Words – Haili Hughes
Model – Nina Bailey
Photographer – Terry McNamara
Dresses – Voodoo Vixen and Lindy Bop
Location – MilkJam, Manchester


Like many hobbies, vintage collecting has its ‘hot’ items. From Mexican, painted circle skirts to lush Polynesian pake muus, these items are snapped up quickly and are pride of place in people’s collections. But nothing seems to inspire such excitement and passion as the novelty print.

The design of the 1950s and 60s represent one of the most creative periods in history. A combination of a post war optimism and technological advances, resulted in amazing innovations in fashion and textiles which still inspire modern generations. Novelty prints – also known as conversational prints, often feature motifs and symbols that are themed. These can include places, activities, professions, or holidays. They can be very simple or serious, but many are very whimsical and it is often these that are the most desirable.

As a 40s, film noir style girl, I am much more interested in looking like a femme fatale: all huge shoulders, blouson sleeves and dramatic silhouettes. As such, novelty prints and their cute kitschness has never really been my thing. Yet, however much vintage trends come and go, there is something about novelty prints which keeps them at the top of the vintage collecting market. There are millions of collectors out there, all scouring vintage fairs, online auction sites and jumble sales for that elusive rare print.

Vintage enthusiast and avid collector, Holly Foster (@TheVintageGirl), has been a long-time collector of novelty prints – particularly Millworth, by the Millworth Textiles Corporation. She loves the unique quality of a novelty print item:

“Everything looks the same on the high street and even with vintage, there’s so much floral print that it’s nice to break the rules! I tend to choose prints that mean something to me. They say that clothes shouldn’t define a person but when I’m wearing novelty I feel like I’m sharing someone else’s story; they’re somehow more magical than “normal” vintage.

“I find them utterly charming and real conversation starters, which is what they were originally created for. I’ve got a Tachi Castillo leaf print skirt that always gets compliments because it’s so different. I also really like the more unusual prints, for example I have a beautiful seafood quilt print skirt. Novelty definitely tells a story.”

Another novelty print addict, Aloisia Williams (@aloisia_marie), first started collecting it because she was fed up of the ‘ditsy floral’ trend, so started looking for something more unique. She is now absolutely smitten with them and can’t buy anything else! So much so that her husband’s clothing has now been relegated to the airing cupboard in the hallway. She says:

“People who wear vintage, in my opinion, are looking for that unique piece and novelty is a great way to ensure that not many others will have what you have.

“I also love the more ‘taboo’ pieces, such as the Kachina dolls or even the Egyptian ones, which have controversial and superstitious connotations; I even have a tobacco print dress and I just love the fact the it was so socially acceptable to smoke that someone made a dress of cigarette packets! Perhaps one of my quirkier finds was a Horrockses’ nut print skirt, which my family said suited me!”

Both ladies agree that the appeal of them is greater now than it was then. Prices have been driven up so much that they are getting harder to afford or even to find out there in the vintage wilderness. In an age where individuality is more prized, unusual garments and designs get a lot more press, so they are snapped up quickly and sometimes go for exorbitant prices. I recently saw a well-preserved rose and cobweb, rayon, print dress sell for over £1500 on an internet auction site!

For those of us whose wallet is too empty, or whose waist is too voluptuous for the often-tiny sizes, there is a plethora of repro companies who are creating vintage inspired novelty print dresses and skirts that will inject a spark of fun into any wardrobe: Voodoo Vixen, Lindy Bop, Cath Kidston and Pin Up Girl Clothing to name a few. One brand which has made a real name for themselves in the modern novelty print market is Call Me Betty ( Owner and designer, Elizabeth Hornsey has always loved novelty prints, so when she launched her own label in 2009, novelty prints were always going to be a big part of it. Elizabeth said:

“When I started out with CMB I began with the polka dots and florals and I do love that look, but I think the attraction for novelty prints is that juxtaposition of using peculiar prints, which look almost out of place on the very traditional 50’s vintage shapes. I think that’s been a lot of what sets my brand apart from other repro brands; I’m not afraid to pick the most funky, fun, dark or sometimes ridiculous prints, because that’s what I love!

“Customers enjoy these prints and keep choosing them because repro brands offering polka dots and pretty tea roses are ten a penny, they want that beautiful flattering nip and flare, or wiggle shape but with something extra that makes them stand out from the crowd. I hope I offer them that.”

One thing is for sure, novelty prints are here to stay. They are a trend which have lasted over 60 years and are still inspiring designers of today – so I may let my hair down and have a bit of whimsical fun.

Lisa Harrison
Written by Lisa Harrison
Lisa is the Deputy Editor of Vintage Life Magazine and Publisher at Dragoon Publishing. She is avid bookworm, collector of vintage homeware, loves travel, lazy weekends away and eats way too much cake!