Isobel the Matchmaker

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.

Machine-made lace and silk wedding dress by Isobel, 1953

Machine-made lace and silk wedding dress by Isobel, 1953 © V&A Collection

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.

Lace bodice and sleeves embroidered in diamante and pearl beads, 1953 © V&A Collection

Lace bodice and sleeves embroidered in diamante and pearl beads, 1953 © V&A Collection

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.

Back view and train of wedding dress by Isobel, 1953 © V&A Collection

Back view and train of wedding dress by Isobel, 1953 © V&A Collection

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!

Embroidered beaded detail on machine-made lace, 1953 © V&A Collection

Embroidered beaded detail on machine-made lace, 1953 © V&A Collection

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.

2014HA2102

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.

 

3 thoughts on “Isobel the Matchmaker

Natalie Brocklehurst:

What a fantastic exhibit!!
I’m currently working on my final year dissertation, topic being about the wedding dress and how it has evolved to fit in with contemporary social statistics, in particular, the rise in plus size.
I’m looking to book a ticket to see the exhibition, one question “can photographs be taken, or are only notes and sketches allowed??”

Susanna Cordner:

Hi Natalie, thanks for reading the blog & taking the time to comment. What an interesting dissertation topic. I think the notion of the contemporary wedding dress having to adapt to and cater for modern figures is a great example of the way the fashion industry meets the needs of a mass and global market. It’s all the more interesting to consider the fact that before the phenomena of shop bought and off the rail wedding dresses, the majority of brides would have had their wedding dress made for them personally – so, it was the dressmaker accommodating the individual figure of the wearer, and not the other way round!
In answer to your question – I am afraid that photography is not allowed within the exhibition. There are however postcards of some of the brides and dresses on sale and an exhibition catalogue which you could use for reference. Good luck with your dissertation and hope you enjoy the exhibition.

Richard Baxter:

My Grandpa worked at Isobel’s (pre war), as an apprentice furrier. Somewhere we still have the photographic record of his apprentice pieces. I’ve certainly seen them and either Mum, or my Uncle will have them stashed away. Are they of any interest to the V&A at all? I can’t say that they would want to loan the originals but I can ask but you could lithograph them, if you so wished?
The wedding dress is wonderful, by the way!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *