Sometimes, through a lack of lasting materials or personal accounts, a great designer can be lost to fashion history. Through drawing together the remaining pieces, memories, records or mentions in magazines, such a fate can sometimes be avoided. This, we hope, could be the case with Isobel, a leading British fashion house in the interwar period which was headed by its namesake, Isobel Spevak Harris.
We have a dress in the exhibition which was worn by Anne Hodson, née Molineux, for her wedding in 1953. The dress was designed for her personally by Isobel. Anne worked as a PA for Isobel from around 1948 to 1951 while the fashion house was situated on Grosvenor Street. From the 1930s onwards Grosvenor Street was considered to be the home of glamorous British fashion, with designers such as Norman Hartnell based there. Isobel had a clear aesthetic which ran through both her designs and the interiors of the shop. The window displays would exhibit just one item at a time, with a grey quilted screen as a backdrop.
When I had the pleasure of interviewing Anne in connection to the exhibition, she told me that this meticulous approach extended into Isobel’s Sussex weekend retreat, Landhurst Woods. The property, bought in the fashion house’s heyday of the mid-1930s, was used solely as a retreat for Isobel, who would journey there with guests and friends most weekends. Despite the house’s relaxing function, Isobel’s mode of decoration was more in keeping with her style and work ethic as a designer. Anne told me that every bedroom in the house had a thematic colour scheme – one room pink, one green, one blue – meaning that everything in that room toned in or matched that selected colour, right down to the toilet paper! This flourish was considered pretty extravagant so soon after the war, but was in keeping with Isobel’s high standards and exacting excellent taste.
When Anne started to work for Isobel, she almost immediately began to be invited to Landhurst Wood. In fact, Anne actually met her future husband on one of these weekend retreats. Isobel sent Gordon Hodson in the car to nearby Hartfield station to collect Anne for a New Year’s Eve party. After such an introduction, it appears a natural extension, and symbol of the two women’s bond, for Isobel to have designed Anne’s wedding dress. The resulting garment is beautiful and has, while on display, earned many comparisons to the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress – although obviously Anne’s dress came 58 years before!
While the bodice and skirt of the dress are made from machine-made lace layered over satin, the bust and sleeves are framed only in lace. This meant that the bride’s skin showed slightly and daintily through this section, creating a sense of lightness to the design. This section of lace is also embroidered with pearl beads and diamantes, lending the dress further glamour and charm.
Anne’s wedding dress is displayed alongside the couple’s diamond wedding anniversary card from the Queen, showing just what a success Isobel’s matchmaking proved to be.