Tag Archives: Savile Row

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

The Hazards of Long

Last night I went out to the 50th birthday party of a good friend. It was held in a small private members’ club not far from St Martin-in-the-Fields and I’ve passed its entrance many times: a simple anonymous front door with only a tarnished brass plate to identify it as having hidden attractions. Part of the delight of being invited to all things social is the bittersweet contemplation of what to wear and last night I chose to go long. Sun ray pleated orange long. Burnt orange, I should add, not the orange of frozen lollipops, and even that tempered by a black fluted-sleeved top.

I didn’t know many of the people who would be going and clothes are an invaluable resource when it comes to establishing something of the character of strangers. We make huge assumptions about people based on what they wear and I’m not convinced by those who tell me that clothes don’t matter. Even someone who disparages fashion as frivolous has, by default, bothered about their own attire. Anyhow, I’m not quite certain what orange says about me and perhaps its best not to delve but I’m always interested to see what other people wear, men and women, and I notice the detail: the quality of fabric, the stitching, the fit. It’s the first step in de-coding someone’s character.

Immediately on entering the club, there is a very narrow and very steep staircase which I climbed with all the grace of an elephant. It took one step onto the hem of my skirt and I fell like a log and, like trying to stand up after falling over on ice, it gets worse before it improves. I did reach the top, mostly by crawling, and entered the room in disarray, in a fug of expletives having untangled myself and having thrown my skirt’s voluminous mass over my shoulder. It was very far from being an elegant and gracious entrance. ‘Buffoon’ comes to mind.

My hostess looked lovely in black georgette devore and there were a few beautifully cut Savile Row suits about the place. You can always tell Savile Row: those perfect, fat seams and their precise fit. They are a joy. There was also a lot of ordinariness and a fair amount of scruff. A fine and fascinating mixture.

There’s always the possibility, at socials, of meeting someone who could become a client and I met someone last night who seemed very keen in becoming one. Therein lies the problem. There are some people from whom I run both physically and metaphorically and she was one such person. I’m generally pretty affable and accommodating but there is a limit and I can see ‘awkward’ a mile off. I’ve had difficult clients and it’s torture so I shall graciously decline……

An excellent party.



Filed under oddbods