I can scarcely claim to have ever scaled the heights of fashion but as a typically pretentious adolescent I shared some of the dubious preferences of my contemporaries. A cornerstone of these preferences was a sneering contempt for Burton’s stores and their offer of unearned respectability in the form of made-to-measure suiting to be worn with white nylon shirts and skinny ties. These sartorial opinions were fraught with unconscious snobbery and anxiety about social class boundaries – especially the grey zone that existed where the aspirant working class overlapped with the lower middle class. One of the responsibilities of an art student in the 1960s was the obligation to display a transgressive fashion sense in defiance of middle class conformity. Only a minority with a flair for being ahead of the game fully discharged this duty and most of us took the easy way out by avoiding haircuts, wearing Levi jeans and smoking a lot of hand-rolled cigarettes. No Levi denim rested on Burton shelves, then a Burton customer would probably have been quite satisfied with Lee Coopers, widely despised by denimistas as poor imitations lacking authenticity.
The Sheffield postcard shows a classic Burton store from the inter-war period when their numbers climbed to a peak of 2,000. A light touch Art Deco flavour lent distinction to a Burton high street box, clearly designed to emulate a flagship cinema in scale and presence. Most of these stores were built for visibility with retail activities confined to the lower floors – the upper floors were let out either as office space or snooker halls, the latter ensuring a steady flow of potential customers past the shop windows. There was an Architect’s Department to implement the house-style and an emphasis on verticality by means of glazing and pilasters on Neo-Georgian or Neo-Classical façades. Portland stone, faience and black granite frontages decorated with elephant-head capitals were topped with ornamental parapets in a subdued Egyptian style. These photographs come from Abergavenny, Weston-Super-Mare and Hull, the last of which is the most extravagant with its black and gold colour scheme.
Burton is still present on the high street with over 400 stores having painfully adapted to the era of fashion tribalism and designer-labelled casual wear but the best efforts to position itself at the cutting-edge are persistently undermined by the long shadow of Alan Partridge. The original business model of freehold acquisitions has probably supplied the cushion that protected the name from extinction.