A brief history of Norwich fashion

As Norwich fashion shops celebrated milestone anniversaries and major revamps last year and many get ready to celebrate fashion at Norwich Fashion Week. EMMA HARROWING delves into the city's archives to look back at fashion through the decades.

Can you remember the days when John Lewis was called Bonds and Buntings, the establishment of the Curl Brothers, was on the spot of Debenhams? What about when Marks & Spencer opened in Norwich in the 1950s, Van Dal was one of many shoe makers in Norwich, the Blue Jean Company on Lower Goat Lane had innovative shop window displays such as a paper mache man sat in a bath, and Philip Browne introduced high end fashion from international designers such as Vivienne Westwood to a slightly conservative city?

Our fine city has been through many retail changes over the years and 2011 proved to be a pinnacle for fashion in Norwich.

Last year we saw one of the city's longest running department stores John Lewis (nee Bonds) expand and revamp its All Saints Green store and Marks & Spencer became the second biggest M&S store in England.

And while there were anniversary celebrations as independent men's fashion boutique Philip Browne celebrated 25 years in Norwich and Van Dal celebrated 75 years in the city, the Blue Jean Company, one of the founding members of Norwich Lanes, closed down due to competition from the high street and the shopping malls.

Norwich history is immersed in textiles, shoes and handbags. These industries may have dwindled or disappeared, but fashion is beginning to become a major part of Norwich life once again.

City College Norwich is nurturing the next generation of fashion and textile designers. Who can forget student Rachel Johnson's lantern fabric being made into a dress by Poppy Valentine designer Claire Read? The dress was snapped up within minutes of it being on display in the shop window. Then there was the first year fashion degree students from Norwich University College of the Arts (NUCA) who impressed us with their recycled and colour popping designs at the NUCA end-of-year show in the summer.

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We also celebrated independent fashion and our up-and-coming fashion designers at the first Norwich Fashion Week in February. The week was such a success that a second event took place in September. The third Norwich Fashion Week will take place in March and promises to be a bigger event showcasing independent fashion retailers, local fashion designer and the next generation of fashion designers who are being trained in Norwich.

To celebrate Norwich's fashion past, present and future, Life Matters takes a look back at some of the fashions from the past decades.


In the decade of dance, the Charleston saw a transformation in the way women dressed. Gone were the days before the First World War when women kept their hair long and tied loosely on top of their heads and wore long straight skirts and shirts with high collars. The 1920s saw the rise of the Flapper, a look that was less tailored and structured with corsetry, and the first bras were introduced to give women more freedom of movement. Outwear bordered on unisex and women would wind strips of cloth tightly around their chests in order to flatten them. The look was instigated by Coco Chanel. Hemlines rose to just under the knee and waistlines dropped below the waist. Hairstyles became shorter in a bob style and then later even shorter in what was called the Eton of Shingle cut. Outfits were completed with a felt cloche hat.


The 1930s were a creative decade for fashion. The Great Depression and the Second World War meant that fabric was in short supply. This meant that hemlines were shorter, clothing was figure hugging and there was an increase in synthetic textiles. Mend and make do was the motto of this decade.

At Bonds of Norwich (now John Lewis) playsuits, swimsuits and tomboy sportswear were the key pieces for summer. Hats were also all the rage after the department store's millinery department became the biggest outside London's West End.

The House dress was also a popular look. These were dresses made from printed fabrics and embellished with bows, lace, ruffles and decorative buttons. Men's suits for women also became a trend, but the two-piece suits had bright-coloured linings and figure flattering shapes to make them feminine.

1940s and 50s

Two very different fashion decades; the 1940s saw a continuation of the House style dress of the 1930s but with sleek skirts and defined pinched-in waists inspired by style icons Bette Davis and Rita Hayworth. By the late 1940s there was a resurgence of glamour and many Norwich department stores such as Bonds stocked swirling skirts and shimmering evening gowns.

The 1940s style was epitomised by the new look from French designer Christian Dior. Dresses had soft silhouettes and hemlines dropped back below the knee. Shoulders were broads, waists were still cinched in, but there was an emphasis on bust lines and padded hips to create a more curvy silhouette.

The introduction of the pencil skirt gave a figure-hugging alternative to the fuller skirt. Women's trousers had higher waists and widely cut legs and were made from tweed or jewel toned fabric.

The look for opulent, fabric rich designs continued throughout the 1950s. Full skirts, twin sets and pearls were a big look of the decade, as was the pencil skirt. In the late 1950s the knitted jumper dress with crew, shirt tab front, bib or cowl neck became a trend which continued into the 1960s.

On the Norwich high street Marks & Spencer opened its store in Norwich and produced one of the first ready-to-wear collections inspired by Parisian glamour. And Bonds opened its new modern store after the old buildings were bombed in the Second World War.


Local independent department store Jarrold began to sell fashion in the decade that saw fashion become more experimental. The mini skirt saw women take up their hemlines as far as they could go and the mini tunic dress with a high neck was worn with bare legs and flat shoes.

Fashion took inspiration from model Twiggy, with her cropped hair and emphasis on bearing her legs. Hair also became longer with the beehive one of the styles of the decade.

The 1960s saw many fashion launches that have become classics such as the little black dress made famous when Audrey Hepburn wore Givenchy's dress in the film Breakfast at Tiffany's. Other fashion fads included the shift dress, safari jacket, pea coat and the woman's tuxedo.

Psychedelic prints were also popular as fashion celebrated a kaleidoscope of clashing colour.

On the high street Biba became the first low price point line of clothes aimed at teenagers and, just like Topshop today, the fashion house created on-trend pieces inspired by the catwalk. In the 1960s this included dresses with long tight sleeves, short hemlines and high shoulders which defined the swinging 1960s look. The brand's second re-launch saw Biba come to House of Fraser in Chapelfield in 2010.

Back in the 1960s, Norwich shoe manufacturer Van Dal also moved with the times by creating a highly patterned wedge heel sandal.


Hemlines dropped in the 1970s as the maxi skirt became the must-have item of the decade. The high-waisted trousers of the 1940s and 1950s also returned but this time flares replaced the wide leg style. Hot pants were also introduced for those who longed to keep showing off their legs and were teamed with a pair of platform-heeled knee-high boots.

The 1970s was also the era of disco with shiny metallic clothing and a longer version of the 1930s playsuit – the jumpsuit.

In Norwich, Bonds began to showcase the latest trends such as the cape coat and the Fedore hat with in-store fashion shows, above. And Norwich based shoe manufacturer Van Dal moved away from its classic slim heeled court show with the introduction of the block heel court shoe.


Fashion in the 1980s was divided. Suits with shoulder pads and wearing shoulder pads with jumpers and blouses were indicative of an age of power-dressing for women who wanted to be seen as equal to men in the boardroom. This masculinity was balanced with a resurgence of the mini skirt and then the Ra-Ra skirt, worn with leg warmers, fingerless gloves and a logo T-shirt inspired by pop stars such as Madonna.

In the late 1980s stretch stirrup pants, which are similar to leggings but with elasticated bands that went around your feet, were worn with oversized tops and jumpers, including the batwing sleeve jumper.

Pastels were also big in the 1980s and you could find an abundance of lemon, lilac, baby blue and pastel pink suits, dresses and twin sets in Norwich department stores such as Bonds, left, which became part of the John Lewis partnership in 1982.

By the end of the 1980s Norwich began to get a taste of high-end fashion designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Alexandre McQueen, and big names such as Levi jeans as menswear shops Philip Browne and Blue Jean Company opened on Guildhall Hill and Lower Goat Lane.


Baggy jeans, neon T-shirts, bling, unisex checked shirts, coloured jeans, Doc Martin boots, chunky knit sweaters and denim dungarees were some of the fashion trends from this decade.

Fashion was heavily influence by the music scene.

The late 1980s and early 1990s rave scene brought about the trend for neon clothing; the smarter style of pop stars such as Rick Astley influenced the Chino trouser trend; the rise of Madchester and the indie bands made grunge a trend in the mid to late 1990s, and girl band The Spice Girls brought in a fad for platform trainers.

In Norwich the Blue Jean Company on Lower Goat Lane was bringing the latest looks to the city such as the shrink-to-fit Levi's, the neon looks of the rave scene, Chinos, the Quicksilver surf look and the rough and ready style of the Madchester scene. Around the corner at Philip Browne, international designer pieces from fashion houses such as John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier and Moschino joined Vivienne Westwood and Alexandre McQueen.

The boutique became renowned for stocking high-end items that pushed the boundaries of the fashion available in Norwich.

See some of the fashions through the decades by clicking on the photo gallery link at the top right of this page.