New Futures for Birmingham`s Historic Buildings

Dress to impress

Posted October 17th, 2012 by jenniwaugh with 2 Comments


Men’s workwear for sale in the Kay & Co Ltd mail-order catalogue, Autumn 1920. Catalogue images © Kays Heritage Group, © of digital images University of Worcester

Our wonderful volunteers at the Newman Brothers Coffin Works have spent a lot of time researching the clothes that would have been worn by the factory staff. We have some photos to go on, but very few original fabrics or clothes from the early 20th cent survive, laregly because they were long ago worn to bits or turned into dusters.

It was very exciting then to turn to the World of Kays website, a web resource created by a team from the University of Worcester Research Collections, led by Jenni Waugh, one of our newest trustees.

William Kilbourne Kay ran a shop in Worcester selling clocks, silver plate and jewellery.  He founded Kay & Co Ltd mail order company in 1890 when he found that he was increasingly receiving orders from rural customers who, unable to travel easily to the city, asked Kay to deliver their goods.

From the outset, Kay & Co catalogues including a range of sturdy boots for the working man, suitable for all trades including ‘railwayman, cow man, farm labourer and carpenter’.

Sturdy boots for the working man. Note the photograph of agricultural workers – many of Kays’ sales were to rural communities


Aprons and overalls for the ladies, Kays catalogue, Autumn 1923. Note the pre-war styles for women in service, whilst the overall has the new, higher hemline.

The men’s workwear sold by Kays was made from hardwearing materials such as cotton twill, denim, corduroy, moleskin, flannel and wool, and came in a range of styles including dungarees, jackets and trousers for the labouring man and warehouse coats for his foreman.There was also a range of aprons and servicable dresses for working women, including frilled aprons and caps for those working in service.  During the second world war, Kays began to sell women’s trousers and dungarees as part of their workwear selection – practical clothing for the factories and munitions works.

Whilst men’s clothing came in serviceable shades of brown and blue, the overalls worn by the women were increasingly bright and colourful, especially as new forms of synthetic fabric proved to be both hardwearing and easy to wash.

We hope to develop yet further the costumed interpretation offered at the Coffin Works and at other sites, so we plan to delve deeper into the pages of Kays to see what else we can wear when we dress to impress!




2 Responses to “Dress to impress”

  1. Oliver Paker October 30, 2012

    This catalog is a printed version of online shopping and its simpler kind can still be seen in the form of newspaper advertisements where makers provide customers with home delivery of the goods. It’s interesting to see how marketing techniques are making shopping more and more easier for the customers.


  2. Suzanne Carter October 17, 2012

    World of Kays is a fab website and includes oral history extracts from ex-Kays workers, film footage made by media students, poetry inspired by reminiscence as well as a wealth of images from the catalogues. It is a real trip down memory lane for those of you young enough to remember! Ah, the eighties, what were we thinking! Any Brummies out there remember the White Arrow delivery vans?


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