I vowed that this year I’d BUY a winter coat. A coat that someone else had made. Cashmere. Sleek and expensive (I fancied – as in ideal but unobtainable – the red Dior, trapeze shaped, scarlet). My fingers would be saved from being needle-blunt-end punctured and I wouldn’t have to wrestle with placket pockets and broken machine needles. It’d be easy: present credit card, swathe oneself in the soft underbelly hair of a South American goat. I couldn’t do it though. I couldn’t find a decent coat that cost less then the price of a small car and I’ve worn down my shoe leather hauling my increasingly sad self from shop to shop to shop. So I made my winter coat again. Beautiful deep grey felted pure wool from the Cloth House and a cherry silk lining. I’ve worn it every day since I finished it a week last Thursday. Hope you like it….
Tag Archives: Dior
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.
Photographs: Norman Parkinson and Stephanie Wolff
Measuring. Pinning. Pricking my fingers. Unpinning. Re-measuring. Bending ’til my back hurts, cross-legged on the floor. Watching the rain pour into my garden, fill the pots, drown the shoots struggling for air. A claustrophobic day. Fiddling tiny dress with tiny pleats. Expensive, heavy, buttermilk silk; it stands without support, its bell skirt, imagining a small body inside. A dress for a bridesmaid.
This is the easy one, the one that will be enjoyed just because it’s big and swooshes. It could be made of anything: tin foil, old net curtains, plastic bags. It doesn’t matter because the imagination of the small girl wearing it will prevail.
The next one won’t be quite so free of scrutiny: the one for my daughter. I showed her a photograph of Dior’s duchesse satin ‘Zemire’ dress (1954). A mistake. Curses. Blast.
This is what she’d like. Please. For her bridesmaid’s dress. I smiled and said, “of course, darling girl” and kicked myself hard in the shin. In essence, it’s not really more than a tight bodice and a full skirt and she has a point: it is the most lovely dress and not overly sophisticated. A pretty good choice for a fledgling young woman. And the expensive, heavy, buttermilk silk will look a treat….
I’ve spent the day measuring and pinning boxpleats, making those tiny adjustments for waist and hip so that they fit perfectly. I’ve pinned and unpinned and eased and widened and narrowed til my eyes hurt but I think we’re there! I’m recycling a beautiful piece of Liberty silk which has already had one incarnation as a full, loose pleated skirt. The print is of boats and trees and water and is dove grey, a mustardy sort of yellow, black and blue. It’s been worn all over London, swishing north to Primrose Hill and south to Greenwich Park. It’s been boating in Regent’s Park and out to dinner in Soho but has been looking its age and almost made it to the drawer where things go before they get thrown away. It’s too beautiful for that so it’s been unpicked and washed and pressed and is on its way to loveliness again.
It’s done! The pleats are sewn down to about 8cm below waist and then left to hang naturally. It fits perfectly and swirls out fabulously. There is something about wearing full skirts that makes one feel grown up and womanly. They are extravagant in their fullness, they emphasise the sway of your hips and make your waist appear small. Their shape is that that all little girls draw and most grown up women avoid. As a child I played with my mother’s dresses from the 1950s and loved them and now regret bitterly her generosity in giving them to me. I climbed trees in them and made mud pies in them and left them in the garden after a hard day’s play. They were wonderful dresses with nipped in waists, minutely pleated bodices and acres of skirt. Day dresses made of cotton, one printed with leaves in all shades of green, and evening dresses in shell pink satin and deep, almost black, blue velvet. She must have been in her early 20s when she wore these dresses, so clearly inspired by Dior’s ‘New Look’ while I, in my 20s, clumped around in Dr Martens and hobble skirts, so long and tight that I could hardly move.
Full skirts make me smile a lot and is there anything nicer on a warm day than to feel silk rippling against bare legs?