Tag Archives: couture

Couture and a Grumble


The Fashion and Textile Museum on Bermondsey Street is a gem.

I spent an afternoon in the company of Dennis Nothdruft, curator of the recent Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies exhibition, looking intimately (and fiddling with gloved hands) at examples of British couture and French Haute Couture from the 1940s onwards. I’m always taken aback to find that the insides of couture frocks, even the Diors, are unlined, their innards really quite raw with strategic pieces of elastic straggled across the insides of bodices like cooked spaghetti. 

I went to see the Hartnell/Amies exhibition hoping that my opinion of British couture would change, that I would find something glorious over which to swoon. I didn’t. I felt exactly the same ambivalence at the V & A’s couture exhibition a couple of years ago: the French stuff is adventurous and covetable; the British, a little obvious in its embellishments and ever so slightly dour. Perhaps it’s the exhibitionist streak in me, the throw-caution-to-the-wind provocative side that’s not too bothered about good manners (in some things) and that’s what these clothes reminded me of: jolly good manners and respectability.

Is it any wonder that we don’t have a modern British couture industry on a par with that of France?

We had the talent and lots of it…Hartnell, Amies, Molyneux, Worth, Morton, Stiebel, Creed to name a few all had couture houses in London by the 1950s and employed British pleaters, furriers, embroiderers, accessory designers and manufacturers. But: we still had rationing, little support from central government (couturiers had to pay tax at 22% on sales each quarter) and although expensive fabrics were made in Britain, most were exported. Paris was seen as the bastion of taste, had a long tradition of couture and its couturiers could command higher prices. It also had government backing and a large pool of highly skilled workers. It’s not surprising that British couturiers were a little risk averse in the experimental design department and chose to produce small, wearable collections with the events of the social season in mind. Not surprising then that these frocks really don’t float my goat (I know it’s ‘boat’ but ‘goat’ makes me smile).

The French government the and Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture are justifiably proud and protective of the French couture industry. It’s tightly regulated and the list of accepted Haute Couture houses changes each season, for that season. Exclusivity is prized and, as anyone with a whiff of economic nouse knows, there is value in scarcity. A canny political stance in the current climate where sales of luxury goods are rising and appear to be defying the economic doldrums. Anyone can beetle on down to Selfridges and pick up a dress off the peg for a couple of grand or a coat for a couple more, and if money’s really no object then why not have something a little more exclusive? Valentino’s Haute Couture sales rose 80% in 2010/11 (Guardian newspaper 23.01.12), Armani’s, 50%. 

We do have Savile Row (and a few other hotspots of tailoring talent), however, and I defy anyone vaguely interested in fashion not to be in awe of the skill of the tailor and protective of it. Perhaps this is our British equivalent? Covetable, hand made, crafted clothes. I can swoon very easily over a Savile Row cuff or lapel or buttonhole.  Those in positions of power, particularly with reference to local planning legislation, ought to be charged with protecting Savile Row’s identity: it’s not simply a street of attractive shop fronts but a place of industry. A treasure and one under threat.


Pigs might well fly.

Rant over.


Photographs: Norman Parkinson and Stephanie Wolff



Filed under dressmaking, fashion, sewing


Coral dress Valentino


…..exhibition at Somerset House

What can I say? It’s couture. It’s glorious. It’s (mostly) not me.

I’ve never been a Valentino sort of girl: his clothes are just not austere enough for me – a bit too heavy handed in the ornate beading department. They’ve always reminded me of the opening credits to Dallas – couture blouses and miniscule chiffoned pleating, all terribly matching. Indeed, the clothes on show from that era are overly worked, encrusted and pleated within an inch of their lives and I gave the embroiderers and beaders a nod of appreciation and moved on. Nor did I think that lace was really up my street but the incrostazioni (applique of cut lace onto tulle) incorporated into 1970s bell sleeved long georgette dresses, the colour of Jersey milk, were exquisitely judged – slender restrained whisps of frocks perfect in their execution. And extremely wearable nearly 40 years on. They were my favourites. They remind me of candles and dinner parties and Californian beaches and long easy hair (a bit Charlie’s Angels).

I was surprised at how many of his clothes are sculpted and restrained (as well as the extravagantly fluted and pleated) particularly in the 1960s: a high collared black silk satin evening jacket heavy with jet fringing and a neatly pocketed green silk trapeze dress. His use of kimono sleeves rather than set in sleeves (sleeves which are a continuation of the bodice with a seam along the length of the arm, often with a triangular gusset set in under the arms which allow a garment to be snug but retain its fluidity) make his early clothes look immensely tactile and very comfortable. Such a different feel to the pinched in, tight jacket sleeves of the 2000s which just look mean, for women who don’t really eat.

There is such joy in this exhibition: Valentino has clearly made a lot of (very wealthy) women very happy. Happy because they can afford couture (I expect for some) or happy because these clothes are a joy to wear, because someone has carefully stitched and beaded and embroidered and created something of immense quality. And I take a lesson from it: be bold, wear colour, puff up those skirts and twirl a bit. Stick your chin out and be a woman.

This is a rich, important and exciting exhibition. It reaffirms the importance of fashion as an industry and doesn’t apologise for fashion’s frivolity. It’s a joy. Go and see it.

(Oh…and there’s always room in your summer wardrobe for a short cream heavy silk jacket in an easy shape with 3/4 sleeves…and a few beads…).


Filed under dressmaking, embroidery, fashion, sewing

Little Black Dress #2

It’s not that little really, in fact, its pretty long.

Party, especially ‘party’ so close to Christmas says ‘long’ to me. I like a bit of a sweep and there are far too few occasions on which sweep is acceptable, so I grab sweep when it’s offered…I think I’ll be the only one again. I can’t help my head being stuck in an MGM extravaganza and firmly attached to Fred Astaire…a dissolute childhood: sunny day, curtains closed against the glare, long frocks and dancing…

I’ve also been having a couture moment. Heaven only knows why when I’ve got Christmas looming and I’m sleep-talking lists and having night panics about stuffing and whether half a bottle of cognac is enough to see us through….Anyhow, I decided that hand stitching the facings and belt would be a good thing, a nod to the tiny, and not always regular, elf-stitched underpinnings of couture. I do like the insides of garments, they tell a story of pricked fingers and relentless unpicking and swearing at the illogical skew-whiffedness and sheer bloody-mindedness of some fabrics….

So here it is. The frock for the sparkly party….all neat and carefree on the outside and stitched into submission on the inside. I put green glass beads on the edges of the belt…my nod to sparkle (and there was plenty of the real stuff there…). It’s made of heavy silk crepe and the braid for the belt came from India via the lovely Cloth House in Soho.

Still feeling a little fragile….


Filed under dressmaking, embroidery, sewing