A historic event for Alexandra Workwear

The 1890s to the 1920s

The workwear company Alexandra celebrated over 160 years of its history on February 8, with a special event at the M Shed museum on Bristol’s iconic waterfront.

Alexandra Workwear began life in 1854 as a drapers shop in Whiteladies Road, Bristol and was named after Princess Alexandra of Denmark, the future wife of King Edward VII.

The workwear company has since played a vital role in the emergence of women in the workforce since World War I. Initially selling the fabric needed to make the uniforms for the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) who nursed injured soldiers, it went on to develop protective women’s (and men’s) workwear for assorted industries including munitions, agriculture, engineering, catering, business, leisure services and wider and more professionalised nursing roles.

160-year history

The event celebrated the publication of a book about Alexandra’s 160-year history, produced in association with Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives.

The 1960s

Over 85 invited guests were treated to a unique film created especially with help from the Pathé news organisation, charting the important social and historic milestones that helped establish Alexandra as a leading workwear company. This was followed by a catwalk show, featuring re-created historic garments and a live panel forum on the future of workwear in the modern workplace.

Alexandra managing director, Martin Lyne, hosted the event at the M Shed Museum.  He said the company, now based in Thornbury, was inspired by its own archive to publish a history of the company.

He explained: “Thanks to the foresight of the Davis family, who founded Alexandra, and recognised the shift in women’s roles through the 19th and 20th century, we have a wonderful archive which we wanted to share with customers, colleagues, suppliers and the wider community.

“It demonstrates the role we have played in the development of the modern workplace, especially in the lives of working women, and gives us an opportunity to look back on how our business has changed; how branding and marketing have influenced places of work and how we continue to use the same core principles of customer service, choice, design and quality to guide us today, just as the company has always done.”

Capturing the life

Catherine Littlejohns, senior curator of Social History at Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives added: “The company’s development mirrors a time of growth and prosperity in Bristol – a prosperity that has helped shape much of the city and the region today.

The present day

“The history of the drapers shop captures the lives of both the wealthy Edwardian ladies in Bristol who shopped at Alexandra and the young women who worked there. Both were changed forever through the impact of war, as the development of industry and changes in the old social order saw women taking up professional roles such as nursing, manufacturing and government administration.

“It’s a special snapshot and a fascinating insight into a time of great change.”

A catwalk show included 12 re-created uniforms dating back to the early 1900s, included both male and female garments, complete with period hair and makeup, from nursing, business and industry.

And even M Shed’s official caterer, Compass, joined in the spirit of the occasion by re-creating the Clifton Puff as part of the refreshments on offer. This apple-based pastry was originally created to celebrate the opening of the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol in 1864 – just 10 years after the original Alexandra shop was founded.

 

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