The Professionalisation of Window Display in Britain, 1919–1939: modern styles, associations, and education

Kerry Meakin, Technological University Dublin

Document Type Theses, Ph.D

A dissertation submitted to Kingston University in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, 2022.


In the past forty years, the disciplines of retail, business, architectural and cultural history have all contributed to the study of department stores and other types of shops. However, these studies have only made passing references to window display and its role in retail, society and culture. This thesis focuses on the neglected subject of window display to uncover the ways in which display became a professional practice between 1919 and 1939. It argues that professionalisation in this period was the result of the interplay between three key developments: the shift in display styles, the emergence of an association, and the provision of education and training.

The overarching aim was to consider, the following questions: What conditions enabled window display to set out to become a professional practice in Britain? How did the practice change and develop during the inter-war period? This thesis took a qualitative approach, using primary sources – archives, journals, and books. Critical examination of these previously under-researched resources, such as the journal Display and the British Display Society’s archives at the V&A, aided in piecing together the evidence, visual and written, about people, events, organisations, exhibitions, and debates. Its methodology involved data collection and analysis. Three main themes that enabled British display professionalism emerged: namely the modernisation of display styles and the need for new knowledge and skills that they brought with them; the rise and roles played by associations, and the growth of education and training in the sector.

This thesis offers the first comprehensive account of the professionalisation of window display in Britain. A key event in British display was the arrival of American open display methods in 1909. The founding of the British Association of Display Men in 1919 was also crucial to the practice’s growth and success as a respected profession. This thesis examines the Association’s growth, achievements, and internal schisms. The third important development was the introduction of training and education through books, correspondence courses, international schools, Arts and Crafts schools, and dedicated schools of display.