The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon chronicles David Sassoon's fifty-year career and his place at the cutting edge of the British fashion industry. The publication looks at High Society's huge appetite for Bellville Sassoon designs from the 1950s, through the Swinging Sixties, right up to the present day.
Dressing the Rich, the Famous, and us Ordinary Girls
Over the years Sassoon has designed outfits for the rich and famous, the aristocracy, and the Royal Family. More importantly, from my point of view, is that he designed for me, the woman on the street. I'm not handy with a needle but I do know a good dressmaker. Bellville Sassoon's long-term collaboration with Vogue Patterns has made many of their designs available to me, the Ordinary Girl, and thousands more like me.
David Sassoon, born 1932 in London, was captivated by fashion and glamour from an early age. He joined Belinda Bellville straight from college in 1958 and together they built a clientèle that included foreign royals such as Queen Noor of Jordan and British royals including Princess Margaret, Princess Alexandra, Princess Anne, Princess Michael of Kent, the Duchess of Kent, the Duchess of Gloucester and the Duchess of York. In his inimitable friendly, chatty style, David Sassoon gives us a privileged glimpse into his friendship with Diana, Princess of Wales for whom he created at least seventy outfits including her trousseau and the going-away outfit. Sassoon received a lifetime achievement award from the Association of Sewing and Design Professionals (formerly PACC) in 2008.
Sinty Stemp, daughter of fashion illustrator Eric Stemp, has been involved in the fashion industry since 1987. She has lectured widely on the British fashion industry and is author of Jean Muir: Beyond Fashion.
Layout of the Publication
The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon is set out as follows:
- Foreword – Suzy Menkes introduces David Sassoon and takes a look at Bellville Sassoon's changing clientèle from the last débutantes presented at court in 1958 to actresses and television presenters such as Kelly Brook, Leona Lewis and Rosamund Pike Menkes is fashion director of the International Herald Tribune and author of numerous publications including The Royal Jewels.
- Preface – David Sassoon very briefly outlines the history of the Bellville Sassoon partnership and pays tribute to his team of talented professionals, who in his words, have become his 'family' and friends.
- Beginnings – David Sassoon, born 1932 in London, offers us an intimate glimpse into his very happy childhood and family life. He also tells us about his not so happy school days where he failed to achieve academically and how that failure inspired him to succeed in other ways. He tells how he developed ″a killer instinct to succeed″ (The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon, p. 14). At one point Sassoon thought he wanted to be an actor even winning a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. However, parental opposition forced him to abandon this plan. Plan B, the world of fashion design, was considered by far the better option. After studying at Hammersmith School of Art, a course interrupted by two years of National Service in the Air Force, Sassoon was accepted at the Royal College of Art.
- Royal College of Art – Sassoon describes his time (1955-1958) at the Royal College of Art and presents designs and drawings from that period. He also describes the heady atmosphere of international fashion shows where he drew inspiration from designers such as Cristóbal Balenciaga, Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, the Fontana Sisters and Roberto Capucci. His favourite was always Christian Dior. At his graduation show Sassoon presented a group of glamorous evening dresses. A visitor to that show offered him a post as assistant designer. That person was Belinda Bellville, society dressmaker to duchesses and débutantes.
- Belting Along with Bellville – Sassoon briefly outlines the history of Bellville et Cie established by Belinda in 1953. He gives us a detailed and fascinating view of the partnership, and close friendship, and what it was like working with Belinda Bellville.
Daughter of the Hon. Mrs Peter Pleydell-Bouverie, Belinda had been launched into society as a deb so she knew exactly what her débutante clients wanted. On joining the company Sassoon soon found himself plunged head first into the exciting world of British royals, the aristocracy and the débutantes. Their appetite for fabulous gowns was fuelled by a calendar of glittering events and they all wanted something different, something exclusive. Ready-to-wear just wasn't good enough, and in any case one simply couldn't go to a ball and risk being seen in the same dress as someone else!
- Sign of the Times – Bellville Sassoon Through the Decades - Sassoon takes a decade-by-decade look at his life and work. He includes many humorous stories such as the events leading up to his decision to stop smoking. One day Sassoon stubbed out a cigarette in a waste basket and left the partnership's premises. The cigarette, re-ignited by a draught, set fire to the workshops with disastrous results. Sassoon had the job of telling Belinda about the fire. Stoically, she said: ″Oh well, there's not much I can do about it – I'm going to finish my lunch.″ (ibid., p. 88).
- Royals – Sassoon has designed outfits for every female member of the royal family with the exception of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and the Queen Mother. Whilst remaining totally discrete he provides an interesting glimpse into these relationships through entertaining stories, photographs and press clippings. One story Sassoon tells is about the time when three guests of the Queen came down to dinner in the same Bellville dress. The guests were not amused but apparently The Queen was. Sassoon says ″She certainly knew a Bellville when she saw one″. As Her Majesty looked at her guests she said: ″Bellville! Bellville! Bellville! (ibid., p. 157).
Of all the royal ladies Diana, Princess of Wales, had the greatest impact on royal style and British, if not international, and world style. Diana hated coats but during the particularly cold winter of 1982 she wore a Russian-style coat with muff and hat and single-handedly sparked off a Russian Cossack/Dr Zhivago revival. Sassoon dressed Diana for many of the most important events in her life from her first official press photograph with the Queen to her going-away outfit and the outfit worn to the christening of Prince William, as well as her many official engagements. Sassoon also includes letters and original design sketches where Diana's enthusiasm can be seen through her comments.
What makes this book especially fascinating are the little details Sassoon gives us. On page 193 he describes a visit to Kensington Palace to meet with the Princess of Wales. He tells us: ″the hall and stairs were carpeted in apple green with the Prince of Wales's feathers woven in cream, and the walls were pale peach with the plasterwork picked out in white.″
- Queen for a Day – Bellville Brides - This chapter is an extraordinary journey through time and it is interesting to chart the changes in wedding fashions. Without being indiscreet the author describes the clientèle and the débutantes, known as the 'Bellville brides'. During the 1960s bridal gowns accounted for approximately one quarter of the company's business. At around the same time the partnership ventured into the ready-to-wear market to meet the demands of British and American retailers such as Martin Moss's Knightsbridge department store, Woollands, and Bergdorf Goodman, one of New York's most popular fashion stores.
- Jewels and Balls explores the gowns created for the higher echelons of society and worn to galas and balls. Sassoon says ″Everyone thinks of the British woman as all tweeds and twinsets, but she really shines at night – and often has amazing jewellery.″ (ibid., p. 252). It was often these glittering gems that inspired some of the stunning gowns worn to High Society's most opulent balls and parties. Sassoon defers to English couturier Hardy Amies, who when reminiscing about the French said: ″[They] have the frocks but the British have the rocks!″ (ibid., p. 253). Once again, Sassoon entertains us with many discreet but amusing stories about his famous clientèle.
- Vogue Patterns – Sassoon outlines the history of the Vogue Pattern Company which dates back to 1914. Vogue's partnership with Bellville Sassoon started in 1965, and the popularity of these designs has never waned. Having bought Vogue Patterns and asked my dressmaker to make up these fabulous designs I'm one of the many ordinary girls who have enjoyed these garments.
- New Horizons – David Sassoon says: ″Fifty years is a long time to survive in the competitive world of fashion – you need staying power and luck. I have been blessed with both, as well as the fantastic team that surrounds me.″ (ibid., p. 292. ) Although he has put the company in the capable hands Lorcan Mullany, with whom he has worked for twenty years, the impression you get from the book is that David Sassoon still has a lot more to give.
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A Good Read
A good read? Yes definitely. The book is fun and easy to read. It presents a factual and highly informative history of one of Britain's foremost couture labels and British fashion history of the last fifty years. Published by Antique Collectors Club, the book is available from all good book stores, priced at £35.00, ISBN 9781851495757.
The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon at the Fashion and Textile Museum
During the autumn of 2013 London's Fashion and Textile Museum presents a major retrospective exhibition looking at the Bellville Sassoon story, entitled The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon. Tickets and further information can be obtained from the Fashion and Textile Museum.
Inspired to Sew?
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