W R Grieve: Looking into the fabric of Glasgow. By Lauren Campbell

At 450 and 436 Sauchiehall Street, now home to Pizza Express, Bank of China and Indian Gallery, once stood the business of William Robertson Grieve, a couture dress maker, mantle maker and silk mercer.

Grieve, ghost sign

From 1905 this building functioned as headquarters of a series of warehouses, producing and selling a wide range of clothing items. Clues to the history of the building are visible through four large ghost signs which although faded, prominently state GRIEVE.

The story of William Robertson Grieve himself is both triumphant and tragic. A successful businessman, Grieve concurrently founded W. R Grieve and was a member of the Glasgow University Training Corps. In 1916, just four months before Grieve was sent abroad on front line service in World War One, he married Dorothy Crichton, a neighbour who had once lived across the street from him on Nithsdale Road, Strathbungo. After barely a month in France, in 1917, Lieutenant William Robertson Grieve was killed in action, and just six months after his death, Dorothy gave birth to their son. She named him William Robertson Grieve in honour of his father and grandfather.

Grieve, ghost sign, detail

Searching ‘W R Grieve’ into Glasgow Museums’ collection database, I was lucky to find a collection of women’s clothing items once manufactured and sold through the business. I arranged a visit to Glasgow Museum Resource Centre with the hope of finding out more through these items. On arrival, a curator led me to a room of carefully laid out blouses, cloaks, bodices, skirts, hats, purses and dresses.

The fifteen items date from 1903 – 1935, with a few labelled 19th century. The collection, with a wide range of garments, styles, colours, details and fabrics, intricate hand embroidery, hand sewn fastenings, lacework, tulle and copious amounts of silk, is a testament to the wide range of skills and techniques employed at W R Grieve.

Image reproduced courtesy of Glasgow Museums

The collection is predominantly formal woman’s wear; there are no socks, shoes or undergarments, no working clothes and no items of male clothing. Written notes accompanying a glamorous feather hat and matching lace and velvet dress explain they were both worn at Holyrood. Perhaps these items tell us as much about collecting and preservation conventions as it does about the history of W.R. Grieve. The collection tells a story of 19th – mid 20th century glamour in Glasgow.

Image reproduced courtesy of Glasgow Museums

A white bodice and an accompanying skirt both adorned with layers of lace, delicate trimmings, white silk bows and scalloped edges lay on the table in front of me; presumably an outfit for a bride. I unfold the bodice to reveal a fully intact cream silk lining, hand stitched boning and metal clasps. A gold silk tie is embroidered with ‘W R Grieve’ and an accompanying emblem. Although this well preserved and little worn set is in almost immaculate condition, could the stains on the elbow and down the front tell us a story of the bride’s celebratory wedding feast?

Image reproduced courtesy of Glasgow Museums

Another nineteenth century bodice and skirt lay next to this wedding set. Made from heavy white satin silk with a cream silk lining, this pair is less ornate but still formal and are decorated with a delicate hand painted rose motif. The curator and I discuss this as amateur decoration, perhaps an effort of the owner to repurpose what also might have been a wedding dress. I unfold the bodice to find another tie embroidered with ‘W R Grieve’ and an accompanying emblem, but also wear on the neck of the lining, sweat stains under the arms and a small loosely stitched label ‘Mrs Paterson.’ These items show us not just the history of W R Grieve, but intimate clues to the social history of the lives of those who wore them.

Image reproduced courtesy of Glasgow Museums

Through the hand painted rose motifs, I am reminded of Margaret Macdonald – artist, designer and also partner to Charles Rennie Mackintosh. A client of W. R. Grieve, she added her own beads and embroidery to the items she purchased. The creativity of Margaret Macdonald, together with the artist who hand painted these rose motifs, and the immense range of designs skills employed by those who worked at W. R. Grieve itself all reflect Glasgow’s role in art and design in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe.