To celebrate its 10th anniversary London's Fashion and Textile Museum is mounting an exhibition entitled The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon. The display showcases more than 150 items including drawings and sketches, photographs, patterns, video footage and 80 stunning dresses created for some of the world's most fashion-conscious women.
The exhibition outlines the development of British couture, focusing in particular on the design partnership of society designer and dressmaker Belinda Bellville and designer David Sassoon. The exhibition spans a period from the early 1950s to the present day.
Established in 2003 by Zandra Rhodes, the FTM is the UK's only museum devoted entirely to contemporary fashion. It also provides training, support and inspiration for anyone involved in the fashion industry.
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Belinda Bellville and David Sassoon
The Bellville Sassoon partnership has for many years been recognised as Britain's most influential couture label favoured by royalty, the aristocracy and millions of ordinary women.
By the time Belinda Bellville met David Sassoon she was a renowned society designer/dressmaker with a well-established business. David Sassoon joined her in 1958 (after graduating from the Royal College of Art) and has been there ever since.
Adopting the name Bellville Sassoon in 1970, the company provided an innovative and exciting alternative to the conservative styles preferred by traditional couturiers. Luxurious, bespoke, and highly fashionable garments were eagerly commissioned by debutantes and celebrities wanting to be noticed at the season's grand balls, coming-out parties and society weddings. Anita Baker, Shakira Caine, Faye Dunnaway, Melanie Griffith, Jerry Hall, Audrey Hepburn, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Lady Jane Rayne, the Countess von Bismarck, Ivana Trump, Madonna, Helen Mirren, Blaine Trump have all been seen in Bellville Sassoon designs.
Dressing the Ordinary Girls - The Vogue Partnership
It is not just celebs who enjoy these stunning garments. The company has also enjoyed a long-running collaboration with the Vogue Pattern Company, making many of their most popular designs available to us ordinary girls. In the 1970s I was one of those ordinary girls, grateful to my local dressmaker who produced numerous BS garments for me. Fabric and dressmakers were cheap, so there were no excuses for not enjoying the latest designs. Belinda retired in 1981 and David took over the business.
Designs for Princess Diana
Bellville Sassoon has been much favoured by royalty including Princess Margaret, Princess Anne and Princess Michael of Kent. The label was a firm favourite with Diana, Princess of Wales, for whom Bellville Sassoon produced more than 70 outfits including her trousseau and going away outfit.
The installation features dresses created for Diana together with sketches with notes added by the Princess demonstrating the close collaboration between herself and David Sassoon.
One of the most popular items on display is Diana's going away outfit consisting of a peach silk dress and jacket. Sassoon called the colour 'canteloupe'. The suit had two jackets – one with short sleeves and one with long sleeves – so that the Princess had a suitable alternative if the weather was bad. As it turned out it was fine and Diana chose the short-sleeved jacket with large romantic collar and bow. Diana loved this suit and wore it on subsequent occasions including her tour of Australia in 1983.
Just Married: The Going Away Outfit, July 29, 1981. Taken from The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon by David Sassoon and Sintry Stemp (ACC Editions).
Exclusive Interview with David Sassoon at the Fashion and Textile Museum
While visiting the Fashion and Textile Museum Frances Spiegel spoke with David Sassoon:
Frances Spiegel: When you knew you were going to meet your first 'royal' how did you feel?
Sassoon: Well, I was very nervous. I thought, how wonderful, I'm going to Buckingham Palace. So I went to the Palace to fit Princess Anne who was a bridesmaid for the first time for someone called Lady Pamela Hicks (Pamela Mountbatten that was). I was rather disappointed when I arrived because designers in those days were tradesmen so we went through the tradesmen's entrance.
A liveried page escorted us up to the nursery where the nanny put Princess Anne into the dress and I walked in to do the fitting. In the middle of it all the Queen came in. She was pregnant at the time, expecting Prince Edward, I think. I walked backwards to make a polite bow and put my foot in a corgi bowl full of water which upset all over my shoes. She pulled a cord by the fireplace and a liveried page came in and wiped my shoes.
Thirty years later I went back to Buckingham Palace to fit Sarah Ferguson (Duchess of York). Designers had been upgraded by then and I went through the front entrance which was wonderful, but there were no liveried pages any more, they just had uniforms... it was all very exciting.
FS: Since then you've dressed every female royal with the exception of the Queen and the Queen Mother. Has this been a source of disappointment for you?
Sassoon: No, not really, but it was very funny because about two years ago I went to Buckingham Palace to an evening honouring the fashion industry, and I said: 'Mam, I've dressed practically every member of the royal family... your daughter, your sister, your cousins, but I've never dressed your majesty', and she smiled very sweetly.
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FS: You've dressed the rich and famous, and you've dressed many thousands of so-called 'ordinary' women, including me. That must be a great source of pride.
Sassoon: Yes, it is. One of the wonderful things is that we still have a Vogue pattern license and Lorcan Mullany carries on doing it.
FS: Looking back on your career what would you say was the most outrageous garment anyone asked you to design?
Sassoon: Outrageous... I don't think I've ever done outrageous... No, I don't think it was our thing. Glamour and sophistication are wonderful, but I don't think I ever did anything that you might call outrageous. Our clientèle were always rather ladylike.
FS: What was the most important piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
Sassoon: Well you see... if you design a dress for somebody you have to understand the person you're doing it for. If she feels good in the dress, she looks good. It's an art, and I enjoy the art of making a woman look good. It's a great sense of pride to me that she really feels good in the dress she's wearing.
FS: What advice would you give to young adults looking for a career in fashion?
Sassoon: Well, I think they need to learn their craft today. Too many young students who come from colleges instantly want to have their own business and do their own thing. Financially, it's the most difficult thing in the world to do, and they also do not have the experience. They need to learn, working for another designer or in a workroom, or whatever it is, getting experience, which a lot of them, sadly, don't have.
A closely related publication entitled The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon delves much deeper into the life and work of Belinda Bellville and David Sassoon. Written by David Sassoon and Sinty Stemp, the 304-page hardback book explores the design partnership's impact on British fashion history. Sassoon gives us a fascinating narrative supported by over 300 colour and black and white illustrations. Published by ACC Editions: ISBN 9781851495757.
Visit the Exhibition
The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon will be open from 20th September 2013 to 11th January 2014. Tickets and further details can be obtained from the Fashion and Textile Museum.
London Borough of Southwark, London SE1 3XF, UK