Thursday, October 22, 2009

Reminiscing...Please Indulge Me!

I was reading one of Lucy's posts yesterday about window dressing and how she felt it was an art form, and one that could document well, the changes in fashions over the years. She has some fabulous photos of 1950's mannequins and 30's millinery heads that are each so evocative of their era.
As I read her post, I was transported back to my college days and have had fun reminiscing and remembering that happy time in my life.
I left school at 16 (for various reasons) and applied for a two year course in 'Display & Design' at Cassio College in Watford. Thankfully I was accepted and it was the best decision I could have made - I loved every minute of every lesson...
I have been delving into our attic today to fish-out my old photos from that time, and have taken photos of them with my digi-camera, so I'm afraid the quality isn't great! This was back in the very early 1980's, so please excuse the following set of photographs, as digital cameras weren't invented then! - We were expected to take photographs of the displays that we created as part of our on-going assessment.
The year began with 'static' goods and we learnt how to put a good display together using bases to give height to the merchandise and props to add interest or to set a theme.
I'm still confused today as to where a display of 'Tetley' tea bags would have been welcome, but I guess it was to just get us practicing to start with.

Most of the 'windows' were actually cubicles in a studio, where the sides could be moved in and out to make larger or smaller spaces. The studio also had 4 'real' windows too, which I loved using whenever I had the opportunity to do so. They weren't very popular to use, for some reason, perhaps because your work was on full view for the rest of the college students to see, but I didn't mind that...I saw it as good experience for the real world.
I even chose to do my first big assignment in one of them. This was my 'Xanadu' perfumery window for Christmas. I made an expanded polystyrene king bearing a perfumery gift as my prop and painted several apple crates in white emulsion paint.

We later moved on to working with other merchandise of varying shapes and sizes.
Love that retro kitchenware!

Towards the end of the first year, we began to learn techniques for working with manipulative merchandise, such as this nice set of brown bathroom towels!

Fashion accessories were a lot more exciting than some of the other goods that we were given to display...even if some of the items had been in the studio storeroom for at least 20 years...we weren't talking high-fashion here!! ;-))

One of the assignments that we were given had the brief 'Spring in the City'. I chose to do Dublin and made the sheet music prop at the back - 'In Dublin's Fair City...' We also had to learn lettering and would paint all our own show cards and location cards, as if we were working for a large department store.

At the end of the first year our final major project was 'Buy British - Buy the Best'. I decided to use my favourite window again and went for a footwear display. I remember having to drag the wooden bench from outside in the college gardens and hauling it up into the window space, rather than using the felt covered bases that were so often used. It was worth the risk though and I passed my first year.

I also remember the laughs us girls used to have, and we'd often pose with the mannequins in the studio. That's me on the right with one of the 1960's mannequins...I think the college used to get shop's cast-offs...this girl obviously wasn't popular with her weird pose - I can just imagine her at a 60's party dressed in psychedelic fashions and being away-with-the-fairies, shall we say?! ;-))
And if the teachers weren't looking, we'd also try on some of the stiff mannequin wigs! -Something that was absolutely forbidden....but we did so at every opportunity, of course, and would always find it hysterical!
During our second year we were each given two weeks in-store work experience. Three of us were selected for a placement at 'Liberty of London' and I was one of those lucky ones. It was one of the best experiences of my life and I still treasure the memories of working, albeit briefly, in such a magnificent store...the fact that it was during the run up to Christmas made it even more of a thrill...even if getting a tube train home in the evening from Oxford Circus was a complete nightmare. We often had to queue up at street level, all the way down the stairs/escalators, and then onto the platform, being jostled in all directions, due to the shear volume of Christmas shoppers all heading home at the end of the day- quite scary at just 17 years would be several trains in and out of the station before we finally all made it onto a train heading for Euston.
(I loved the Christmas window displays all round the outside of the store - look at this lovely lady with her Grace Jones 80's look - fabulous! Sorry, this pic was taken in the dark one evening when we were heading home.)
The Christmas colour scheme chosen for that year was a dramatic scarlet and purple. We were given quite a few hands-on prop making tasks, such as painting pedestals and urns in rich gloss paint...
(Me wielding a paintbrush, wearing a dustbin-liner apron and sporting my short 80's hair-do!!)
And making various pot arrangements using shiny red cardboard boxes and purple ribbons that were placed in various positions throughout the shop.
Occasionally were were allowed out of the basement studio and onto the sales floors.
For this display below we were asked to suspended red boxes, to continue the theme, using silk ribbons amongst mannequins dressed in cosy winter woollens in one of the fashion departments.
Whilst in London we visited Selfridges and took a trip to Santa's grotto...purely for research, you understand! ;-)) That year it was a wonderfully nostalgic 'Rupert the Bear' themed grotto that was so dreamy and pretty. The year previous to that was a stunning Muppet Christmas one, complete with the real Muppets, all animated and providing Christmas cheer to all who visited. (I did take lots of photographs at the time, but for now they seem to have been misplaced.)
After the two weeks work experience was over, we returned to college to work on our own Christmas grotto. We all chose to go for a Cinderella Pantomime theme, which was later open to the local nursery and primary school children to walk round.
This was the entrance, welcoming visitors to 'Hardup Hall'.
We all worked in small groups to create displays that told the story of Cinderella. My two friends and I worked on the scene where Cinderella tries on the glass slipper...

We dressed a seated mannequin in rags and surrounded her with country style kitchen pieces, making the dresser ourselves from wood and expanded polystyrene...Ahhh, I remember going home from college many times with a headache bought on by the fumes from the hot wire polystyrene cutter!!
And here is her Prince...we didn't have many male mannequins in the studio, so we adapted a kneeling female one, giving her a moustache and wadding wig! Well, it was pantomime style, I suppose!
And these two 'lovely' ladies were the ugly sisters that we dressed in ballroom finery, 80's style!
After the Christmas hols were over, it was back to work, with the pressure of final exams looming. We began working more with manipulative merchandise and also fashion.
Crisp cottons were best displayed in pleats, either on a basic mannequin above, for an in-store style display, or on a fashion mannequin for a window display. Here 3 meter lengths of cotton fabrics were pinned and manipulated into shape - we weren't allowed to cut the fabric in any way, as would be the case in a proper shop, so that the fabric could then be sold after it was removed from the promotion.
Working with fabric was my favourite merchandise (some things never change! ;-))
This is a French national costume design that I created, again from usable lengths of dressmaking fabrics.
The more fluid satin fabrics could be draped and bolder displays could be created. My first attempt was this one...
After that, I would always use the lovely drapey fabrics for my displays when given a choice.
This elegant lady was dressed in the softest evening satins...certainly a move on from Tetley tea bags!
We also needed to know the correct ways for displaying fashions...which I use in the loosest term...we had to bring in clothes from home to supplement what was on offer at the college!
These mannequins have both been wired to the floor, (rather than standing on their integrated bases) which was always scary to do, as they could so easily have fallen until they were secured...and how many times were we reminded how expensive they were?! This meant that they could wear 'proper' shoes, rather than the ones that came with the mannequin and were completely unflattering!
The seated mannequin was always a popular girl, as she could wear any shoes without needing to be wired. She was also perfect for use in the high-rise windows, where a standing model would have been above eye level and so would loose you valuable marks...we always had to bear in mind eye-levels and what customers would initially be drawn to when viewing a promotional display - an eye catching focal point was vital to draw the attention around the display.
And when working with more than one mannequin, they needed to look as if they had just had an argument, rather than a cosy chat...I don't know why this always looked better, but it definitely was the case, where they seemed to be ignoring each other, rather than there being some mothers-meeting going on behind glass...
And if a shop couldn't afford to buy mannequins? - Then a broom handle suspended by fishing line was a perfectly good alternative! Scarecrow style!
The brief that we were given for our final major project was 'The California Connection'. I realised fairly quickly that California was known for growning cotton and that I would be able to base my project on fabrics again...
I decided to work on creating a night scene and made wooden signs to resemble neon lights. Two plain white mannequins were used to display the printed cotton fabrics, which I fashioned into their outfits. The tight group allows the eye to wander, but not too far and so the customer is drawn into seeing what you want her to.
At the end of the two year course I was very sad to leave. There's something about working alongside like-minded people and it was something I knew I would miss.
Sadly the retail wages and the cost of trains into London were poles apart and so to work at my dream job was out of my reach. I did however get a job with the John Lewis Partnership in Watford, later transfering to the Bristol branch when hubby and I moved to the west country some 23+ years ago.
If you are still here, thank you for reading my long post and for indulging me whilst I shared a few of my nostalgic memories.
Have a lovely day!
Niki x


  1. Wow - how lucky are you! My mum said she always dreamed of doing what you've done...I also had a friend who did the shop window displays for imaginative and inventive! And I love the old school photos!!! xxx

  2. I loved reading your post Niki! It looks like a great deal of fun was had by all.
    The 80's style fashion, fabrics etc really took me back as it was in the early 80's that I was studying fashion design.
    Later, when I had my own shop I used to do the window displays (no mannequins so I had to be creative - broom handles worked well!).
    Thanks for sharing these memories.


  3. amazing and interesting
    who knew ..not me
    that was great

  4. I'm so pleased you shared this part of your past. I can see you have had a real knack for display and tweeking fabric for a very long time. Don't you just love those 80s fashions - it takes me back. Thanks for such a treat.

  5. Wow what an interesting post and what an exciting time you had! Those lovely displays you did. Do you know I saw the Christmas window for Libertys that year, my dad worked for Selfridges so I use to go shopping in both stores and the 1981 window for Selfridges was Polar bears, did you see that one? There was one small bear for each of the staff which dad gave to my eldest son for his first christmas and giant main display Polar Bear went to Prince William as he was also born that year.

  6. What a lovely and enjoyable education you received, and being able to help with Liberty's Christmas display while a student must have been so exciting!

  7. It must have been super to be in Liberty's...what an honour. I love all the photo's its so interesting to see where your passion comes from. Have a great week.

  8. Hi Niki
    thank you for visiting my post, it was a fab jumble sale! (how can you not love my light-up windmill??) It even plays a tune! I really enjoyed your post today, it is fun to see what other people were doing in the 80's! I am in the process of digging out a sort of "memory lane" syle selection of pics as I have just been to a reunion. I might even have walked past Libertys then as I was living in London at that time! Lizzie xx

  9. I loved this blog - how talented you were (and are). I must have passed your Liberty's windows as we lived in London in those days.

    No wonder you are so clever at selecting and arranging your vintage collection for the photos on your calendars - what a good 'eye' you have!

    I am looking forward very much to receiving my calendars - one set is for my mother who will love scanning each photograph for reminders of her childhood in the 20s and 30s, and as a woman in the 40s and 50s (she is 89). The other set I meant for myself but it may just have to go to Australia with me for our family Christmas with our middle daughter and our 'Aussie' grand-daughter...

  10. Hello Niki, your post takes me back remembering my mother and her outfits... thanks for sharing this part of your life, this explains to me your great taste and the images of your blog.
    Muchos cariños
    María Cecilia

  11. Gosh that brought back a few memories! When I was made redundant from a design studio in the mid 1990's I was lucky enough to get a job almost straight away as a display assistant at a John Lewis Store. I worked there for five years and loved every minute. We had such laughs we too use to put on the wigs and put the mannequins in strange positions. I am still in touch with all my work friends and we share fond memories. Thank you for sharing yours.

  12. Very interesting indeed to see the different window styles. I had never really thought too much about it.

  13. Loved this post, Niki! How creative you have always been, first with your 'big dolls' and now with your smaller. I think the Cinderella display was just lovely! I love the Ugly Sisters in it and the feminine prince! xx

  14. How fun, Niki! I have always thought that seemed like such a fun job!

  15. Hi Niki

    What a wonderful post. You must have had such fun and your training was certainly 'training for life' if your current displays are anything to go by!

    Sue xx

  16. I really enjoyed reading about your past life. My Nan used to take me into Trewins in Watford, where she would buy balls of wool for her crochet - what a small world!

  17. Hi there...I`m back in blogland and catching up on all the 100`s of fabulous posts I missed out on.....glad you are still around--Gypsy Purple -Chamara

  18. Hi Niki

    What an absolutely fascinating post! Really enjoyed finding out more about your past. Window dressing is something that has interested me ever since my Mother owned a boutique when I used to live in France. We lived in Cannes at the time and she opened a boutique in the Gray d'Albion Gallery selling luxury goods from Scotland. She sold cashmere kilts, jumpers, mohair blankets, tweeds, whiskies, highland soaps etc. It was a stunning shop, everything was of such beautiful quality. I remember my Mother going away on trips to Scotland to source the various items, the emphasis being on highest quality each time. Each week, there was a new window display. At the age of 13 I sometimes helped my Mother choose what would go in the window. A professional window dresser would then do the job and I watched with great interest if I wasn't at school on that day. We didn't go to school on Wednesdays. It is most definitely an art! You are so lucky to have trained in that field and this certainly reflects in the way you display things so beautifully in your house!
    Great photos, it does come across that you had a great time then.
    Have a lovely weekend!
    Isabelle x

  19. Niki, I did the same course here in Australia, but it was called Visual Merchandising, which included window displays, ticket writing, screen printing, and a few other subjects.We had a ball, though unfortunately, I didnt take more than two pictures.
    I worked in a big department store(after the course) called David Jones for a few years, before working freelance.Xmas was always my favourite, but hard work!
    The fabrics displayed reminded me of the fun I had with them too.We were only allowed to have certain lengths, so they could be sold later.Some of us use to stand in the window of the studio, and pretend to be mannequins! It stopped people in the street, until we giggled!
    Thanks for the memories, and yes, the experience helped me all these years to where I am now!

  20. Thank you for taking us down memory lane. And guess what's on my blog today? A window display from John Lewis Watford! How funny!!! And I completely forgot it was called Trewins back then till I read someone's comment. Oh and guess where my DD did her photography diploma? That's right - West Herts College (but Watford campus). Where did you live? We're right near the hospital and stadium.

  21. I think that this is absolutely facinating! I didn't realize that courses for this exist! Thank you so much for sharing.

  22. Yep, I stayed with you through the whole post. I find it such a fasinating time of your life. My daughter has always wanted to go to the Seattle Art Institute and they have fashion and interior design. Perhaps one day her dreams will come true. Wish upon a story, no matter who you are and dreams, will come true. Thanks for your sharing, loved it!

  23. what a facinating post...I had no idea you could do a course in window explains why you put togehter such beautiful still lifes on the blog...didnt you ever think of theatre sets?...I bet you would have been great at that to you and yours...H

  24. Hi Nikki, I've loved this post..(must have taken you ages to put together!!) It really bought back some memories as I first started window dressing in the late 80s, I didnt go to college for it though, but would have loved to looking at all the projects..I even recollect doing some very similar displays for Boots in the days when they had proper display teams! Thanks for sharing your memories with us..and I hope your heating and hot water is finally sorted out-at least you had a lovely weekend away from all the drama and stress! x

  25. loved reading your post Niki! It looks like a great deal of fun was had by all. Work from home India


Thank you for finding the time to visit me...
Niki xx