Going Under: Diving Suits through History

Serious exploration of the underwater world began in the early 17th century, when the first submarine was invented by Dutch physician Cornelis Drebbel.  Then, the environment beneath the sea was considered the most dangerous and mysterious on earth – long before the prospect of exploring environments, such as outer space, was even feasible.

The invention of individual diving suits in the early 18th century allowed a more refined exploration of the ocean depths.  The initial drive for the creation of diving suits was to aid salvage missions, at a time when many ships (carrying many treasures) were lost to the ocean on perilous journeys.  The first diving suits were designed in 1710s and in 1715, English inventor John Lethbridge created the first fully-enclosed suit, consisting of watertight sleeves, a pressurised air filled barrel and a viewing hole.

These basic elements formed the foundation for the design of future diving apparatus, the technological advances of which were covered regularly in illustrated scientific periodicals of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  Expeditions to ships sunken in WWI and WWII, fueled by public intrigue and fascination, were often dramatically illustrated in the likes of newspapers such as the Italian Sunday supplement; “La Domenica Del Corriere” and the French illustrated supplement “Le Petit Parisien”, with bold and vivid interpretations of almost robotic-like diving suits placed in otherworldly environments.

Early diving suits, far away from today’s equivalent, continue to be well-received in popular culture as a representation of the quirky and bizarre, due to their odd appearance and design aesthetics and for their kitsch, retro-futurist elements.  Film and television characters in early diving suits have appeared in cult productions, think the Ghost of Captain Cutler in Scooby Doo – this eerie, glowing and growling deep sea diver is of the show’s most popular villains (Below: Captain Cutler in SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED, 2004, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection).

SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED, 2004, (c) Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection
For anyone enchanted by the exploration of the undersea world and have an appreciation for unusual design; the photographs and illustrations of early diving suits held by the Mary Evans Picture Library are a joy to behold.

FREMINET'S MACHINE

Above: French inventor Freminet’s ‘Machine Hydrostatique’ which incorporates something like a  modern diving suit combined  with an air tank.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Pesce, ‘Navigation sous- marine’, 1772.

KLINGERT'S DIVING SUIT 1

Above: Klingert’s diving suit and apparatus.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la Science’ volume 4 page 637, 1797.


AMBER-HUNTER'S SUIT

Left: Cabirol’s diving suit combines effective protection with considerable ease of movement, the two basic requirements for working underwater.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 639, 1856.

Above: Diving dress and equipment of an amber hunter.  Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 639, 1856.

Right: A state-of-the-art diving suit of the late 19th century, made of rubber and fitted with an emergency air tank, just in case the unthinkable should happen… Engraving by an unnamed artist in Louis Figuier, ‘Merveilles de la science’ volume four, page 655, 1875.


DIVING SUIT 1922

Left: Diving suit designed for work on the ‘Lusitania’, sunk during World War One and lying at a depth of 80 metres.  Unnamed artist in ‘Le Petit Journal’ 17 December 1922

Right: Divers explore the wrecks of vessels torpedoed during World War One: the amazing suit on the left is specially designed for very deep dives.  Unnamed artist in ‘Le Petit Journal’ 23 May 1920.

 Deep-sea diving suit, for salvage work on HMS 'M1' subrine

Above: A German deep-sea diving suit brought from Kiel for examining the lost submarine ‘M1’. On 21 November 1925, while on an exercise in the English Channel. The ‘M1’ submarine sank with the loss of her entire crew, the crew members appear to have tried to escape by flooding the interior and opening the escape hatch, but their bodies were never found. At the time the submarine was lying too deep to use ordinary diving apparatus. So the decision was made to ask for the assistance of Messrs. Neufeldt and Kuhnke, of Kiel, who specialized in deep-sea diving apparatus.

Diver in metal diving suit attached to cable

Left: A diver in an iron diving suit developed by a German company in Kiel, seen here being lowered into the sea, 1922.

Centre: A diver in an electrically controlled metal diving suit attached to a cable, ready to be lowered into the sea, c. 1924.

Right: A diver in a special iron diving suit is lowered into the sea attached to a cable, c. 1920.

Diving suit used during Lutine salvage operation

Left: Full figure of man in underwater diving suit, c 1940.

Centre: A man holds up a rubber diving suit used during one of many salvage operations of HMS Lutine, which sank off the Dutch coast during a storm in 1799. Photograph c. 1934.

Right: American inventor H.L. Bowdoin with his deep-sea diving suit. On the shoulders are two 1000 watt automobil lamps. 15th August 1931.

DIVING SUIT STRUGGLE

Above: A German underwater photographer struggles to get into his rubber diving suit, with a little help from his friends. Unattributed photograph for Barnaby’s Studios Ltd c. 1930s.

Diver

Above: William Walker, diver, who worked under Winchester Cathedral between 1906 and 1912.

 

Festive old Father Christmas

Nowadays, Father Christmas and Santa Claus are a more or less interchangeable festive character, typifying the spirit of good Christmas cheer.

‘Twas not ever thus however. In Britain, the 19th century Victorian revival of Christmas customs reinvigorated a folkloric figure of old Father Christmas that owed much to mummers plays, the Merry England of Walter Scott’s 1808 poem Marmion, and Thomas Hervey’s 1836 Book of Christmas. Hervey’s Father Christmas is dressed in a long robe and wears a holly crown, while his followers include Roast Beef, Plum Pudding, Wassail, Misrule and the Lord of Twelfth Night.

A Christmas parade by Alfred Crowquill
A Christmas Parade by Alfred Crowquill, from the Illustrated London News, December 1844, shows some of these characters processing through the snow.

 

We have other similar depictions of Father Christmas in the mid-19th century from the Illustrated London News and the Illustrated Times, which show the holly-adorned merrymaker having a pretty hedonistic time.

"Heaven Bless you Merry Gentlefolks let Nothing You Dismay," Page of Victorian men and women getting into the Christmas spirit! indulging themselves in food, drink and dance.
(Left) Jolly Old Christmas by Smyth in the Illustrated London News December 1844. (Right) Merry Christmas! by Kenny Meadows in A Holiday Book for Christmas and the New Year, 1840s

 

The figure of Santa Claus originated in the Dutch-American communities of the USA, with the 4th century Saint Nicholas giving us the name from the Dutch dialect word Sinterklaas. He was associated with the present-giving theme for good children much more than the English Father Christmas. Santa’s character was developed by Clement C. Moore’s 1823 poem A Visit from St Nicholas, otherwise known as ‘Twas the Night before Christmas. Many familiar motifs appear in this poem, including Santa’s sleigh and reindeer, his toys-via-chimney delivery preference, and his rosy cheeks, round belly and white beard. But his diminutive stature described in the poem (which logically he’d need for a trip down the chimney) hasn’t survived to the present day.

SANTA FILLING STOCKINGS
Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of 1931 depict the ‘jolly old elf’ St Nick

 

The later 19th century started to see a blurring of distinctions between Father Christmas and Santa Claus, and the crown of holly was sometimes replaced by a hood. In 1879 the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News commented, “he is generally a rollicking, robust old gentleman, with a wreath of holly round his head, a warm robe of brown trimmed with fur…I have also seen him in the window of a sweet-stuff shop with a hood over his venerable head”. In the States, caricaturist Thomas Nast’s version of Santa in Harper’s Weekly in the 1860s, further refined the image of modern Santa although it’s notable he still has the holly crown.

A pot-bellied Father Christmas with lots of presents. Date: circa 1870
Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, 1860s

The vibrant red that Santa has worn exclusively since around the 1930s was not his sole colour choice in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Father Christmas on cards and scraps can often be found in a rainbow of colours from green to blue to violet, as well as in brown and white. Red, the colour associated with St Nicholas (and a Coca-Cola advertising campaign in the early thirties), won through convincingly in the end.

Portrait of Father Christmas on a Christmas card
(Left) In green on a Christmas and New Year card, c.1890s. (Centre) In blue on a Christmas card with holly, C.1900s. (Right) In purple delivering presents on a postcard, 1908.

Santa Claus on a Christmas card

(Left) In white on a Victorian scrap. (Centre) In brown on a Christmas card, c.1890s. The goat is an interesting inclusion, chiming with Thomas Hervey’s 1836 personification of Old Father Christmas riding a yule goat. (Right) In red delivering presents, Lizzie (Lawson) Mack in ‘Old Father Christmas’, 1889.

The Tango Craze

With a new series of Strictly Come Dancing on our screens, we’ve taken an in-depth look at the original tango craze of 1913.

“Everybody’s doing the Tango, learning the Tango, talking the Tango or watching the Tango. Never, perhaps, has a dance become of such universal interest so quickly…” Thus opined The Sketch in November 1913, reflecting upon the incredible international popularity of ‘tango tea’ dance fever.

An illustration of the Tango in action

The craze for the Argentine tango in its latest incarnation began in Paris in 1912 as the thé dansant, so named from the practice of taking tea as a refresher between dances. The tango tea was rapturously embraced by Parisians of all classes, causing the caricaturist Sem to re-christen the capital ‘Tangoville’, and it wasn’t long before the trend had swept across Europe and beyond.

It’s difficult to over emphasize how enormously popular the tango tea had become by 1913. The prodigious coverage on all aspects of the craze in the illustrated magazines in our archive reveals a world in the throes of tangomania. Whether it was tango teas held at fashionable hotels, the latest steps explained or mocked, reviews of tango ‘exhibitions’ at the theatre or novelties such as tango dancing on roller skates,  the tango was everywhere.

WETFOOT TANGO 1913

Manufacturers embraced any opportunity, however tenuous, to ally their products to any aspect of the lucrative craze. Tango-legend has it that one enterprising dressmaker found himself with a glut of orange fabric, and taking advantage of the mania, re-named the colour “tango”, making it an instant hit. Adverts in the press plugged tango lessons, gramophone records and sheet music –and even tango boot polish.

An advertisement for tango lessons

However, the craze brought much more to the world than just a great merchandising opportunity: it also brought liberation. The new ‘tango’ corsets that offered increased flexibility, and skirts and even trousers that left feet clear for dancing, were designed to give women the freedom of movement required for dancing the tango properly. The physical liberation offered by the tango dress was a stark contrast to the constriction of the fashionable ‘hobble’ skirt, a big trend of 1910. Though women’s liberation would take more drastic forms in 1913 (in the same year, imprisoned suffragettes went on hunger strike, and Emily Davison threw herself under the king’s horse at Epsom Derby), the subtle changes wrought by the tango echo those elsewhere in society at that time.

The spread of the tango:the arrest of a militant suffragette
Everyone may have been talking about the tango, but it wasn’t all praise. Boycotted by some religious groups, the tango’s enemies saw not liberation, but moral degeneration. Unlike the more traditional dances of the period, the tango hold was an intimate embrace, which was perceived by some to have a corrupting influence. For an “unnamed peeress”, who wrote to The Times in disgust in May 1913, the dance was full of “scandalous travesties”.  The Illustrated London News cheerfully combined extracts of this letter with a retrospective on the polka, a dance which was also greeted with disgust in 1844, but went on to be widely adopted, and by 1913 was regarded as thoroughly tame.

As 1914 progressed, the passionate fervour for all-things-tango had begun to cool. Even before the First World War had begun, the dazzling magnesium flash of the tango tea had, almost as suddenly as it had burst onto the scene in Paris, burnt out. It was to survive, albeit in a different incarnation, to dance another day.

Tango Festival - London

The Last Curtsey – Debutantes & the London Season

If you’re passing through Bexley on the south-eastern fringes of London, then try to find time to seek out Hall Place, a Tudor hidden gem with extensive gardens a couple of minutes from the A2.  We’ve had connections with Hall Place for some time through Bexley Heritage Trust, whose archive we represent, but more recently we’ve collaborated with them on a new exhibition that opened just a fortnight ago, The Last Curtsey.  Inspired by one of Hall Place’s 20th century inhabitants, socialite Baba D’Erlanger, the exhibition aims to recreate the vanished world of that upper class phenomenon, the debutante.


Debs 1

Debutantes are something of a specialist subject here at the library. The magazines of the ILN archive, specifically The Tatler, The Sketch and The Bystander, were the bibles of the beau monde and consequently are filled each spring with every conceivable highlight of the ‘Season’ from the Royal Academy and Fourth of June to Ascot and Henley.  Alongside these delights were published photographs of the annual crop of ‘debs’ that were to be launched into society together with adverts for court gowns, hair stylists, West End couture houses and catering companies.  Source material doesn’t get much better.

DEBUTANTE PRESENTED

Debutantes of the Year, 1957

And we have form in terms of writing on the subject.  Some forty years ago, Mary and Hilary Evans were authors of  ‘The Party That Lasted 100 Days’, a highly illustrated and wry look at the late Victorian season and more recently, in 2013 I wrote a concise history in, ‘Debutantes & the London Season’ for Shire Books.

Debutantes about to be presented at court

The London Season, vestiges of which remain in some of today’s summer sporting and social fixtures, was the dominant feature of the social calendar, a three-month bonanza of events and parties during which the daughters of the upper classes made their ‘debuts’.  The girls and their families descended on the capital from country piles all around Britain to take part in an elaborate and protracted marathon of social interaction that culminated in them being presented at court where they would make their carefully-practised curtsey in front of the King and Queen.  Today, it’s a ritual that seems terribly archaic, and at times rather comic; an outmoded phenomenon that pandered to rigid class distinctions and judged the youthful participants purely on looks and breeding.  And yet, it is also rather glamorous, romantic – and terribly British.  After a modernising drive at Buckingham Palace in 1958, the last debs made their curtsey in March of that year, meaning 2018 marks the 60th anniversary.

"THE SUPREME MOMENT"

Their Majesties' Court by Sir John Lavery

Debutante queuing in the Mall by Rex Whistler

At Hall Place, the exhibition rooms, painted in soothing and elegant tones of lilac pink, take visitors through the debutantes’ typical first season and introduce us to a few key debs from the past including Baba but also the ravishing Henrietta Tiarks, fabulously wealthy Mary Ashley, sister of Edwina Mountbatten and the rebellious Nancy Cunard.  There are some exquisite gowns including a wasp-waisted example from the 1890, a cascading 1920s number and a glamorous strapless gown of mustard satin belonging to Elfrida Eden, one of 1958’s debs.  Curator Kirsty Macklen, who showed us around last week told us that Elfrida’s dress was bought from America, in order to avoid the ghastliness of turning up at a party in the same dress as someone else.  As well as the advertisements, magazine features and portraits lining the walls (50 of which come from Mary Evans, others from the archive at The Lady), there are some fascinating debutante accoutrements such as glove stretchers and papier poudre books (to keep a shiny nose at bay) as well as dance cards lent by Mary Evans and a couple of books from the inter-war period celebrating the debutante from my own collection at home.  For the full deb experience, you can try negotiating the complicated array of cutlery that might face an Edwardian lady sitting down to dinner, or squeeze into a ballgown and practise your curtsey to the Queen.  After just two weeks, the visitors’ comments at the end of the exhibition reflect a deeply felt nostalgia for this long-gone era, though no appetite for its revival in the 21st century.  Like many aspects of history, it is fun to learn more but it should remain exactly where it was left – in 1958.

Debs 3

Click here to see a selection of images from our archive on the subject https://www.hallplace.org.uk/events/debutantes-london-season/

‘The Last Curtsey – Etiquette and Elocution, the life of a debutante’ at Hall Place, Bexley, runs until 18th March 2018  https://www.hallplace.org.uk/exhibitions/

Luci will be giving a talk on ‘Debutantes and the London Season’ at Hall Place, Bexley on 10th October at 7pm. Further details here https://www.hallplace.org.uk/events/debutantes-london-season/

Further reading:  ‘Debutantes & the London Season’ by Lucinda Gosling, Shire Books 2013

Debs 2

Debs 4

Fashion Fantasies – Elspeth Phelps, artist in dress

The Great War was an unexpectedly dynamic period for fashion.  While extravagance was frowned upon, there was also a social dislocation where for the first time women took the place of men in the work environment, and fashionable silhouettes changed in response.  Skirts shortened and widened; military details proliferated and there was a new found confidence in clothing as it moved away from the winsome, restrictive styles of the pre-war era.  But austerity in dress did not entirely eclipse luxury and one of the places where fashion fantasies could be played out, and where the leading designers of the day could showcase their creations was the stage.  To dress leading actresses in high profile West End productions led to coverage in magazines such as The Tatler and The Sketch, generating the oxygen of publicity and ensuring a stream of well-heeled clients eager to sample such styles themselves.

Elspeth Phelps was a designer whose profile was one of the highest during this time and whose designs frequently ended up being admired by theatre audiences, and yet her fame has now faded to obscurity.  She first came to my attention when I discovered an extraordinary series of advertisements for her brand published in The Tatler in 1920.  They are unlike any other advertisements, fashion or otherwise, appearing at this time.  Drawn in a spidery and occasionally sinister style reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley and Kay Nielson,  the adverts feature a parade of fictional aristocratic and society types bearing names such as Lobelia Lobb and Priscilla Brinvilliers.  Engaged in typical upper class pursuits, they are clad in the perfectly appropriate ensemble designed by Elspeth Phelps.  Apart from their striking design, they are witty, playful, faintly acerbic and surprisingly self-deprecating.  They gently poke fun at the advertiser and at the advertiser’s clientele, and they’re all the more brilliant for it.

Advertisement for Elspeth Phelps fashion house, one of a series of highly stylised and witty adverts designed by Lady Eileen Orde (daughter of the 4th Duke of Wellington), all featuring upper class characters in various situations wearing a Phelps design. Date: 1920
Elspeth Phelps advertisement, 1920

Intrigued by this audacious promotional approach, I wanted to discover more about not only Elspeth Phelps but also the designer of the adverts, Eileen Orde.  In fact Eileen Orde was Lady Eileen Orde, nee Wellesley, fourth daughter of the 8th Duke of Wellington and wife of the artist Cuthbert Orde. Eileen’s credentials as one of the leading arbiters of style can be in no doubt.  A photographic portrait of her by E. O. Hoppe appeared in British Vogue’s debut issue, the first photograph ever published by the magazine.  And her reputation is given a further boost with the knowledge she had an affair with the Adonis-like Rupert Brooke (she afterwards sold his letters and bought a car with the proceeds).

Lady Eileen Orde and daughters by Madame Yevonde

Captain & Lady Eileen Order in their Chelsea studio
An artistic couple – Eileen and Cuthbert Orde in their Chelsea Studio

Lady Eileen was frequently referred to in our archive magazines as ‘a clever artist’ (‘clever’ being the catch-all adjective of praise in society magazines of the early 20th century).  Yet she did more than dabble, seeming to make quite a career as an artist and designer. The Sketch ran a page of photographs showing Eileen and Cuthbert, who were married in 1916, at home in their Chelsea studio, together with their two daughters, Doonie and Jane.  There are also other references to her creative endeavours.  One photograph from The Bystander, 1931, shows her at work on wallpaper designs, and she seems to have specialised in painting fabric.  There is a reference to the wedding train she decorated for her sister-in-law in 1922, and another mention, in The Tatler’s fashion column of October 1918 gives a rather dismissive critique of a dress she painted for Doris Keane to wear in ‘Roxana’ at the Lyric Theatre.  The fashion journalist M. E. Brooke complained that, ‘However charming the gown may appear in the dressing-room, from the stalls it is a very ordinary affair and not nearly so effective as the cerise evening dress assumed by this clever actress in another scene.”

 

Lady Eileen Orde working on wallpaper designs

Lady Eileen Orde at work on wallpaper designs, 1931.

Lady Eileen Orde and Elspeth Phelps no doubt frequently came into one another’s orbit – it’s likely Lady Eileen was a client of Phelps.  Phelps, who had launched her business in 1906, had by this time established herself as one of the leading dressmakers in London.  Located in Albemarle Street in the heart of Mayfair, she was favoured by the well-to-do and mentioned in the same breath as Worth, Poiret and Lucile.  Mrs Jack May, the fashion columnist for The Bystander, waxed lyrical on Miss Phelps’s talents in its 30 May 1917 issue:

“Elspeth Phelps is a name to conjure with.  Nowhere are there to be formed more exquisite clothes, distinguished by taste above all criticism.  The soft picture-frock is very dear to the heart of this fine couturiere, who is just now having a succes fou with some charming gowns or demi-toilettes.  They fill an important gap now that evening dress en grande tenue is seldom required, while some would not be out of place for the smarter afternoon functions that now and again come along.”

 

Mrs Morrison-Bell as Oak for Nymphs of Forest tableau

Lillah McCarthy (left) and Mrs Morrison-Bell (right) in costumes designed by Elspeth Phelps for the Nymphs of the Forest tableau at the Petticoat Lane fundraiser at the Albert Hall, 1917

Evening dress by Elspeth Phelps

Her creations were escapist fantasies, confections of tulle, chiffon, soie de peau, embellished with lace, sequins, beading – perfectly suited to the pages of the smart, society magazines of the day, and to delight theatre audiences when worn by the prettiest and most popular actresses.  Among the women in the public eye who wore her designs were Binnie Hale (in 1920’s ‘The Kiss Call’), the dancer Madame de Kurylo and socialite Paula Gellibrand, pictured in ‘an effective headdress in The Tatler in 1920.  The actress Shirley Kellogg was photographed wearing a magnificent ‘diamond dress’, designed for her part in ‘Razzle Dazzle’ in 1916.  The following year, Kellogg was dressed by Lucile for the show ‘Zig-Zag’ (one cannot help speculating about the rivalry between these two fashion houses – one suspects it was fierce).  For the ‘Nymphs of the Forest’ tableau performed at the Petticoat Lane Bazaar, a wartime fundraiser held over several days in December 1916 at the Albert Hall, she designed costumes for a selection of society’s most beautiful women including Sheila, Lady Loughborough, a love interest of the future George VI.   Another client was Irene Castle, the dancer and unrivalled style icon, for whom Phelps designed her entire wardrobe for a trip back to America.  “It is the exception, nowadays, to find the name of Elspeth Phelps absent from a theatrical programme.  She seems to be carrying all before her in the theatrical work of dress, as she has for so long done with those of the haute-monde,” wrote Mrs Jack May in 1917, clearly something of a fan.

Lady Loughborough as Weeping Willow - Elspeth Phelps
Lady Loughborough (formerly Sheila Chisholm, and later, Lady Milbanke), considered one of the great beauties of the day, dressed by Phelps for the Nymphs of the Forest tableau, 1917

Paula Gellibrand

Mme de Kurylo wearing designs by Elspeth Phelps
The dancer, Madame de Kurylo modelling a variety of Elspeth Phelps designs in 1920

Mrs Vernon Castle with Rasmus
Irene Castle, dancer and style icon posing with her pet monkey, Rasmus.  Elspeth Phelps designed her entire wardrobe for a tour of her native America in 1917

The Queen of Diamonds - Shirley Kellogg in Elspeth Phelps
Actress Shirley Kellogg posing in the magnificent diamond dress designed by Phelps for her to wear in ‘Razzle Dazzle’, 1916

Elspeth Phelps would also have had a prestigious client list, providing wedding dresses, trousseaux for the Season and, every top designer’s bread and butter, court gowns.  She was renowned for her ability to take the latest ideas from Paris and to add her own original twists and to tailor them to individual customers.  She was not only an assured dressmaker, but she was an adept publicist.  In addition to those extraordinary advertisements created by Eileen Orde, whenever one of her designs was published in the press, the accompanying caption featured her name printed prominently in capital letters.  Any misattribution it seems was swiftly dealt with.  On more than one occasion, apologies were printed including one in The Tatler which had managed to attribute the stage costumes in ‘Maggie’, playing at the Oxford Theatre in 1919, to Poiret of Paris.  “We are informed, however, that they are made by the famous dressmaker, Miss Elspeth Phelps of 29 Albemarle Street.  We beg to sincerely apologise to her for giving the credit of these beautiful costumes elsewhere,” the magazine grovelled.

Court gown by Elspeth Phelps
Exquisite beaded court gown by Elspeth Phelps, 1923

Advertisement for Elspeth Phelps, WW1 fashion
It doesn’t take much to imagine Miss Phelps marching into The Tatler’s office and reducing the sub-editor responsible to a gibbering wreck.  Certainly, if a portrait of Elspeth, published in The Bystander in 1916, is anything to go by, then her appearance suggests a shrewd, steely and redoubtable personality.  Other pieces of evidence hint at her forthright views and pioneering approach.  In 1920, The Tatler credited her with being, “instrumental in annihilating the superstition against green,” and in 1925 she spoke out against the worrying trend for increasingly thin models.  The Tatler quoted her as saying, “we ought to have some nice, plump girls in the mannequin profession…but no monstrosities”.  Not a woman to mince her words then.  Ever the canny businesswomen, she set her sights on the American market in 1920, travelling on the Aquitania and touring the major American cities where she gave mannequin shows of her exquisite designs.  Not until Edward Molyneux shipped British fashion to America during the Second World War did a British designer do as much to woo the wealthy American market.  Naturally, news of this expedition was reported widely in the press.

Elspeth Phelps and Reggie de Veulle, 1917Elspeth Phelps featured in The Bystander in 1916.  Inset is a photograph of her designer Reggie de Veulle, who was implicated in a scandal in 1918 for supplying drugs allegedly leading to the death of actress Billie Carleton.

In 1923, it was announced that Elspeth Phelps, offering ‘original gowns specially designed for each client’ was amalgamating with the famous Parisian fashion house of Paquin.  Paquin bought her out, used her name and she was retained on a handsome salary, continuing to design her bespoke gowns for clients.  With new showrooms in nearby Dover Street, the Paquin-Phelps partnership launched with a splash, placing new advertisements in the press and holding a  ‘soiree dansante’ – the dresses on display described in mouth-watering detail by the papers.

Paquin Phelps advertisement, 1923
Lovely gown worns at the Paquin Phelps soiree dansante
Things unfortunately turned sour only a few years later.  A rather public court case saw Elspeth Phelps (described as Mrs Fox-Pitt; she had married Lionel Fox-Pitt in 1920) suing Paquin for breach of contract.  Meanwhile, Paquin claimed there had been some underhand dealings by Mrs Fox-Pitt who had engaged apprentices for a fee of £50 while pocketing £20 of the money herself.  It is significant that, during the course of the hearing, Elspeth Phelps’s argument that her reputation and skill was an asset to Paquin was boosted by the fact she had no fewer than fifty press books full of cuttings.  It was undoubted proof of her PR wizardry, even if her business dealings had taken an embarrassingly awkward turn for the worse.

The Great War and the 1920s marked the zenith of  Elspeth Phelps’s career.  She re-launched her business and continued to design into the 1940s, but, as is the caprice of fashion, there is scant mention of her after the late 1920s, at least not in our archive of magazines.  There were younger, brighter new stars on the scene – Hartnell, Molyneux, Victor Stiebel – Elspeth Phelps was no longer the fashion pioneer she had been.   Lady Eileen Orde died in 1952, aged 65.

 

I like the idea of these two women, these creative forces, joining together almost a century ago to create some advertising magic.  It is intriguing to imagine their conversations and to think how such a strategy was dreamt up.  Who knows what happened to the original designs but in their absence, I’m ordering one of Eileen Orde’s fantastic advertisements as a framed print, and each time I look at it, I’ll be reminded of two fascinating women and a creative partnership far ahead of its time.

Advertisement for Elspeth Phelps, 1920s fashion

With thanks to Randy Bryan Bigham for providing additional source material on Elspeth Phelps.

 

To order prints of Elspeth Phelps advertisements follow this link.

 

Wedding Lore

Married in month of roses – June- Life will be one long honeymoon”.

The month of June, and the mind meanders towards thoughts of summer; to exotic holidays, to chaotic family day trips, and frequently to weddings, and all that they entail.

I recently had the pleasure of perusing the pages of ‘Every Woman’s Encyclopedia’, c. 1912, a magazine very much of its time, when many considered that a woman’s place was in the home and her abiding concerns and interests were all things domestic. The articles within this volume are overflowing with information on, amongst other things, home furnishings, table decorations, cookery, embroidery, fashion, children, and last but certainly not least, marriage. The magazine contemplates all aspects of the lead up to matrimony, but principally focuses on wedding tradition and lore, which seemed an interesting subject for a blog.

A bride getting ready for her wedding day

The magazine is a wealth of information on how one can actively enhance one’s chances of a successful marriage, divulging all manner of scenarios which should either be sincerely welcomed or avoided at all costs by the bride-to be. Who knew that if the bride came across a spider in the folds of her wedding gown she would never lack for money, or that if she was awoken by a robin on the morning of her wedding, or saw swallows come to the eaves for the first time on the big day, she would be eternally blessed?

kitsch / souvenir, swallow with loveletter, Germany,

It was considered good practice for the bride to step over the Church threshold with her right foot to safeguard her future happiness.  Any jewellery could be worn except for pearls- which symbolise tears- and the wedding ring must not have been tried on prior to the ceremony. Orange blossom was a popular flower at weddings and had, since the time of the Crusades, been regarded as an emblem of prosperity (owing to the fact that in the East, the orange tree bears ripe fruit and blossoms simultaneously); the flower being white was also regarded as symbolic of innocence and chastity.

Citrus sinensis, orange tree
Bride Enters Church Followed by Bridesmaids

With regards to when to marry, June has always been considered the month for weddings, and Roman maidens preferred it to any other, because it was the name month of Juno, the goddess who took love matters, and all feminine interests especially, under her protection.

Front cover from Britannia and Eve.
Mother-of-Pearl Fan Blessing of Juno

There is a paragraph on when not to marry too, which marks out May as the worst month of all: “So ancient is the dislike to May marriages that Ovid refers to it as the evil month of May”. The church forbade weddings between Rogation and Whit Sunday, pious and nervous folk originating the familiar adage, “Marry in May, and you’ll rue the day”. It was also considered indecorous to marry on a Sunday, the day of worship, and in England the prejudice against a Friday marriage may be traced to Good Friday, a most sorrowful and unfortunate day. And finally, spare a thought for those intending to marry in April, who would have had to live with the following ‘poetic’ line haunting them forever more: “An April bride will be inconstant, not very intelligent, but fairly good-looking”. Charming.

A few other bizarre rituals explored include the drawing of a piece of wedding cake through a ring (preferably a wedding ring) and placing it under the pillow three nights in succession, and the inquirer would then be rewarded by a vision of their future spouse. If no one appeared in their dream, they would need to resign themselves to life as a singleton. There was also an unusual custom in connection with the youngest daughter, which decreed that all her elder sisters must dance at her wedding without shoes in order to counteract the bad luck which would otherwise befall them if they married in “wrong order” of age. Another custom recounted was the throwing of a plate (full of bride-cake crumbs) down from an upper window as the bride alights from her carriage. If the plate reaches the ground unbroken, it was an unfavourable omen, but if it shattered in pieces (the more the better) good luck was sure to attend her.

DANCE IN A MEADOW
GIRL DREAMS OF WEDDING
The colour of one’s wedding attire was also under considerable scrutiny. Wearing red was frowned upon at this time, “Married in red, you will wish yourself dead”, whilst the traditional colour of white was very much the favourite, “Married in white, you’ll be alright”, though in fact, frugality meant that many brides would simply marry in their Sunday best frock.  It was Queen Victoria’s unusual choice of a white lace gown for her marriage to Prince Albert in 1839 that was to set a trend among Western brides that continues to this day.

VICTORIA MARRIES ALBERT
QUEEN VICTORIA
WEDDING DRESS 1926

The familiar saying, “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” is also mentioned and an explanation is given for each line: something old in order to retain the love and affection that was the bride’s in her old life; something new, for success in her new life; something borrowed so that friends may ever be helpful and faithful, and something blue, an emblem of loyalty and constancy.

It was considered unlucky for the bride to break anything on her wedding day; such an unfortunate act would almost certainly lead to a lifetime of discord with her in-laws. The magazine also underlines the importance of feeding one’s cat on the wedding day (should the bride have one of course); in addition, one must not read the marriage service prior to the wedding taking place, and if the bridal party should encounter a pig (or several) en route to the Church, they must turn back with immediate effect and begin their journey again.

kitsch / souvenir, balloon ride of a love couple,

On marriage etiquette and protocol, the magazine is also a rich source of information. When relating details of the man’s proposal, it suggests that for some, writing a note may be the best option, “When courage to speak is utterly lacking, a proposal by letter is a good way out of the difficulty. Even though much note-paper and brainwork may be wasted on the document, at least it may be counted on to do the business; and after several failures to manage it by speech, there is consolation in this reflection.” The female recipient of the proposal is given the following words of wisdom, “A girl does not wish to appear too ready with her “Yes”. She thinks that this may cheapen her in the eyes of the person whom she would like to value her more highly than anyone else in the world”.

Focus then turns to the wedding itself. The bridal bouquet should be small and elegant as “the huge bouquet with which brides in the end of last and the beginning of the present century were burdened was not at all a graceful adjunct, for several reasons. Its bulk obscured the outline of the figure. It interfered with the pretty folds of the wedding veil. It hid the front of the gown, often very charmingly trimmed with lace or embroidery, and its weight tired the arm of the bride, already quite tired enough with the arduous work of the previous weeks in connection with the trousseau, the correspondence with regards to presents, and other preparations”.

CRANE, A FLOWER WEDDING

The bride-to-be is offered advice on the cutting of the wedding cake, which at this time, was the sole duty of the woman: “There is occasionally a little difficulty in cutting through the sugar icing, but the bride should not let anyone help in her task. A straight, downward thrust, the knife held perpendicularly, will manage the business and the rest is easy”.

CUTTING WEDDING CAKE

The tossing of the bouquet, very familiar to us all, was already firmly entrenched in bridal ritual at this time: “The bride must not forget to distribute sprays of her bouquet among her bridesmaids and other girl friends. There is an idea that this may lead to other weddings”. It goes on to describe how the bride must toss the bouquet high above the heads of wedding guests and the one who caught hold of it was destined to marry within the year.

FATHER OF THE BRIDE

Amusingly, the best man’s prime duty is as follows: “If his friend should be nervous in anticipation of the coming ordeal, it is the business of the best man to inspire him with courage and to infuse into him that spirit of resignation which is his best armour against tribulation”.

GROOM & BEST MAN

In summary, if you had been hoping to get married in 1912, you would be wise to avoid marrying on a Friday or Sunday, especially in May; best not to wear red, and a good idea to keep one’s head down on the journey to Church so as not to chance upon a pig! The final paragraph on wedding lore in this volume concludes very eloquently indeed and  is a fitting end to this blog: “Let the cynics and pessimists sneer and declare what they will, they will never convince the world that Love is not the light of life, its crown and completion, and God’s highest gift to man”.

A vivid and eclectic lightbox of wedding imagery from our archive can be viewed here.

A Brief History of Underwear

The first publicity slogan for underwear appeared in the window of a London corset-maker during the 18th century, promoting the efficacious results bestowed by her latest model of corset claiming it, ‘controls the large, supports the small, uplifts the drooping.’ Almost three centuries on, a quick stroll around the lingerie section of M&S suggests that we all still want pretty much the same results from our foundation wear, although admittedly, a medieval or even 18th century drapers would not have sold many pairs of knickers. Most people simply didn’t see the point of wearing them.

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Legend has it that the corset as we know it–the type that shrinks a woman’s waist to doll-like proportions with the aid of whalebone, lacing and no small amount of discomfort–was first introduced by Catherine de Medici during the 16th century. She decreed that any of her ladies with a waist wider than 13 inches would not be welcome at the French court. Rather than face banishment, they breathed in, visited a stay-maker and politely said, ‘Non, merci’ to proffered sweetmeats. After the medieval fashion for rounded, feminine stomachs, suddenly the tummy was tucked away and the waist accentuated, a trend that endured, save for a short breather (literally) during the Empire line fashions of the Regency era, until the First World War. Over the centuries, corsets or ‘stays’ changed along with the vagaries of fashion from the sharp, flat-fronted bodices of the Tudor period to the wasp-waisted fetish of the Victorian era and the exaggerated S-bend shape of the early 20th century. The wealthier the wearer, the more restricted she was likely to be, but mobility was only necessary for those who had to work for a living and as Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire confessed, although she was pinched and sore, the soothing quality of admiration made it bearable. Corsetry was not limited to the female market either with dandies of the 18th century particularly fond of the garment’s figure-transforming qualities. In 1834, the increasingly plump Prince Regent was told his stays would be the death of him if he continued to wear them.

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Just prior to the Great War, fashion suddenly became more daring–looser, artistic, diaphanous. In 1913, a New York socialite called Mary Phelps Jacob passed into the annals of underwear history when she was awarded a patent for her invention of the first modern brassiere. Frustrated at the lumpen artifice of her whalebone corset underneath a particularly sheer evening dress, Jacob fashioned a makeshift bra out of two silk handkerchiefs and some pink ribbon. This charming creation quickly became popular, with its inventor opting to sell her patent to Warner Bros. Corset Company for $1500. Warner’s went on to make $15 million from it.

But women were never truly truss-free; restrictive underwear still moulded and shaped women’s figures according to style edicts of the 20th century. Twenties’ lingerie was lovely to linger over: silken and suggestive, but the slim-line fashions of the following decade required a sinuous figure to carry them off. Underwear firms such as Kestos offered girdles and corsetry-inspired foundation garments to ensure a lean silhouette under everything from one’s bias cut Molyneux evening gown to a flying suit. The war years required more practical solutions and warm woollen undies together with a scarcity of stockings meant that only pin-up girls emerging from an artist’s brush, unencumbered by ration coupons, could afford the silk fripperies that her flesh and blood sisters so desired. After the war, Dior’s New Look returned once more to the hourglass outline and cinched waists of the 19th century; waspies, corsets and conical bras gave the desired look with advertisements in women’s magazines posing questions that would provoke a public outcry today. One, for Au Fait, insists, ‘What’s the fun of being a woman if you don’t have a good figure?’

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In riposte, some women burned their bras in the sixties, but most inevitably still felt the need for some support. Hip, youthful fashion began to eclipse the ladylike styles of the fifties and underwear followed suit. In the 1970s, Janet Reger was an underwear trailblazer, combining comfort, luxury and sex in silk, satin and lace for discerning women – and men who could rely on the store’s dubious policy of maintaining absolute discretion when someone might be buying for a mistress rather than a wife.

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The choice of underwear on display today would bewilder even the most seasoned Victorian courtesan, but the current vogue for the derivative, early 20th century burlesque styles pedalled by high-end boutiques such as Agent Provacateur shows that lingerie designers are continuing to plunder the past for inspiration. Thankfully, bloomers have yet to enjoy a revival. Pants to that!

From Dagenham to Savile Row – Royal Couturier Hardy Amies

Description of a lime green double breasted day dress designed by Hardy Amies for Queen Elizabeth II. Date: circa 1960s

I was fashionably late to Valence House Museum on Saturday, arriving about an hour and a half before their 12-week Hardy Amies exhibition drew to a close.  This small, but perfectly formed show in an impressive local museum, has been celebrating the achievements of a man who was not only one of British couture’s finest exponents, but also one of Dagenham’s most famous sons.  Looking along the plain, identikit post-war houses lining the roads in this part of outer East London – the Becontree Estate was once the largest council housing estate in the world – it is difficult to imagine the area spawning an individual of such style, panache and ambition as Amies. Born in Elgin Avenue, Maida Vale, London in 1909, Edwin Hardy Amies had no fashion training, but was influenced by his mother who had worked as a dressmaker, and then vendeuse at several court dressmakers before the Great War.  He gained valuable business experience working in France and Germany after leaving school and was a salesman for the Avery weighing-machine company when contacts from his mother’s old job recommended him to fashion house Lachasse, previously headed by the designer Digby Morton.  He began initially as business manager but his interest in fashion led him to begin designing, producing his first collection in 1934.  During the Second World War, Amies served in special operations, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel as head of the Belgian section of the SOE.  After the war, he went on to set up his own Savile Row salon and began to design clothes for the then Princess Elizabeth in 1951.  He was appointed as royal dressmaker to H.M. the Queen in 1955 and knighted in 1989, the year he retired.

Copyright (c) Mary Evans Picture Library

In fact, it was Amies’ father, a resident agent for London County Council, who helped to map out the Becontree Estate streets.  His young family moved to The White House after the Great War, a building recently developed into a community arts centre, and the young Hardy Amies went to Brentwood School, an institution he kept a connection with throughout his whole life, even designing the school’s uniform.  A rather battered looking school cap in the exhibition was representative of the designer’s roots on the borders of East London and Essex, and although the exhibition was limited, there were some key highlights that did justice to his illustrious career.  These included his famous ‘Made in England’ tailored woman’s two-piece suit from 1940, the lapels patriotically trimmed (Amies would always be renowned for his impeccable tailoring for both men and women) as well as the pink outfit worn by the Queen for her 1977 Silver Jubilee together with its matching Freddie Fox hat.  Also on display were suits designed by Amies for the menswear retailer, Hepworths.  Designer collaborations with the high street might be commonplace today, but Amies’ side step away from the hallowed salons of Mayfair, was ground-breaking and just one of many commercial and branded ventures he carried out with success.

Copyright (c) Mary Evans Picture Library

Copyright (c) Mary Evans Picture Library

Unfortunately, photography was not permitted at the exhibition (‘due to lending agreements’ I was told) but the link here gives some good views – http://createlondon.org/event/hardy-amies/  For a comprehensive and visually rich history of Hardy Amies and his career, I’d highly recommend ‘Hardy Amies’ by Michael Pick, published by ACC Editions.

Copyright (c) Mary Evans Picture Library

We have represented the Hardy Amies archive for some time at Mary Evans, and the book carries many images we hold here including scores of his original designs made for the Queen as well as excellent photographs of Hardy Amies himself and his salon.  We’re sharing some here – as well as a hit parade of royal designs.  Hardy Amies once said of his royal patron, “The Queen has the most perfect manners. She gives you her undivided attention and never makes a critical remark. The only sign of disapproval is a raising of her eyebrows…But you get the message.”  He understood that while the Queen’s wardrobe could faintly echo prevailing trends, she herself had to project an image that rose above fashion.  This intuitive understanding of his client, coupled with his timeless, tailored designs ensured his long tenure as the Queen’s designer of choice.  Not bad for a boy from Dagenham.

 

1. Fitted dress with belt and button detail designed for Princess Elizabeth to wear on her Royal Tour of Canada in 1951.
2. A multi-frilled spagetti-strap evening gown with feather pattern and three flounced tiers, designed by Hardy Amies for Princess Elizabeth to wear on the royal tour of Australia in 1952. The tour was postponed due to the death of King George VI.
3. Another dress designed for the 1952 royal tour, together with a swatch of the pretty floral fabric.
Copyright (c) Mary Evans Picture Library Hardy Aimes
4. Black long sleeved lace evening dress with bow at the waist and matching train, designed by Hardy Amies for Queen Elizabeth II to wear on a State Visit to the Vatican in 1961.
5. Open coat with 3/4 sleeves and day dress with printed skirt, designed for the Queen’s state visit to France, May 1972. Dress and jacket in navy and white printed wool, sleeveless dress with belt in navy and white wool braid, jacket edged with navy and white wool braid, white felt hat with open work crown. This outfit offers a nod towards the simpler silhouettes and shorter hemlines of the 60s and 70s.
6. Pink overcoat with one button at the neck and short sleeves. With matching scarf and hat with hanging blossom. Outfit worn on a walkabout in the City of London to celebrate her Silver Jubilee in 1977. Hat designed by Frederick (Freddie) Fox.
7. Yellow chiffon evening dress in kaftan style, caught below the bust, bodice and cuffs heavily embroidered with diamante, back falling free from shoulders. Designed for the Queen to wear at a Prime Ministers’ reception at Buckingham Palace, 1977.
8. Blue and white faconne spot chiffon loose coat with sleeves cut on the cross; matching head scarf with flower detail.
9. Sketch and swatch of an evening dress worn by Queen Elizabeth II to a reception in California during an official visit to the USA and Mexico in 1983 (the poppy is the state flower of California).
10. Cocktail dress in mauve lace over lilac chiffon and pale pink satin, gently fitted and finished at the hem with a lace scallop and finely sunray pleated lilac chiffon. The 3/4 length sleeves are also finished with a lace scallop. Knee length and floor length versions (the second version was worn to Prince Edward’s wedding on 19 June 1999).
A selection of Hardy Amies designs and images on the Mary Evans Picture Library website can be viewed here.

 

Designing the Jazz Age – Gordon Conway & Mary Evans at the Fashion & Textile Museum

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The Fashion and Textile Museum, a flamboyant landmark on London’s achingly hip Bermondsey Street, has been a mecca for fans of fashion history ever since it was opened by designer Zandra Rhodes in 2003. Now part of Newham College of Further Education, the hot pink and orange building, a former warehouse, does not own a permanent collection, nor is it particularly large compared to behemoths like the V&A, but it packs a punch with continually crowd-pleasing exhibitions complemented by a creative and engaging programme of talks and workshops. In the last couple of years, exhibitions have celebrated the history of swimwear, Liberty of London and Italian knitwear brand Missoni. This autumn, the museum has turned its attention to the glittering, glamorous Jazz Age combining exquisite original garments from the collection of Mark and Cleo Butterfield with photographs of the era’s icons by American photographer James Abbé, curated by Terence Pepper.

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Not only that, we were delighted to be invited to curate a display of fashion illustrations for the exhibition, bringing an important facet of the 1920s fashion industry into focus. The pictures selected were all full-colour illustrations by American designer, Gordon Conway, who was commissioned by The Tatler and Britannia & Eve in the late 1920s to produce a series of designs, most of which were published under the simple title of ‘A Tatler Fashion’. Both magazines now form part of The Illustrated London News archive housed and managed here at Mary Evans, and are an authentic reflection of the tastes and aspirations of a widening class of consumers who were keen to try new fashions and sample modern freedoms that had previously been beyond the reach of their mothers and grandmothers. Conway herself was the epitome of the stylish, modern girl – very much practising what she preached.

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Born 18 December 1894 in Cleburne, Texas, USA, Gordon Conway (1894-1956) was the only child of John Catlett Conway and Tommie Johnson. Educated in America and at finishing school in Switzerland, she showed a special talent for drawing and it was at a dinner party in 1915 that her doodles on a menu card impressed the writer Rufus Gilmore, who recommended her to Hepworth Campbell, art director of Vanity Fair. Though she lacked any prolonged formal art training, Campbell was struck by the fresh and modern linearity of her drawings. Fearing that further art lessons might dilute her distinctive style, he commissioned her to provide artwork for the magazine, where her designs, drawn from imagination, led her to be described as, ‘the artist who draws by ear.’

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Having launched her career in America, by 1921, she had travelled to Europe with her new husband, businessman, Blake Ozias, where she divided her time between London and Paris, keeping studios in both cities. Tall, red-haired, sophisticated and stylish, Gordon Conway personified the svelte flappers she drew, and courted publicity – alongside her famous pet cat, ‘Mr Fing’ – as part of an effective marketing drive that was to lead to multiple commissions during the 1920s period. She provided designs for theatre posters and programmes for productions in London and Paris; sketched for a number of well-known couturiers and, championed by Edward Huskinson, editor of The Tatler, contributed original designs to his own magazine and other titles in the same ‘Great Eight’ publishing group – Eve: The Ladies’ Pictorial and The Bystander. She also excelled in costume design for cabaret and theatre, dressing performers The Dolly Sisters, Gladys Cooper and her good friend, Dorothy Dickson among others. Towards the end of the decade she became more heavily involved in costume design for the British film industry, establishing the first autonomous in-house costume department at the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation studios where, as executive dress designer she produced costumes for a succession of pictures including the futuristic ‘High Treason’ and ‘There Goes the Bride’, starring Jessie Matthews.

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Gordon Conway worked hard, refusing to ever miss deadlines set by her demanding clients, while also maintaining a hectic social life. Overwhelmed by such a schedule she suffered a heart attack in late 1933 which was to curtail her output. Plagued by ill-health, she divorced her husband and retired in 1937, returning to the USA to live with her beloved mother Tommie at Mount Sion in Caroline County, Virginia, an eighteenth century property inherited from her father’s family.

We were able to see the Gordon Conway display in place for the first time at the opening night of the exhibition, which also allowed us a sneak preview of the breath-taking clothes on display. Jazz Age is a pure delight, its disparate elements pulled together with such a deft touch by curator Dennis Nothdruft and exhibition designer, Bethan Ojari that it feels cohesive and thoroughly steeped in 1920s atmosphere. Themed around the silent screen, this common thread is reflected in two opening tableaux – a cinema (complete with usherette uniform), flanked by a coven of twinkling black flapper dresses. Following this, the first display in the main area offers a mouth-watering array of evening coats and opera cloaks mirroring an illustration on the wall of theatre crowds in London’s West End, painted, coincidentally, by Fortunino Matania for The Sphere, another magazine held in the ILN archive. A set of wispy pastel coloured dresses and tennis costumes, contrast with the sexy frivolity of boudoir fashions and the sophistication of beaded and embroidered evening dresses on the upper level, while a wedding party in delicious, soft, orchard colours surround a shimmering Medieval style bridal gown. The most heavily sequinned dresses were displayed flat in glass cabinets to ward against the inevitable stretch and sagging that would occur should they be hung from a mannequin. Other than that, all clothes, which are in astoundingly good condition, are shown unconfined by glass cabinets, with each vignette scene, ranging from cocktail hour to Chinatown after dark, quietly enhanced by superb background paintings (the work of Paul Stagg and his team, carried out in Sanderson paints and strongly reminiscent of A. E. Marty or Georges Barbier in Gazette du Bon Ton). A display of occasional and dressing tables covered with period objects and artefacts provide a nostalgic narrative to the rapid social change undergone from the closing of the First World War to the dawn of the Second. Who knew Mum deodorant was already a thing in the 1920s? And presiding over all these fabric treasures is a chorus girl swinging from a suspended, glittering crescent moon. Should one’s mind wander back to the present day, a large screen playing a flickering 1920s dance routine on an endless loop reels us back in.

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The photographic element of the exhibition includes a wall of female icons from the era most captured by equally famous snappers from Cecil Beaton to Man Ray. The James Abbé exhibition in an adjoining upstairs room, brings together some of the most glamorous stars of the period from the Dolly Sisters to Dolores, Mary Pickford to Rudolf Valentino. Abbe’s carefully constructed images convey the iconic status of his sitters, and the bold, sexually-charged confidence of this new age. To browse this gallery is akin to walking into a temple of assembled gods and goddesses.

The following day, with the exhibition officially open, I went back to the museum to take part in a panel discussion alongside the other contributors, Cleo & Mark Butterfield, Terence Pepper, Jenny Abbé, and curator Dennis Nothdruft . Talking about the genesis of the library, I also explained how fashion, as a barometer of social change, was a real strength of the library and that seeing the beautiful dresses and clothes on display brought the magazines and other fashion ephemera in our archive to life. There seems to be much cross-pollination and synergy in this collaboration. Pictures by James Abbé for instance, were frequently published in The Tatler, and Mary Evans contributor Gary Chapman, expert on the Dolly Sisters, assisted with the exhibition and will giving talks as part of its accompanying lecture series. With so many connections, we are proud to be associated with the museum’s 1920s Jazz Age. Furthermore, we feel our involvement would have delighted our founders Mary and Hilary Evans, who were always keen to share their passion for history with others. We hope Gordon Conway too would have been pleased to have been part of an exhibition that celebrates this dazzling period in fashion history – and the part she played in it.

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Jazz Age at the Fashion & Textile Museum runs until 15 January 2017 http://www.ftmlondon.org/
Prints and cards featuring Gordon Conway illustrations are available to buy in the museum’s shop.

To see more Gordon Conway images click here

From corsets to culottes – A brief history of tennis fashion

For many, it’s been a tough week to be British, but with the arrival of Wimbledon fortnight, some semblance of peace and order can be found in the tennis enclave of SW19 with its carefully manicured grass courts, tinkle of ice in Pimm’s and, of course, the pristine white attire the All England club still insists is worn by all players. The rule, which upholds Wimbledon’s strong sense of tradition and is one of the things to set it apart from the other grand slam competitions, had its origins in the early days of the game in the nineteenth century when the visibility of sweat, especially on women players, was considered unseemly. White not only disguised this, but gave the impression of freshness, and a century and a half on, the unshakeable rule remains.

Other than the stipulation of white, tennis clothing today combines style with high performance, ensuring complete freedom of movement with breathable, ‘sweat-wicking’ fabrics. It is a world away from the late 19th and early 20th century when lawn tennis gained many converts even though Victorian women would dress in a costume more suited to a garden party underneath which corsets continued to mould the female figure into the desired fashionable shape. A picture we hold of Charlotte “Lottie” Dod, (top left), five times Wimbledon champion from 1893 shows her looking for all the world as if she is about to sit under a parasol to take afternoon tea; her tennis racquet the only indication that she was the period’s leading sportswoman. Any type of exertion and energetic movement in a corset regularly caused the bone and steel to dig into players and draw blood. Nevertheless, many doctors believed the corset was advantageous during sport to ensure all internal organs were kept in place and the support warded against back pain and other such ills. Dorothea Lambert Chambers (above, second from right), seven-time singles champion at Wimbledon in the decade leading up the First World War won her matches wearing a business-like but nevertheless constricting combination of white blouse with tie and shin-length skirt. In 1905, when the young American tennis player May Sutton (later Bundy) (above, second from left), played at Wimbledon, she rolled back her cuffs to reveal her forearms because her sleeves ‘were too long and too hot’. It may seem tame to us, but her action was shocking to many spectators. In her 1910 book, ‘Lawn Tennis for Ladies,’ Mrs Lambert Chambers wrote a chapter on tennis clothing prescriptively advising the wearing of, ‘…a plain gored skirt – not pleated; I think these most unsuitable on court – about four or five inches from the ground. It should just clear your ankles and have plenty of fullness round the hem. Always be careful that the hem is quite level all round; nothing is more untidy than a skirt that dips down at the back or sides – dropping at the back is a little trick a cotton skirt cultivates when it comes home from the laundry. A plain shirt without “frills or furbelows” – if any trimming at all, tucks are the neatest – a collar, a tie, and waistband, go to make an outfit as comfortable and suitable as you could possibly desire.’

She also prescribed thin-soled white ‘gymnasium shoes’, choosing white cotton over heavier, coloured flannel or ‘stuff’ due to its infinitely washable properties and avoiding the wearing of hats. A decade later, the girl who beat Mrs Lambert Chambers in a gruelling 3-set match to take the Wimbledon title in 1919, would revolutionise tennis fashion. Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen presciently brought the youth and vivacity of the 1920s to the tennis court, sporting a succession of lightweight garments; chemise style dresses with pleated skirts, loose, straight cardigans and short-sleeved blouses or V-necked vests (still considered a risqué neckline). Lenglen’s outfits were designed by Jean Patou, the French couturier who pioneered sportswear as fashion and championed the ‘garconne’ look, opening a dedicated sportswear department in his couture store in 1925 and subsequently opening further branches in fashionable resorts such as Deauville and Biarritz. Lenglen’s clothes were embroidered with Patou’s signature, a visible declaration of the creative and commercial bond between designer and sports person and one that remains an essential relationship in the sportswear industry today. Patou was to continue as the go-to designer for a leisured lifestyle; in 1927, dialling in to the new trend for tanning with the launch of the first suntan oil, Huile de Chaldee in 1927 and a fragrance called, quite simply, ‘Sport’ the following year. Lenglen meanwhile, who topped off her on-court attire with a white fur coat (below, second from left), was hailed as a fashion revolutionary. London department store, Selfridges drafted her in to design a range of tennis clothes for them in 1933 (below left). Elizabeth Ryan, a contemporary of Lenglen and holder of 19 doubles titles at Wimbledon, said of her, “All women players should go on their knees in thankfulness to Suzanne for delivering them from the tyranny of corsets.” Ryan had witnessed the drying rack in the dressing rooms at Wimbledon where blood stained corsets were hung.

Tennis, perhaps because of the high profile of women players, continued to be a showcase for the development of sporting style. When the Spanish player Lili D’Alvarez wore a divided skirt designed by Elsa Schiaparelli at Wimbledon in 1931, (above, second from right) the garment caused a sensation, causing many magazines to note how it also ‘divided opinion’. The actress Gladys Cooper appeared in The Illustrated Sporting & Dramatic News in June the same year (above right), ‘trouser-skirted’ in an outfit she was planning to wear to Lady Cranfield’s tennis party at West Hall. Around the same time, some daring ladies began to wear shorts to play in, including one Mrs G. E. Tomblin, spotted in a 1932 issue of The Sketch wearing them while at a club in Chiswick (below, second from left), though the same magazine asked in one fashion column in March that year, ‘Can shorts rival these graceful frocks for the courts?’ (below, second from right). It’s an unsurprising viewpoint considering Aristoc were still advertising silk stockings suitable for the tennis court in 1933 (below right). It would be the pioneering American Alice Marble who was the first to wear them at Wimbledon in 1937 (below left).

By the 1950s another big personality was beginning to dominate the tennis fashion scene with his wildly feminine styles. 6 ‘ 7” Cuthbert Collingwood “Ted” Tinling (1910-1990) was an English tennis player and referee, already firmly doing the social round by the early 1930s. Suffering from respiratory problems, he had been sent to the French Riviera as a teenager and began to play tennis on the courts of the Cannes, eventually becoming Lenglen’s referee. We discovered a photograph of him from this time with Lord Charles Hope on the courts there in a 1931 volume of The Tatler (below left). Tinling’s playful, fashionable, flirty designs were worn by the majority of major tennis stars in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, from Billie Jean King to Martina Navratilova, but he is probably best known for the notorious frilly knickers worn by Gussie Moran in 1949, the scandal of which led to him being dismissed from his position as player liaison at Wimbledon (he would be welcomed back in 1982). Within our archive, there are some fabulous sixties designs by him featured in the swinging, ‘London Life’ magazine (three pictures below).

Despite the forays of tennis stars such as Serena Williams into the 21st century world of sportswear design, female tennis fashion today feels more serious and functional than the glory days of Tinling, though thankfully, the styles of over a century ago are consigned to the club’s excellent museum. How interesting it would be to see modern-day tennis players try to play in the corsets and long skirts of May Sutton, Lottie Dod and Dorothea Lambert Chambers. One wonders, when the mercury rises on Centre court, could they endure a three-setter in the searing heat?

Adapted from an excerpt taken from ‘Retro Fashion’ by Lucinda Gosling, published by New Holland.

Click here to see a wider range of tennis fashion images.