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.

 

Finding Rupert Brooke – a forgotten photograph album at Mary Evans

Mary and Hilary Evans spent more than fifty years collecting the material that now comprises the library and we’re often asked by visitors what proportion of the analogue archive has actually been scanned. A finger in the wind guesstimate might find us suggesting 15-20%, but the truthful answer to this is we don’t really know.  But what we do know is that it is still possible to unearth incredible treasures containing images that have never made it near a scanner.  While it’s frustrating to find ‘perfect’ pictures hidden away, the fact that we are still lucky enough to experience that sharp thrill of discovery more than compensates.

Image copyright (c) Mary Evans Picture Library
Cuthbert Grasemann in his rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge University (Picture number 11107622)

A case in point is a photo album recently discovered neatly filed and catalogued along with others, but apparently untouched for some years. The stained, green binding was fairly unpromising but inside is a superb collection of photographs dating from the late 1890s to the 1930s.  The picture that particularly caught our eye at first was the interior of a Cambridge student’s room in 1911.  Written above it in ink were the words, ‘My rooms.  K. 5. New Court Trinity College Cambridge. 1911’. It may be Cambridge but even so, the room itself is unlike any student digs we might imagine today.  Ornaments are neatly arranged on the mantelpiece of a large fireplace, the walls are adorned with landscapes, and a collection of ukuleles and lutes. Above the picture rail what looks like a hand painted border shows a maritime landscape that includes St. Michael’s Mount.  A small occasional table is draped with an art nouveau style tablecloth on which are placed framed photographs, presumably of family members.  An elegant seat is enhanced by a rather beautiful looking peacock cushion, and the inhabitant of the room sits in the window, a pet cockatoo perched placidly on his knee.

Pupils and teachers at Fretherne House Preparatory School around 1900. From an album owned by Cuthbert Gasemann who is seated 2nd row, third from left. Date: c.1900
Fretherne House Prep School.  Grasemann is middle row, third from left, seated. (Picture number 11107606)

Further investigation soon confirmed that the album belonged to a ‘C. Grasemann’, the student in the picture. He features in most of the album’s other photographs which neatly chart his life and career from boy to man in a series of evocative images, many of which are excellent quality, printed in a generous 10” x 8” format.  The earliest picture, from 1899, is a group photograph from Fretherne House School (a prep school in Welwyn Garden City up until the Second World War).  Two more of Fretherne House take us up to 1904 as which point C. Grasemann became a pupil at Rugby School.  Another photograph shows him cross-legged in the front row of W. N. Wilson’s House.

Members of the Officer Training Corps band at Rugby school in 1905. Top right of the picture is Cuthbert Gasemann, who appears to be holding a tenor horn. This photograph is one of a number in an album compiled by him. Date: 1905
Members of the Officer Training Corps band at Rugby school in 1905. Top right of the picture is Cuthbert Gasemann, who appears to be holding a tenor horn. (Picture number 11107611)

Every boy is annotated in miniscule, spidery writing.  At Rugby, he was in the OTC band, playing the tenor horn by the looks of one photograph.  He was also in the school orchestra and when he went up to Cambridge, became a rower, a sport well-documented in the album.  Not only are there pictures of Grasemann’s rowing crew in action, but there are some beautiful views of Henley Regatta around 1911.

Rowing crew from a Cambridge University college, 1911. Date: 1910
Grasemann’s rowing crew.  He is seated middle row, second from right. (Picture Number 11107618)

 

Together with photographs of college balls, society dinners, winter sports and a fancy dress party in Switzerland (even one of the famous skating couple Mr and Mrs Edgar Syers) these are images that take us back to that extraordinary pre-war era when a young man of Grasemann’s fortunate circumstances would have had the world at his feet.  Except the world was about to slide towards catastrophe.

Grasemann’s war saw him gazetted on 10 June 1915, joining the Royal Engineers as a Lieutenant. The only wartime pictures in the album are a couple of his marriage to Irene Statham on 19 September 1916, while another photograph of him in uniform with a friendly dog arrived with the message, ‘As we can’t come we send our photo’.  All leave had been cancelled.

grasemannww1

Keen to find out more about who C. Grasemann was, some internet sleuthing revealed he was Cuthbert Grasemann (1890-1962) who after the war became the Public Relations and Publicity Officer for British Railways (Southern Region). Armed with this knowledge, some of the later photographs begin to make sense – one charming photograph of the South East and Chatham Railway Travelling Ticket Inspectors Garden Allotment Prize Giving in Catford in July 1922 for instance, or an annual dinner given to staff of the Superintendent of the SE & C Railway.  Another shows him accompanying Sir Malcolm Campbell as he meets the driver of the Bluebird steam train emblazoned on the front with ‘Welcome Campbell’ (presumably this coincides with one of Campbell’s land speed records in the Bluebird – possibly in 1927). One gathering from 1925, an annual reunion dinner of the Railway Operating Division of the Royal Engineers, indicates how he progressed along his particular career path.   He was also the author of two books, ‘English Channel Packet Boats’ in 1939, and ‘Round the Southern Railways Fleet’ in 1946; clearly his job overlapped happily with an enduring personal interest in transport.

Sir Malcolm Campbell shakes hands with the driver of a steam engine with a special plaque on the front reading, 'Welcome Campbell - The Bluebird Special'. Also in the picture, far left, is Cuthbert Grasemann, PR and Publicity Officer for Southern Railways. Presumably he is the one responsible for this meeting. Date: c.1927
Sir Malcolm Campbell shakes hands with the driver of a steam engine with a special plaque on the front reading, ‘Welcome Campbell – The Bluebird Special’. Also in the picture, far left, is Cuthbert Grasemann, PR and Publicity Officer for Southern Railways. Date: c.1927 (Picture number 11107639)

Even without the detective work to uncover his personal story, the photographs in Cuthbert’s Grasemann’s album are a haunting and redolent memento of a lost era. Turning the pages, L. P. Hartley’s opening lines of ‘The Go-Between’, ‘the past is another country’ spring to mind. Especially in the case of the early photographs, this is pre-war Britain as it once was for a privileged few.  One can’t help wondering about the fates of so many of the boys and men in those photographs.  Who made it through the war, and who didn’t.

But there is one more thing that makes this album doubly interesting. Two photographs document a visit to Rugby School by Lord Roberts on 16 February 1906 where he inspected the Rifle Club, an early version of the school’s Officer Training Corps.  Cuthbert Grasemann, who would have been 15 or 16 at the time, can be seen in his bandsman’s uniform standing in line near the back.  In charge of the corps, standing at the front is one 2nd Lt Rupert Brooke.

Lord Roberts, former Commander-in-Chief of the British Army and recipient of the Victoria Cross during the Indian Mutiny, visits Rugby School in February 1906 where he inspects the school's Rifle Club (OTC, Officer Training Corps). The officer in charge of the corps is 2nd Lieutenant Rupert Brooke, poet, who would die in the Aegean during the First World War. Date: 1906
Lord Roberts visits Rugby School in February 1906 where he inspects the school’s Rifle Club (OTC, Officer Training Corps). 2nd Lieutenant Rupert Brooke can be seen standing at the front. (Picture number 11107612)

Brooke is one of Rugby School’s most famous alumni. His father was a housemaster there, and at the time of Lord Roberts’ visit he would have been 18.  Academically gifted, sporty, and with renowned good looks, he would go up to Cambridge in autumn of that year, having won a scholarship to King’s College.  One of the most famous of the Great War poets, the tragedy of Rupert Brooke’s death, from an infected mosquito bite on a French hospital ship in the Aegean Sea off the coast of Skyros on 23 April 1915 caught the public imagination.  Shortly after his death, his poetry collection, ‘1914 and other Poems’ sold 160,000 copies.

With three years separating them, it is unlikely Grasemann was on very close terms with Brooke, but it is clear that he was aware of his significance. Underneath the photograph in which Brooke’s handsome profile is unmistakable, Cuthbert Grasemann has unusually included Brooke’s Christian name in his annotations.  It is probable this album was compiled a number of years after Brooke’s death by which time his name had entered into Great War mythology; a fallen warrior, a ‘young Apollo, golden haired’ as described by the poet Frances Cornford.

Did Mary and Hilary ever notice Brooke’s existence among these photographs? The fact that the entire album has never been catalogued or scanned suggests not; a natural oversight in a collection that numbers thousands and thousands of individual items.  Only on closer examination did I myself notice the picture and it is finds like this that make Mary Evans such a unique place to work.  How they acquired the album in the first place is unknown.  Papers relating to Cuthbert Grasemann are held at the National Archives and the National Maritime Museum.  It seems strange that this album of such exquisite personal photographs should have been sold.  A small pencil inscription on the inside front cover suggests it was bought for £20 – quite possibly some years ago.  Whatever was paid for it, we believe the contents are simply priceless.

Too see a wider selection of photographs from the Cuthbert Grasemann album click here

All images copyright © Mary Evans Picture Library.  Please contact Mary Evans Picture Library is you would like permission to reproduce any of our pictures.