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.


Shoes Symposium at the V&A

by Anushka Tay


{Chopines, c.1600,© Victoria & Albert  Museum, London}

Last week, I was fortunate to be able to attend the Shoes symposium at the V&A. Held in conjunction with the current exhibition Shoes: Pleasure and Pain (until 31 January), it was a varied series of lectures and discussions designed to enrich an understanding of the exhibition.

The day was in two halves. The morning talks featuring lectures by shoe specialists from a variety of fields; the afternoon talks were a series of discussions with contemporary footwear practitioners. Overall, the day continued the exhibition’s themes of shoes as emblematic of power, fantasy and desire.

The lectures featured a really interesting selection of topics. A whirlwind history of the high heel by Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, considered the cultural implications of high footwear for men and women since the development of the chopine platform (see above image).

Art and costume historian Aileen Ribeiro spoke on shoes in art, and considered some artists’ designs and creations of shoes. Dress historian Hilary Davidson delivered a talk on the presence of Cinderella shoes in folk tales around the world, proving that the mythical component of beautiful but impractical shoes has a long history of deep-seated human desires.

Historian Thomas Turner presented the development of the lawn tennis shoe in late Victorian England, considering the place of the shoe and the game in culture and society. Finally, Bob Watts of Dorset Orthopaedic gave a very different presentation about prosthetic limbs, alluding to the carved wooden pair that his company created in conjunction with Alexander McQueen.


{Chopines, c.1600,© Victoria & Albert  Museum, London}

I was only able to stay for one of the discussions with contemporary shoe designers, but this had far more focus on shoes as a commodity. It didn’t go into depth on further topics of symbolic or historical components of shoes, focussing instead on brand creation and business issues. Additionally, it was a luxury women’s shoe brand; thus, did not really explore any further new themes, after we had heard the morning’s discussions on desire, fantasy, luxury materials and very high heels.

The talks overall had a high focus on women’s shoes, which is rather typical of ‘fashion’ events. Additionally, the focus was primarily on Western/European shoes. Some lecturers touched upon shoes in other cultures, but did not go into depth. It would have been really interesting to learn about different cultures, as the exhibition itself does give examples from around the world.

Nonetheless, the lectures were intelligent, well-delivered, and very enjoyable, and I would certainly recommend attending a study day or symposium at the V&A in the future. The talks really explored ideas raised in the exhibition in much more depth, providing further insight and a greater understanding of these familiar, and not-so-familiar, objects.

The next study day at the V&A is London Couture – on tomorrow. Click here for more information.

Click here to see future conferences.

Click here to see other educational events at the V&A.

N.B. I was offered a free ticket to attend this symposium by University of the Arts London; however all opinions are my own and unsponsored.