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