‘Hartnell to Amies: Couture by Royal Appointment’: Learning from British Couture Lessons in South London

Maybe because of its relative seclusion away from London’s traditional cultural centres of Trafalgar Square or South Kensington, and despite the fact that its location in trendy Bermondsey Street is benefitting from a considerable spike in esteem owing to new and popular restaurants, boutiques and art galleries that have recently settled in this corner of South London, the Fashion and Textile Museum hasn’t always been considered a destination in itself. However, when I paid a visit on a cold and rainy autumn afternoon, the museum galleries, shop and cafe seemed busier than ever. The reason for this was the exhibition ‘Hartnell to Amies: Couture by Royal Appointment’, a display of stunning dresses, jewellery, accessories, shoes, photographs and drawings by British designers and photographers who raised the public role of private couture commissions for a large part of twentieth-century Britain and whose talent, decades later, have attracted crowds to learn about their influence in British fashion history.

Featuring over 50 British couture gowns, as well as hats and jewellery rarely seen in public before, ‘Hartnell to Amies’ was curated by Dennis Nothdruft and Michael Pick with the intention to celebrate London couture and explore how the Queen’s patronage of British designers helped to establish London as an international fashion centre after World War II. Whilst English tailors have been renowned for their craft since the eighteenth century, there was little British couture until Norman Hartnell came to the fore with the opening of his store in Mayfair’s Bruton Street on St George’s Day in 1923 and started designing gowns for royal and aristocratic customers. Famous for designing the Queen’s wedding dress in 1947 and Coronation Dress of 1953, Hartnell opened a store in Paris (where he also showed his creations) and sold in large quantities in New York, thus inaugurating an era of British high fashion that set the standard for generations to come.

The exhibition begins with the opening of Norman Hartnell’s first salon in 1923 and explores the importance of British high society ‘Bright Young Things’ group, before showcasing the advent of couturier Hardy Amies and milliner Frederick Fox. It explores Hartnell’s long career, including his landmark art-moderne House of 1935, war-time Utility designs and his famous fashions of the 1950s and 1960s designed for royalty and actresses (including elegant eveningwear gowns embellished by Hartnell’s in-house embroiderers, examples of which can be found in framed fabrics dotted throughout the exhibition).

Hardy Amies, whose career began as manager of women’s sports clothes label Lachasse in 1934 (before becoming its designer in 1935), later garnered a reputation for its tailored suits and for being in tune with international sartorial trends, namely Christian Dior’s New Look. He founded his own couture house in 1945 in a bombed Savile Row and secured not only a solid reputation but also large orders in important department stores in New York and Chicago. In the 1950s, royals and actresses started ordering from him, and so did Queen Elizabeth II for the next five decades. Amies also became a successful menswear designer in 1959 with the first recorded men’s runway show.

Hartnell to Amies’ also highlights the milliner’s role in London couture through the work of Australia-born designer Frederick Fox, whose most famous designs include the hats he created for Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and many international celebrities. In addition, dresses conceived by designers affiliated to the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (set up in 1942 to support and promote the creative work of people like Hartnell, Amies, Charles Creed and others during wartime) are also on display. The exhibition is also accompanied by a display of Norman Parkinson’s photographs.

Hartnell to Amies: Couture by Royal Appointment’ is on until 23 February 2013 at the Fashion and Textile Museum at 83 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3XF. The exhibition is accompanied by a series of lectures and workshops.