Five key moments that shaped the British fashion industry

Dr Jade Halbert, New Generation Thinker 2019

As London plays host to one of the ‘big four’ fashion weeks, Dr Jade Halbert, Lecturer in Fashion Business and Cultural Studies, University of Huddersfield and New Generation Thinker 2019, looks back at the some of the defining moments in the fashion industry, from 19th century scandals to the rise of online retailers.

The Death of Mary Ann Walkley, 1863

Traditional seamstress setting

In 1863 a young seamstress named Mary Ann Walkley was found dead in her bed in the living quarters of her distinguished employer, the court dressmaker Madame Elise at 170 Regent Street. Her death had been caused (according to the whistle-blower who wrote to The Times) by ‘long hours and close confinement’. The story provoked a national outrage; seamstresses wrote in their droves to newspapers and magazines to allege incredible abuses including drugging and being worked to blindness, while the various associations set up to tackle such hardships, published their own hand-wringing responses lamenting their lack of authority to affect change.

But the death of Mary Ann Walkley did affect change – it empowered senior seamstresses to demand better conditions, and pressurised one government advisor to concede that ‘workers have it in their power [to improve their working lives]’. This sowed the seed of unionisation which led to the formation of some of the most powerful workers’ unions in the country.

The Utility scheme, 1942

Range of fabrics

When a group of British fashion designers including Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies joined forces with the Board of Trade to produce a fashion collection governed by Utility restrictions in 1942, it signalled a new dawn in British fashion. They balanced style and flair with wartime limitations in fabric and trimmings, and demonstrated that creativity and commerce could be productive bedfellows.

For the woman in the street, the Utility scheme meant that even in the depths of wartime she had access to elegant and fashionable clothes designed by the Queen’s dressmaker. It also meant that British fashion had a new identity, as well as new efficiencies in manufacturing which foreshadowed the rise of our fashionable high streets in the 1960s.

John Stephen opens ‘His Clothes’, Beak Street, 1957

Photo of a busy shopping scene in modern day Carnaby Street

The moment John Stephen, the Glaswegian ‘King of Carnaby Street’ opened his first clothing shop, ‘His Clothes’ on Beak Street in 1957, the boutique boom of the so-called ‘Swinging Sixties’ exploded shortly afterwards. He catered to the counterculture; played loud music in his shops and specialised in colourful, flamboyant garb much beloved of the ascendant celebrity-class of models, photographers, actors, and musicians. By 1966 Stephen owned 22 fashion boutiques in Greater London – nine of these on Carnaby Street alone – and with an eye on global domination, he eventually owned boutiques across Britain, Europe, and the USA.

Stephen’s importance to the development of British fashion cannot be overstated. His example galvanized a complete transformation of British high street fashion: from old to young, quiet to loud, subtle to psychedelic, and inspired the rise of the fashion corporations that still dominate our high streets today including Topshop, Miss Selfridge, and River Island (or Chelsea Girl as it was then).

The launch of Next, 1982

Shop front display with show room dummies wearing the latest fashion

The 1980s was the ‘designer decade’, a time when fashion became a serious matter and having ‘the look’ was crucial to achieving the quintessential 1980s lifestyle. In terms of British fashion, one of the main beneficiaries of this was Next which was launched by George Davies in 1982. Within weeks of the flagship Next store opening in February 1982, 78 further stores opened on high streets nationwide. It was an instant success; Davies had recognised the shift in purchasing power from young women to those between the ages of 25 and 45 who he said ‘care about fashion first and price second’. Next targeted this market with excellent design and high-quality manufacture in a stylish retail setting.

Within two years there were 162 Next stores all offering the same sophisticated, chic, and well-made collections, each carefully merchandised to show a complete look to suit the professional fashion-conscious shopper. With the launch of the weighty, glossy, Next Directory in 1988 which closer resembled a fashion magazine than a mere catalogue, Next changed the outdated perceptions of mail order and transformed how fashionable Brits did their shopping – less pounding pavements, more perusing pages.

The launch of ASOS.com, 2000

User with an iPod and Laptop

ASOS was founded in London as AsSeenOnScreen, the online destination to buy clothes and accessories worn by celebrities on film and television. Its co-founder Nick Robertson sought to follow Amazon.com as an internet shopping pioneer in the fashion context, and while investors may have been suspicious of ecommerce in the early days, the site’s digital-native target consumers flocked to buy fast, affordable, fashionable, celeb-inspired fare.

The success of ASOS has been emulated by countless other fashion businesses and has been the catalyst to a transformation in the British fashion landscape. Now fashion entrepreneurs can set up in business online, free from the constraints of bricks and mortar and this has contributed to the fashion industry’s impressive growth to £33 billion per annum in recent years (currently growing three times faster than the economy as a whole).


Find out more about Jade and our New Generation Thinkers 2019. You can also keep up to date with Jade and her research via Twitter.

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