We don’t sell dresses, we dress ladies

She is the same age as the Queen and still runs her store, Elizabeth Pack in Ryde. Since the age of 15 she has devoted herself to maintaining the standards of yesteryear with collections for today’s ladies who lunch. Word of her clothes collection has even reached Japan! Martin Potter meets the doyenne of Island ladieswear.

It is one of life’s fixtures. While hotels go up and come down, while cafes change from slow food to fast food, while even the pier is about to change forever, Elizabeth Pack of Ryde, ladies’ departmental clothes store, remains firmly, incontrovertibly, the same.

And here, in the quiet calm of the store’s tearoom is the reason for this remarkable survivor in a changed world. Elizabeth Barrow has owned and run the shop since 1986.  She is, she confides, the same age as the Queen, and the more you talk to her the more fitting that seems. Her shop, after all, is to today’s dress shops what Buck House is to the average semi.

“We don’t sell dresses, we dress ladies,” intones Mrs Barrow. “Unless we make the lady look nice, we don’t make a sale. If she’s loving the dress, you feel you’ve done a good job and you get satisfaction.”

The family carried on the business begun by their parents. It was as a young child sitting on the steps of her parents’ shop workroom that Elizabeth learnt the rudiments of her trade. “I sat for hours listening to the girls in the shop serving. I always had a shop in the nursery – I couldn’t help myself!” she laughs.

She was born in Salisbury, where her parents, originally from the Island, had a shop with the eponymous name Guys. In 1938 her mother, Winifred Guy, convinced of the imminence of war, declared she would not bring up a family in a military town, so in March ’39 they bought an established ladies’ fashion business in Totland Bay, Susan Culliford’s. Elizabeth was 12. Her father went into the army the following year, leaving his wife with a family of four.

It was a tricky time to establish a new business – the women in the substantial workroom were all called up – but Elizabeth’s mother’s business acumen and the special circumstances thrown up by war ensured the success of Cullifords. The business was greatly helped when a Land Army recruit came and asked her mother for a job; she had been head of the children’s coat workroom at Jolly’s of Bath. “Mrs Hughes was a super woman, very helpful to me. But she went back to Bath to have a baby, shortly before Bath was blitzed. We always wondered what happened to her.”

Of course people are always going to need clothes, but the war threw up particular difficulties. “People needed clothes and they had the money – but money was not worth anything if you didn’t have coupons. You needed seven coupons to buy a dress, 18 to buy a coat and five to buy a pair of shoes. Mother would take brown envelopes of 100 coupons and bank them like money,” recalls Mrs Barrow.

On a buying trip to London, Mrs Guy’s bundles of coupons would enable clothes to be dispatched that day by passenger train to Lymington, then by boat – with a carrier called Mr Calloway, Mrs Barrow remembers – and they would be in the shop by 11o’clock the following day. “Now it is a minimum of a week before clothes arrive,” Mrs Barrow sighs.

She was witness to the changes brought by war to a way of life. “Before the war the large houses in West Wight were opened at Easter and closed at the end of the season. In the war they were requisitioned, and were full of troops. But the Totland Bay Hotel was taken over by the Queen Alexandra nurses, and they became good customers.”

After the war the family opened a shop in Yarmouth, and took over Fanny Trinder in Seaview. In the early ’50s they took over Packs, and Rice & Rice in Shanklin, and with a marketing acumen which seems ahead of its time, realised the names Culliford and Packs were too valuable to shed. The names were merged to become Pack & Culliford. The shops were on two sites in Ryde. True to her calling, Elizabeth married in the trade:  Eric Barrow owned a firm called Sally Pigtails which supplied Pack’s children’s department. Mrs Barrows’ mother died in 1981, her husband only five years later, and neither her brother, David Guy, nor her sister and brother-in-law Gillian and Bill Moody, wanted to carry on with the business.

“I’d lost my husband, my son was in London. I thought: ‘I’ll have my own shop!’” Mrs Barrow says. When the freeholders of the current shop in Cross Street asked her to take it on – because it needed, for planning purposes, to stay as one large shop – she jumped at it. Her friendly bank manager thought it a good idea, and supported her again when the chance to buy the freehold came up. “And I got it!” she says triumphantly. As Pack & Culliford closed on Sept 30, 1987. Elizabeth Pack opened on October 1st in the Cross Street premises.

She relishes past and present triumphs. She has just finished fitting a bride and her bridesmaids, and says “She looks lovely: in a dress with character, which is fitted perfectly.”

And word does get around. One day she had a call asking if she had a long-sleeved black evening gown – preferably beaded. “I asked the lady her size, said I thought I had just the dress, and would she hold on,” said Mrs Barrow. “I apologised for keeping her, and she said it was ok but ‘I am calling from Tokyo.’!”

“I fitted the dress on a young lady working here who I guessed to be about the size of the lady – who of course I hadn’t seen and never would see. Some time after I sent the dress off, I received a call from Japan. The dress was absolutely wonderful, and perfect for the grand reception it was needed for!”

And how had her client – for whom the dress was perfect – come to hear about Mrs Elizabeth Pack? “She had seen an advertisement in the local press, which a friend had taken out to her. She could tell by the character of the advertisement that it was her type of shop.”

Character is indeed the essence of Elizabeth Pack. The shop oozes old-world values – a notice thanks you for turning off your mobile phone as you enter – yet the stock is not fusty, and ranges from the traditional to flamboyant for smart ladies who want to cut a dash. Mrs Barrow still does all the buying for the shop, but drives a hard bargain. “If I think a dress is not good value I just tell them to put it away and show me something else,” she smiles.

“You have to be a gambler.” She’s just been buying for next summer’s range, and what is in the shop now was bought months ago. “You have to know what is right for your clients and that you’re going to sell it.” Watching trends in the press, as well as attending the shows herself, causes her a little wry humour. “A lot of styles in now are very Edwardian. I think godfathers! My grandmother had a dress like that!”

The way the young dress saddens Mrs Barrow. She deplores low-rise trousers and bare tummies. “Young people are not being guided to dress properly when they are teenagers. That will show in later life.” And as for the size of women today: – “They‘re huge! We’ve never had so many large ladies as we’re getting now. Years ago, when girls became young ladies, they wore underwear that shaped their bodies. Now, they could wear light body suits. But they don’t wear them.”

Her staff are loyal; Dorothy in the office has been with her ‘donkey’s years’, Sue Fowler trained with her from school and Maureen Hyam has also spent many years with her. “In those days girls came in on a three year apprenticeship. They learnt about the underwear department, the dress department… They could tell you all about what they were selling. These days, you ask in a shop for something and they say (here Mrs Barrow adopts an insolent whine) ‘It’s over there.’ Appalling, absolutely appalling!”

And what does she think of the average high street clothes store? “Well, it’s a different market. Thousands of things all exactly the same. I always say we sell beautiful flowers, not Heinz Beans.”