London Couture at the V&A

 

I spent last Saturday at the Victoria & Albert Museum's "Study Day" of lectures in celebration of the new publication London Couture. See a glimpse of the beautiful new book here .

                London Couture 1923-1975 British Luxury

                London Couture 1923-1975 British Luxury

The lectures were given by contributors to the book tackling various subjects on London Couture's history:

 

 

 

Amy de la Haye, London's Court Dressmakers

Firstly Amy de la Haye set the scene to give us an idea of who these early couturiers were. Courturier was a legitimate career for a married Edwardian women, or a road to independence and success for a divorcee. Kate Reily was an example of a shrewd business woman using her creativity and cunning to keep up to date with the thirst for the latest fashions.

Even though Reily's original designs were highly praised, the British customer only had eyes for Parisienne models. In attending the show, Reilly would be obliged to purchase at least one model, but to get the most from it, she would send two buyers to view the new designs. With the idea that two heads were better than one. they would dash back to the hotel to sketch what they had seen to reproduce for their own customers on their return.

 

 

 

Born with Silver Scissors

We learn of prestigious dressmaker, Madam Clapham of Hull who made a point of not paying her apprentices as she wanted girls from "good families". She felt that those from a wealthy family who could support them, they would be a better class of trainee. Sadly this excluded many talented individuals born without a pair of silver scissors in their hands, unable to learn by working full time for free.

This is still affecting the fashion industry today. Many designer brands have been criticized that their unpaid intern-ships are elitist,  allowing only a lucky few from privileged backgrounds to gain valuable experience with them to get the best start with their careers. 

 

                                               c.1937 Hand embroidery class - 1 Collection London College of Fashion - College Archive 

                                               c.1937 Hand embroidery class - 1 Collection London College of Fashion - College Archive 

 

Edwina Ehrman, A Brief History

Edwina tells us of the shift in dressmakers of the 20s and 30s. The new favourites were young men like Norman Hartnell with a creative approach and an understanding of the glamorous lifestyle of their clientèle.  

 

A Shift in Dressmakers

These men socialised with their patrons, a complete contrast to the couturiers that pre-dated them who were so intimidating to wealthy out-of-towners they would often turn to department stores rather than seek out an illustrious dressmaker and face their scrutiny.

Norman Hartnell with his models in 1930 courtesy of Getty Archive

Norman Hartnell with his models in 1930 courtesy of Getty Archive

Even the term "Designer" was now coined to appeal to a wider audience, thanks to the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers aiming to boost trade overseas during WW2. I learned more about IncSoc at The Imperial War Museums "Fashion on The Ration" exhibition, hopefully I'll share in another post soon, but here's some more info courtesy of wiki:

 

In March 1942 The Board of Trade invited the IncSoc members to design:

The iconic CC41 label, also known as "The Two Cheeses" there was also the double 11, much rarer and introduced to signify a finer quality item. Look out for these when out vintage shopping! 

The iconic CC41 label, also known as "The Two Cheeses" there was also the double 11, much rarer and introduced to signify a finer quality item. Look out for these when out vintage shopping! 

 

"34 utility garments suitable for mass manufacture in order to demonstrate how high-fashion elegance could be achieved within the strict rationing restrictions"
The designs were featured in Vogue magazine,
"Known as the Couturier Scheme, the project had a very high profile in the press at the time with a fashion show held to launch the clothes"-wikipedia

 

 

                                                                          Pages showing Edwina's chapters in the book London Couture

                                                                          Pages showing Edwina's chapters in the book London Couture

 

Parallels can be drawn to modern high street giant H&M's collaborations with elite houses and designers like Margiela, Stella McCartney and Karl Lagerfield bringing their signature style to a mass market on a global scale. (You can view previous H&M collaborations here). The most recent collaboration with Balmain has even seen their sell out pieces fetch more in online auctions than original Balmain garments!

Balmain x H&M another hugely popular collaboration between couture and high street giants which hit stores in November

Balmain x H&M another hugely popular collaboration between couture and high street giants which hit stores in November

 

"Revealed this morning in all its embellished, whipstitched, skintight glory and, as expected, there's not one item that hasn't got wish list written all over it."

Vogue Magazine on the most recent, highly anticipated collaboration of Balmain for H&M

 

 

Joyce Fenton-Douglas, The Ancillary Trades

H&M fans have complained that the retail prices of the Balmain collaboration are too high, going into hundreds for some of the more embellished and leather pieces, which is a big step up for a high street chain with average prices usually at £14.99. However even a few hundred is still a fraction of the thousands that the official couture collections from Balmain can cost when bedecked in the finest materials. This is something Joyce Fenton-Douglas brought up when talking about the Ancillary Trades.

            Reville Rossiter trompe l'oeil tassel detail from a couture garment from 1919

"WOW" Factor

Couture dressmakers relied (and still do) on the Ancillary Trades for specialised skills, such as pleating, embroidery and embellishments. Rather than just the finishing touches, these can be the most desirable aspect of a whole design or be the structural basis for a garment.

These can provide the instant wow factor that gives you the fist sign that this is a special, more luxurious item.

 

 

 

Secret Skills

This charming video below was brought to our attention in the lectures. It shows the Australian maker Harry Nairn hand cutting, shaping, dying and assembling all the individual parts of a silk flower in his own workspace at home. 

Couture houses would historically send "matchers" to the addresses of specialised makers. These girls would seek out matching flowers, trimmings or other embellishments in the very particular shades or styles necessary to co-ordinate with the fabrics for the garments.

The names and addresses of the top artisans would be their best kept secrets to give them the winning edge against competitors.  Although flattering, this was unfortunate for these highly skilled individuals, trying to maintain a living by providing an already niche service.

Harry Nairn who makes intricate artificial flowers. We see him cutting out petals, colouring them, shaping them with a heated metal tool then crimping petals. We see a pink rose taking shape as Harry moulds the petals around wire.

A Sign of Superior Quality

Joyce did highlight the fact that today's top couture designers will still work with modern artisans for these embellishments, utilising very labour intensive techniques. This gives them the maximum impact for the catwalk as well as distinguishing them from the follow-on designer copies which although can often get a close general look, will never be able to feature these specialist skills which take such a long time to produce in the originals.

 

Beatrice Behlen, Clients

The women who can tell these extra special pieces from the inferiors are the subject of Beatrice Behlen's talk. We learn of the rarity of these couture clients which the industry relied on and the relationships they had, often choosing only one particular couturier. Being polite and prompt payment made a client very liked and appreciated.

The couturier would send sketches of the design to their clients for their approval receiving back comments such as "Like V.much" or  "Nice, but what's the Price???"

The couturier would send sketches of the design to their clients for their approval receiving back comments such as "Like V.much" or  "Nice, but what's the Price???"

 

Textile Timeline, The life of Lady Fox

Beatrice was even able to trace the life of one such client, Lady Fox, using society columns alongside the garments she had procured to see her defining style as a textile timeline to her life. As an early adopter she knew her stuff and designers would rely on patrons like Lady Fox to invest in their work.

The term "working wardrobe" came up quite often in these talks. For these women it was part of their lifestyle to have these clothes, fit for the purpose of each area of their lives, whether it was salmon fishing in the Highlands or cruising along the Dalmatian Coast. Although extravagant in our terms the cost of these pieces meant they would fit well and be made of the best natural materials or heritage fabrics, returned to year after year so they would  have to last well.

 

 

Timothy Long, Constructing Couture

Timothy told us how he originally delved into the world of couturier Charles James after discovering a collection of his garments wrapped up on mannequins in an archive he was working in.

Without formal dressmaking training Charles James had a unique approach heavily influenced by his millinery experience. We learn that to create his amazing garments, James would create hand sculpted abstract forms more like a block or last than a mannequin. By using these to create a garment it would have unexpected and new shapes, fitting the body in a different way than conventional dressmaking which relied on padding and corsets to fill and fit the body into a desired shape.

Charles James “Butterfly”, 1954. © Getty Images

Charles James “Butterfly”, 1954. © Getty Images

Charles James also used hidden architecture but with alternative materials for a new spin. Structures were formed by heating plastic to mould and form the unusually shaped skirt  as seen in his famous "Clover Leaf" dress formed into the four portions of the leaves. 

Charles James "Clover Leaf" Dress from 1953.

Charles James "Clover Leaf" Dress from 1953.

To gain insight into the internal structures of these magnificent shapes they even used technology such as hospital scanners to discover the secrets used by the celebrated dressmaker. 

Fashion to Transform

Although he had  a temperament and hands-on approach of a passionate artist, James was also an incredibly technical designer. The women who bough his garments were in love with how they made them look and feel. Charles was a pioneer in understanding how fabrics worked, using them in new ways to accentuate a women's body with a fanatical amount of study going into investigating and harnessing the powerful effect of materials. James was famously quoted in saying;

"Make The Grain Do The Work"

 

These garments were thoughtfully engineered, and this combination of vision and technique along with the support socially from Cecil Beaton and the wealthy friends of James' Mother gave him both the exposure and clientèle for his unique designs.

                                                                 A Charles James design repeated in a later variation. © Getty Images

                                                                 A Charles James design repeated in a later variation. © Getty Images

 

Exciting & Contemporary

Timothy showed us how Charles James used the same designs again and again, taking patterns from many years previous to make a new version. It is proof that if something works well for the body, it always will and the lasting beauty and desirability of great design. This is why gowns by designers like Charles James have held such appeal and can be worn today looking as exciting and contemporary to a modern audience. This was celebrated in the exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art last year, of which you can take a video tour with the curators here:

 

 

Jonathan Faiers, The Timelessness That Ran Out of Time

For all the appeal of couture as a sight to behold, the "London Look" was never going to last and this was explained by Jonathan Fairs. The "uniform" which was relied upon to give strength and order to British society during the Second World War was no longer required. 

 

Using examples from the media coverage of couture in the mid 20th Century we can see how although beautiful, the elaborate gowns and traditions they represented were out of place in this post-war era.

Evening dress by Rahvis, for British Vogue, June 1947 Photo by Clifford Coffin

Evening dress by Rahvis, for British Vogue, June 1947

Photo by Clifford Coffin

Beautiful Ghosts

One iconic editorial photographed by Clifford Coffin shows elegant models poised amongst the bombed out structure of a London mansion, intended to be "still standing strong & untouched" by the war but instead they appear as if haunting the desolate space as  beautiful ghosts of the past.

 

 

 

A New Era of Cool 

Outside the Biba store in 60s London

Outside the Biba store in 60s London

 

New designers were setting up their own ready to wear boutiques. Rather than the high price demanded by fine, fashionable garments, the 60s sought a new cutting edge of style where being made quickly was a bonus rather than a sign of inferiority. The quick turnaround meant it could be seen on TV and bought the next day. Instead of being confined to the high spends of the rich these new fashions were available for anyone brave enough to wear them creating new fashion muses and customers in a world outside that of the débutantes at their elite functions. 

 

Rule Breaking Youth

It was a free for all with young girls earning their own wage to buy their new clothes or even steal them in the famous Biba store where it was almost too easy to shoplift these must have exciting pieces, made for the rule breaking youth culture.

                                     A mad dash by Biba staff taking the fashion directly through the city streets as Biba changed premises

                                     A mad dash by Biba staff taking the fashion directly through the city streets as Biba changed premises

"Girls For Girls"

These women wanted to make their own future and forget the past. Biba founder, Barbara Hulanicki was the eldest of three girls, raised by her mother and aunt following the assassination of her diplomat father by paramilitaries.

 

Biba Founder, Barbara Hulanicki made the highstreet luxurious and exciting with her original designs and enticing concept stores

Biba Founder, Barbara Hulanicki made the highstreet luxurious and exciting with her original designs and enticing concept stores

 

Hulaniki described Biba as run by "Girls for Girls".  She explains in an interview with the independent Nov 2014;

“That’s why in Biba we only had women,

  “It was meant to be for girls in the street. They were earning money and they had nowhere to go. "

Biba-sales-girls-.jpg

 

Future of Couture

As in the overview from the corresponding lectures The V&As new book London Couture shows us many of it's historical aspects. For an industry which catered to the very rich and relied on highly skilled specialists we see how Britain firstly followed, then lead triumphantly, and eventually faded as the times changed and people's needs also.

But London is a thriving city of Fashion, so what can we learn from London's Couture past to use today?

ORIGINAL & BEST QUALITY

  • Ancillary Trades and original, specialised artisans are still necessary to create the finest fashion. Our leading British designers like Mary Katranzou rely on quality embellishments to set their designs apart from the follow on copies

 

INSPIRATIONAL

 

INVEST IN THE BEST

  • Good quality lasts: vintage fashion has become a whole industry in itself, with concessions in high street giants like Topshop and even huge standalone stores, with branches in multiple cities like Cow. These pieces have lasted, can we say the same will be seen of some of the the cheaply made clothes we buy in bulk today?

 

YOUR COUTURE

  • Although few of us can afford the luxury of couture, we can take a lesson from the way these women built their "Working Wardrobe".

With constant "Sales" emails from online shopping deals and (alarmingly!) low prices from competing retailers it's easy to be tempted to purchase without any consideration or too much consequence but each "cheap bargain" eventually adds up...

In resisting a few more of these it may result in affording a smaller, yet much more usable & better quality wardrobe to look and feel our individual best, which to me is a bit of British Luxury we all deserve.

London Couture: British Luxury 1923 - 1975 is available in the V&A and online  bookshop here. See below for a sneak peek: