Horsham is Dressed for Success

PUBLISHED: 18:16 24 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:17 20 February 2013

Horsham is Dressed for Success

Horsham is Dressed for Success

Jeremy Knight, of Horsham Museum, which is taking part in this year's 'Dressed for Success', looks at how the town used window dressing to give it a competitive edge<br/><br/>Pictures courtesy of Horsham Museum & Art Gallery (HDC)

Horsham was made for shopping. It was laid out around 1206 to attract market stall holders; a
great success which led to some stalls eventually turning into permanent shops.

One such shop still survives as a medieval butchers on display at the Weald and Downland Museum. It shows that windows were open, unglazed and exposed to the elements did they dress the shop with herbs and joints hanging? Probably, but we dont know.

We do know however, thanks to a remarkable account written by Horshams famous folk singer, bell-ringer and cobbler Henry Burstow what Horsham shop windows were like some 180 years ago. He had a fantastic memory and obviously loved the shopping experience of his later Edwardian life compared to the shops of his youth:

All the shops were low pitched, very little attempt at display of goods was made in the small window, all fitted with small panes of glass. Some few tradesmen illuminated at night, but only with tallow dips or rushlights. The doors were mostly divided laterally in halves. Some, the more modern, were divided vertically, a few, later, had glass in the upper portions, but as yet there was not
a bit of plate glass in the town.

Thanks to the kudos of the current Dressed for Success campaign to make contemporary windows attractive and compelling, which is now in its third year, people are now making similar comparisons between todays shop windows in Horsham and those of only a few years ago.

It was technology, not creativity, that stopped Horsham having big windows. But that didnt deter Horshams shop keepers, for they mounted extravagant displays in halls instead, such as Empire Bazaar in 1885.

With the arrival of plate glass, the display in the hall moved in to the shop. So evident was their pride that many a trader would be photographed in front of their store. These rare photographic survivals offer a real glimpse into the past and show how unlike today, where displays tell stories, inspire and create a mood to purchase, these windows relied on flaunting everything.

At the turn of the 20th century, Horsham was under threat from other shopping towns that were less than an hour away thanks to the railway or the growing charabanc trade.

In May 1910, Horsham Chamber of Trade fought back, using the towns experience of making wonderful trade shows as its leading weapon in the campaign to capture the shopper. In that year, Horshams first Shopping Week was set up with an extravagant ambition to have a Window Dressing Competition where traders made a grand display such as has never been seen before.

Success was immediate and probably led to the formation of the towns Association of Displaymen. The sheer variety and ingenuity of the displays caught peoples attention even when themes such as Horsham Cricket Week were selected as in June 1928, whilst the following April, the Displaymen were called upon to promote the Councils Health Week.

This followed some 10 years later when like the cinema the shops went to full colour. Windows were themed, so from 31 October to 5 November shop windows were dressed in green and mauve, and from 14 to 19 November the colour was red.

Just as todays retail Tsars are telling high streets to create additional features to attract shoppers, Horsham Chamber of Trade did the same 70 years ago with fantastic window displays and a shoppers magazine called The Signpost and later The Horsham Journal. Even the Art College joined in as it ran classes on window dressing and labelling.

Some 60 years later Horsham is using its heritage of window displays to ride out a recession and in doing so attract new trade to the town.

In 1932, Horsham opened a new market. Its traders were not part of the shop displays, but in todays Horsham where a new market opened last year, stallholders are getting into the spirit. So whilst it may be looking at the past Horsham is always taking the best from the old.

The towns Dressed for Success initiative is now entering its third year of a five year vision, managed by Horsham Unlimited the town centres business partnership, coordinated by key stakeholder Horsham District Council and sponsored for the third year by Spofforths LLP, who are thus showing their commitment to the local business community.

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