When you think of fashion, railways might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But for a short time in the 1960s, British Railways was as ‘on trend’ as any major fashion label. Well, maybe.
Railway uniforms in the North East remained fairly consistent and traditional from the later days of the North Eastern Railway (NER) in the 1900s through to British Railways in the late 1950s. Public facing staff such as porters, guards and station masters wore Victorian suits, trousers, waistcoats and wool coats. Only the brass or silver buttons gave away the company and time period. From the Victorian scroll of the NER, the art deco fish eye of the LNER and the wheel of early British Railways, buttons were key to brand identity.
Buttons showing the difference between each era of Northern Railway companies, starting with the fancy scroll of the North Eastern Railways (NER), to the art deco London & North Eastern Railway (LNER), up to the traditional British Railway logo and then to the newer, stylish branding. Image courtesy of Head of Steam – Darlington Railway Museum.
There was a brief hint of glamour and change in the late 1920s and early 1930s during the age of the flapper and excess with the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) competing with the London Midland & Scottish to have the best service and design. Famous express trains were decadent and glamourous with hair salons and bespoke cocktails. Flying Scotsman and Silver Jubilee were a flash of new design in a traditional, almost Victorian world. The engines themselves were almost fashionable. The Second World War saw a revert back to austerity where function was needed over fashion.
When British Railways was formed in 1948, the company followed the pattern of their predecessors when it came to uniform; they remained largely the same with new buttons and cap badges being introduced. During this time until the late 1950s, the railways were seen as stuffy, outdated and traditional. Passenger numbers were declining as competition from road and air increased. A major rebrand was needed.
Dr Beeching is most famous for the dramatic cuts to the railways in the early 1960s. He was also responsible for the company’s major redesign. He realised the need for modernisation in all aspects including uniforms. As early as 1956 a design panel was appointed to undertake the change but staff uniforms were one of the last areas to be looked at in 1964.
The new corporate identity was unveiled in 1965 with a new logo leading the way. The logo was so successful that even after the end of British Railways in the 1990s, it remains as the national symbol for railway station. Most staff in the company were given new uniforms by the 1970s. The new uniforms were well received by both the unions and employees.
At Head of Steam – Darlington Railway Museum, we have a uniform from this period in our collection. It’s easy to see the inspiration from the competition with airlines. The suit could easily be mistaken for a pilot’s uniform. In later decades of British Railways there were further changes to uniforms with new materials such as polyester and new techniques such as moulded uniforms introduced. The focus had moved once again to function.
British Railways new design uniform which took inspiration from a pilots uniform, 1960s. Image courtesy of Head of Steam – Darlington Railway Museum.
British Railways uniform hat, with new logo on the front in silver. Image courtesy of Head of Steam – Darlington Railway Museum.
Many argue that the modernisation plan was a failure and was greatly overshadowed by the controversial cuts that happened alongside it. The railways were still known for poor customer service and value for money. But the corporate identity remained and it’s still well known today.
This blog has been guest written by Alison Grange, Collections and Learning Assistant at Head of Steam – Darlington Railway Museum.