I sifted through contained hundreds and hundreds of pages on these items, leaving about 200 pages out of around 900 that contained dress and textile related images. Clothing and related items tended to be towards the back of circulars, with groceries and other necessities in the front. However, accessories like jewellery and hand bags tended to be found mixed in with sterling silver platters and decorative bowls, which could be found in a number of locations throughout any given record. I am sure that these locations made sense to the consumer of the time, but it was a surprise to me, as a modern department store goer.
Historic records such as these contain very few, if any, photographs and primarily use illustrations for examples of goods sold. These illustrations vary from the object itself to a garment as it would be worn. In the late Victorian era, photographs were still expensive, which leaves gaps in discussing what the average person may have looked like. These illustrations are beautifully done and serve as visual examples of what the stylish, middle-class woman may have worn and what they looked like doing so. They are not to be used as the sole source for this, but circulars act as an additional point of reference when researching dress history. Images such as these may not be the featured item in department store circulars, but they still are an invaluable source.
Even with needing to dig through circulars, what I have found during my research during my placement has become more than enough to fuel a short series of blog posts and Flickr sets, all of which I am excited to be able to share over the course of this week.
Further reading on the history of the Army & Navy Co-operative Society Ltd can be found through the House of Fraser Archive online catalogue , and in Yesterday’s Shopping: Army and Navy Stores Catalogue, 1907, with an introduction by Alison Adburgham.