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.
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 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 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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
With thanks to Randy Bryan Bigham for providing additional source material on Elspeth Phelps.
To order prints of Elspeth Phelps advertisements follow this link.