A catwalk parade held aboard the Cunard liner Franconia during Liverpool’s Civic Week. (Photo by Brooke/Getty Images)
In 1925, a mannequin parade of young women dressed in the latest fashions (a precursor to catwalk shows) took place on the Cunard liner Franconia as it docked in Liverpool. As the image shows, a model in an evening gown and fur-collared coat braved the Liverpool autumnal climate in front of a crowd of cloche-hatted, fashionably dressed women as sailors busily maintained the ship around them. The event also included numerous models parading in flapper evening gowns, smiling for the camera and eager to please the crowd of women. Pathé footage shows the event also included the slightly odd feature of a female model wearing a model ship for a hat and a model of the world around her middle, flanked by two (rather bored looking) costumed children.
The parade occurred as part of Liverpool’s Civic Week 1925, the second hosted by the city and the first in Liverpool itself (after it hosted a week at Wembley Exhibition Hall in 1924). Manchester followed and hosted its own Civic Week in 1926, anxious not to lag behind its great rival Liverpool. The mannequin parade was a slightly surreal attempt to merge the city’s civic identity, focussing on Liverpool’s long history as a successful port, with the new cultures of consumerism that were emerging in the city, and such events took place in conjunction with the big department stores, such as Lewis’s and George Henry Lee’s. Crucially, as the image makes clear, these events targeted the woman citizen, identified by the local state as an agent of economic regeneration through their role as shoppers as consumers.
The image encapsulates the key claims of my new book, Urban Redevelopment and Modernity in Liverpool and Manchester, 1918-1939. Both cities responded to economic instability and political instability after the First World War by investing in ambitious programmes of urban redevelopment. Redevelopment was heavily publicised in the local press and through promotional events, such as Civic Weeks. Local politicians and planners in Liverpool and Manchester displayed innovative approaches to urban governance and strong cultures of civic pride, not usually associated with the post-1918 period. Consequently, new forms of consumer and religious cultures emerged and the book focuses on the ways in which business owners and Catholic leaders embraced urban redevelopment to foster new forms of urban modernity.
As the image suggests, the book is especially interested in how these new forms of urban culture changed women’s experiences of Liverpool and Manchester. The mannequin parade brought together women’s role as shoppers with the new forms of showy civic cultures that sought to engage citizens and distract attention from ongoing problems of unemployment, poverty, and the appeal of political extremism. Whereas urban historians tend to focus on architects, planners, and politicians in accounts of urban development, the book suggests women’s roles in urban life needs greater attention. The mannequin parade on board the Franconia may seem surreal but it reflected a new form of civic pride that reflected the unique conditions of the post-1918 period.