Dorothy Perkins, like Etam, started out as a specialist in ladies’ underwear and lingerie. As with Burton, Dorothy Perkins’ stablemate in the Arcadia retail group, the commonly related history of the company doesn’t always fit the evidence.
The usual version of the Dorothy Perkins story maintains that the business began as the drapery shop H. P. Newman & Co. in 1909, and that the first ‘Dorothy Perkins’ shop opened as a specialist ladies’ outfitters in 1919. Some writers even suggest that the name appeared for the first time in 1939. However, when Dorothy Perkins Ltd. floated as a public company in 1958 the prospectus provided a brief historical account which allows a more accurate tale to be reconstructed.
The chain certainly had its roots in a company called H. P. Newman & Co. Ltd., seemingly a Luton straw hat manufacturer rather than a draper. The Dorothy Perkins trading name was adopted for the first time in the middle of the Great War, in 1916.
Dorothy Perkins was a popular rambling rose, thought vulgar by some. In 1920 a correspondent for The Times declared: ‘The nurseryman who produced Dorothy, let us hope by mistake, ought to have burnt the plant as soon as it began to flower . . . she makes the most beautiful garden look like the scenery in a musical comedy’. Nevertheless this cheerful bright pink rose adorned the highly distinctive frontages of Dorothy Perkins shops. As late as 1958 it was noted: ‘The distinctive cottage roof design of the shop front on most of the branches was originally adopted in 1916 and has considerable advertising value’.
Advertisements of the 1920s described Dorothy Perkins as ‘specialists in millinery, lingerie, corsets, hosiery and woven underwear’. Hats – including brimmed straw hats rather than fashionable cloche hats or toques – featured prominently in these advertisements with the explanation: ‘we specialise in large fitting hats for the unshingled’. In 1928 the parent company was renamed Ladies Hosiery & Underwear Ltd, then in 1939 it was registered as Dorothy Perkins Ltd. Confusingly, around 1930 a small company in Wales traded under the same name.
The Dorothy Perkins chain was centred on London. In the mid-1920s the main shop was at 190 Oxford Street, with 12 branches dotted around the capital: Hammersmith (two branches), Putney, Clapham Junction, Balham, Clapham, Wood Green, Sutton, Acton, Ilford, Croydon and Streatham. There were 75 shops by 1939. The company continued to grow in the hands of Alan Farmer (b.1900), who joined the firm in 1925 and took over in 1940.
When Dorothy Perkins floated in 1958 it had 130 shops, of which just 23 were held freehold. These were still located mainly in London and the south and had an average selling space of 1100 sq. ft. – half the size of a contemporary supermarket. The shops sold ladies’ underwear, hosiery, corsetry, cotton dresses, blouses, cardigans, jumpers, dressing gowns and swimwear; some branches also sold wool and babywear. Sales were on a cash basis.
Shortly after becoming a public company, Dorothy Perkins’ old headquarters at 17 Newman Street in central London was replaced by new offices and warehousing in Bracknell New Town, designed by the development corporation architect, A. E. Ferriby. When this new HQ opened in 1961 Dorothy Perkins had 170 shops, but the building had the capacity to oversee growth to 500. It included a De La Rue Bull computer system. Multiples had been experimenting with computers for stock control and for the handling of customer accounts for several years: in 1958 Littlewoods and Radio Rentals both installed a National Elliott 405 computer and in 1961 Boots and Sainsburys opted for an Emidec 1100.
Alan Farmer continued to expand Dorothy Perkins in the 1960s. By the end of the decade there were 275 outlets and Farmer revealed his ambition to have as many as 500-550 by 1978. The company appears to have had a friendly association with the menswear multiple Foster Brothers. Farmer opened Foster’s new headquarters in Solihull in 1968, and in 1969 the companies opened a joint ‘walk round’ store in Brentwood, Essex, run by a new company called Foster Perkins. Both had concessions in Fine Fare’s new out-of-town store in Aberdeen in 1970. In 1971, however, the liaison ended, ‘as the sales philosophies were too disparate for comfort’.
Another company with which Dorothy Perkins had close links was Biba, the swinging boutique founded by Barbara Hulanicki: it bought a controlling 70% share in 1969 and sold Biba makeup in the shops. Dorothy Perkins backed Biba’s exciting but short-lived move into the art deco Derry & Toms department store in Kensington in the early 1970s.
Ian Farmer succeeded his father in 1971 and modernised the shops: the old façades covered in roses vanished, as did the signature logo. Dorothy Perkins was taken over by British Land, who had been the company’s property advisers for some time, in 1973 and then sold on to the Burton Group (now Arcadia) in 1979.
Many Dorothy Perkins branches share space in old Burton stores with other Arcadia fascias, while standalone branches tend to be located in shopping malls or transport hubs. Recent house style is monochrome and undistinctive. As this goes to press, in November 2020, Arcadia teeters on the brink of collapse and the future of Dorothy Perkins — a mainstay of the British high street since 1916 — is in doubt.
Photographs copyright K. A. Morrison unless otherwise stated. Thanks to The Sainsbury Archive for allowing me to publish their photograph of Dorothy Perkins in Guildford.