V&A London Couture Study Day

By Lindsay Parker

by Bassano Ltd, half-plate film negative, 19 October 1977

{ Lady Fox, 1977 – Image: National Portrait Gallery }

On Saturday I attended the V&A London Couture study day, a day of lectures and discussion where visitors were invited to “explore the luxurious world of mid twentieth century London couture”. The event was organised to correspond with the release of a V&A published book on the topic and included lectures by several of the contributing authors.

The event addressed a range of the issues associated with London Couture and was opened by Amy de la Haye, who set the scene with an introduction to London’s court dressmakers of the 19th and early 20th century as precursors to the London Couture designers and to the proto-couturiers who began to lead the way for British design as an alternative to the Parisian inspired garments that had until then been the norm.

Edwina Ehram followed seamlessly with a brief history of London Couture from 1923-1975 which gave a succinct overview of the development of designers who promoted British design and the young designers of the 1930s and 40s that began to design for their contemporaries rather than for court dress.

Next on the programme was a more micro-view of the topic delivered by Joyce Fenton-Douglas who discussed the Ancillary trades linked to the couture industry and their roles within leading couture establishments. We were given insights in to the specific makers, techniques and outputs involved in providing the intricate details of couture garments, with stunning accompanying visuals.

The second half of the day began with Beatrice Behlan, introducing us to the clients of couture and their lives. She shared with us her journey of discovery as she traced the purchases of Lady Fox and her appearances in couture fashions in various high profile events, bringing to life the clothing and designers discussed in the previous lectures.

Timothy Long continued the day by discussing the work of Charles James, particular focusing on his “London years” of 1929-1939 with an emphasis on the unique construction of James’s garments. Long highlighted the impact of James’ London years, at the beginning of his couture career, on the development of his future works.

The final talk of the day was from Jonathon Faiers, who introduced a more sombre note by reflecting on the reporting of London couture from the 1940s-60s and the problems with the focus on the “timelessness” of London Couture as reported by the press. This ultimately led us to the decline of the couture industry in Britain and brought us to the end of the event.

Overall the event was informative and varied, with exploration of a range of themes which gave an insight into the development, structure, designers, workers and clients of the golden age of London Couture.

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