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Fashion Education in London in the 20s and 30s and the Legacy of Muriel Pemberton

Marie McLoughlin

Abstracts

An exploration of the formal training of fashion designers in the UK, with particular attention to the career of Muriel Pemberton. Pemberton was the first graduate in Fashion Studies at the Royal College of Art and went on to found the Fashion School at St Martin's School of Art. She was also a watercolour artist of note, part of the Neo-Romantic school of Brtish painters of the 1930s. Her approaches to the teaching of fashion are contrasted with those of other schools in London and Paris; and the apprenticeship of the youngest son of the Paris based couture house Creed, a house with its origins in British tailoring.

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Dedication

'There is in England . . . no scope whatsoever for the girl who designs fashions by drawing them.' (Hodgkin 1932).

Full text

Elliot Hodgkin, quoted above, writing in Fashion Drawing in 1932, went on to observe:

‘Dressmaking Houses that do not confine themselves to copying French dresses have their own designer who is either a cutter or the head of the firm; someone at any rate, so identified with the policy and reputation of the house that no beginner with a portfolio of designs could hope to be allowed to compete.’

1In other words the opportunities for the aspiring designer in Britain in the 1930s were slim. But things were about to change.

  • 1 This is the date given in an English report written in the 1940s. The website of the École Supérieu (...)

21930 was an important year for fashion education on both sides of the Channel. In September of that year the École Superièure de la Couture, the school of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture was opened.1 A few months later the Royal College of Art (RCA) in London awarded its first diploma in fashion design to a young woman, Muriel Pemberton, who was to go on, in 1931, to lay the foundations for the Fashion Department at St Martin’s School of Art, which, as Central St Martins (CSM), is still the one of the largest and most successful fashion schools in the world. Thus the 1930s were a key period for the development of the highest level of institutional fashion education in England.

  • 2 There is a substantial body of French research on professional schools and techniques (Carole Chris (...)

3This paper will therefore examine and compare the various ways a prospective fashion designer in the 1930s could learn the trade, with a focus on institutional developments in London such as trade schools and the various private schools advertised in Vogue at that time, one of which Pemberton attended. This text will then examine the traditional apprenticeship system in fashion design, undertaken, for example, in the 1930s by Charles Creed, one which took him to Vienna and New York and which provides a fascinating professional counterpoint to these early exercises in fashion education. This text will also review a report on all fashion education in London produced by the British Board of Education in 1936. It will look at the RCA fashion syllabus written by Pemberton, who graduated in 1931, and at the curriculum she later introduced at St Martin’s, noting the similarities of Pemberton’s RCA, and subsequently the St Martin’s, curriculum of drawing, cutting designing and historical studies and compare those to that outlined in the prospectus of the École Supérieure de la Couture in Paris. Significantly, a copy of the curriculum of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, as set out in a 1931 report held in the University of Brighton Design Archives, provides important details of its parallel teaching programme.2

Training for the fashion business in England in the 1930s – Trade Schools

4Training for the fashion business in England in the 1930s took place in trade schools, in private schools and through apprenticeships. Trade schools took mostly working class children from the age of thirteen on and them taught skills that would enable them to find employment in the needle trades. The prospects of progressing beyond the workroom were remote. Local art schools also took children from age thirteen but, unlike trade schools, they also had classes for older children. From here exceptional students could gain a scholarship at age eighteen to the ‘National’ school, now called the Royal College of Art, in London where social mobility was a real possibility. When Pemberton got there in 1927, it had talented students from all over the country, irrespective of class or wealth. However, it did not teach fashion.

Private schools advertised in Vogue

  • 3 Edwina Erhman, writing in The London Look suggests that Katinka was one of several establishments, (...)

5The only other institutions in England where fashion skills could be studied were private schools, which advertised their courses in the back pages of fashion journals such as English Vogue. These private establishments offered, at considerable cost, a more private genteel, ambitious, middle-class fashion-related training environment than a local technical trade school. Most aimed at developing professional dressmaking skills. The ‘Ascot Fashion’ issue of British Vogue of May 29, 1935, for example, with its cover image of the Ascot aces by Raoul Dufy, is full of spring fashions, both French and English, for the British upper classes at play, not only at the Ascot racetrack but also at the Henley Regatta and at the annual Eton and Harrow cricket match. In the back of the magazine are a series of classified advertisements aimed not at those upper-class women featured on the editorial pages but at the aspirant middle-class reader of Vogue. Alongside advertisements for dress agencies, which purchased second-hand couture clothes, and similar companies, which would discretely buy jewellery or furs, were six brief notices for ‘schools’. The first claimed to train mannequins, and the second, ‘beauty’. The third, the Regent School of Dressmaking, with an address in Oxford Street, does appear to concentrate on the skills of dressmaking – ‘learn to make your own dresses, or as a career’ – with individual tuition from a Miss Lucas who would also supervise the making up of garments by ‘expert workers’. The fourth, was The Parisian School of Dressmaking, offering not just practical classes in cutting, fitting and making but lectures as well. Their prospectus could be obtained from ‘Katinka’ of Brompton Road, Kensington. This was the school where Pemberton chose to augment her studies at the nearby Royal College of Art. Edwina Ehrman, suggests that Katinka was one of several establishments founded by Russian émigrés following the 1917 revolution.3

6The fifth private school, close to Baker Street, promised that a ‘home-made appearance [would be] avoided’ offering small classes or individual tuition from a certain Miss Hird. The last, ‘The Guy Van Broam Studio of Fashion and Art’ had a far more ambitious syllabus offering: ‘A thorough training for professional work in all branches of fashion and jewellery designing, cutting, draping, illustration, life, portraits, oils’ with individual tuition (only) offered from the Gunter Hall Studios in Gunter Grove.

7Four years later, in January 1939, the Vogue advertisements reveal that Guy Van Broam had disappeared, as had the Regent School of Dressmaking. Miss Hird was still claiming ‘Home-made appearance avoided’ in her classes, and the Parisian School of Dressmaking, now renamed the Katinka School of Dress Designing, had added French modelling to its list of subjects and claimed to be recognised by ‘the Trade’. It offered ‘Complete professional training and short practical courses for amateurs’.

8The change of name may have been prompted by a new rival institution, the Paris Academy of Dressmaking and Millinery in Old Bond Street which offered ‘complete training by French experts’, implying a level of professionalism somewhat undermined by the addition of ‘Individual lessons to suit students’ convenience’. Millinery was clearly a new area of interest. A second Millinery School had appeared in Baker Street claiming millinery offered ‘a profitable career or an interesting hobby’ adding ‘only a short course is required’. This short course of 12 lessons, to take place on Tuesday evenings, was a rather expensive 12 gns (£12.60p).

9The ambitiously titled British Institute of Dress Designers, in Piccadilly, offered tuition in Dressmaking, Millinery, Lingerie, Tailoring, Creative Designing, Cutting, Fitting, Draping, Modelling, and Fashion drawing – all available as day or evening classes or as postal courses. The McCabe Academy of Dressmaking and Millinery (this last now clearly a subject in demand) claimed to be the ‘foremost and largest fashion school where authentic trade methods are guaranteed’ going on to say that individual tuition would be offered, again through day evening or postal lessons. With an address in Regent Street it was not the earlier Regent School of Dressmaking whose premises had been round the corner in Oxford Street.

10What seems evident here is that none of these trade schools or private colleges aspired in any way to teach their students the complex skills needed to become elite fashion designers. Of all these schools only Katinka had undisputed links to Paris and was the only one that credibly claimed recognition by the trade.

The apprenticeship and training of designers in a couture house: Charles Creed

11The only route into the highest levels of fashion design training in London in the interwar years was through the long established system of professional apprenticeships and specific training in a couture salon, positions often reserved for family members or for talented, highly educated young men socialising in Society circles. This system had been practiced in Paris for centuries. One such example is the training of a couturier who later worked in both London and Paris. Charles Creed (1909-1966) was the son of Henry Creed, head of the eponymous house in Paris that had dressed most of the crowned heads in Europe. Famous for their tailoring, they had begun in London as men’s tailors in 1710, moving to Paris in 1850, where they had created and popularised the women’s riding habit, ‘Amazones’, as adopted by the Empress Eugenie.

12Charles undertook an apprenticeship designed to fit him to be a designer for a leading Paris couture house. Molyneux, an exceptionally successful couturier in both London and Paris in the interwar years had begun by doing drawings for Lucile, as had Hartnell. Hardy Amies, who was to become the Royal couturier after the war, had trained before the war with the London couture house of Lachasse where his mother was a vendeuse. Given Creed’s privileged position as the son of such a well-established dynasty in French couture we must assume his apprenticeship was seen, by Charles’ father at least, as the best training a designer could have.

13Much of the following is taken from Creed’s autobiography Maid to Measure (1961) and as such must be treated warily. By his own account he wished to join the family company straight from school rather than go to university. He was educated at the famous English private school Stowe in Buckinghamshire, where he was contemporaneous with David Niven. A newly-founded public school (1923) it quickly established a high reputation claiming to send more boys to Oxford and Cambridge than anywhere else. So Charles’ decision to leave at only seventeen was contrary and his father initially demurred. Rather than allow Charles to join the family business right away, an older son was already there, he insisted on an initial elite and protracted international apprenticeship.

14A knowledge of languages was clearly an asset for a couturier with an international clientele. Henry, Charles’ father, travelled to Spain, Italy, Austria and Russia to dress his royal clients. His father, also Henry, had been an accomplished linguist, something which had encouraged the company’s move to Paris. Initially Charles went to Vienna to study sewing and design with an elderly Czech cutter who had worked for Henry Creed for more than thirty years and now had an establishment of his own. From there he went to Carlise in Cumbria and stayed with Mr Linton of Linton Tweeds. This English textile company supplied Chanel and others, and continues to do so, with its quality and innovative tweeds. There, he learned a great deal about high quality textiles, of the sort used in tailoring. Tailoring was the backbone not only of the family business in Paris but later of Charles Creed’s own London establishment.

15Finally Charles Creed arrived in the Paris house where he began at the bottom of the ladder as an apprentice in the stockroom. He befriended an apprentice at Patou, Andrew Goodman, son of ‘Eddie’ Goodman of Bergdorf Goodman, the Fifth Avenue luxury goods store. This gave him entrée to Bergdorf Goodman and New York where he learned the retail side of the fashion trade. At Bergdorf Goodman he worked as a floorwalker and, he writes disingenuously, ‘did a little designing’. What he did learn in New York was the importance of the wholesale trade to Seventh Avenue, and the importance of a ‘simplicity of line’, which translated into economy of production. He learned about mass production techniques and worked for three years as a designer at an establishment called ‘Rufflo’.

  • 4 Caroline Evans. Jean Patou’s American Mannequins: Early Fashion Shows and Modernism Modernism/moder (...)

16On returning to France he finally got his wish to join the family firm, first as stock-keeper, re-practicing his cutting and learning just how the business was run from the highly valued general manager. But he felt that the business looked passé. The Paris designer of the moment was Patou, the designer who, in 1925, had embraced the American aesthetic, and endeared himself to American buyers, when he recruited healthy sportif American girls to model for him in Paris.4 Charles used American public relation methods to promote Creed in the press and the society columns. And, despite his father’s initial reticence, he commissioned autographed silk linings, a successful idea copied by many other houses. Finally, in the late 1930s, his father allowed him to design some womenswear, thus completing his long training route from apprentice to couture designer.

The Royal College of Art

  • 5 For more on early design education see: Quentin Bell. The Schools of Design. London: Routledge & Ke (...)

17The Royal College of Art, together with the Victoria and Albert Museum, was built, literally, on the success of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Henry Cole, who had overseen the Great Exhibition of Works of Industry from all Nations, the first international exhibition of manufactured goods, became the first Superintendent of a new ‘Department of Practical Art’ to be created at South Kensington, close to the exhibition site and financed by its profits. Britain had been at the forefront of the industrial revolution and its manufacturing capabilities were second to none, but there was a general recognition by 1830 that it was weaker than France in the area of design. Henry Cole’s work at South Kensington was a continuation of government sponsored design education that went back to the first Select Committee of Arts and Manufactures of 1835, a Board of Trade initiative.5 The training of designers for industry was seen to be important, not for the cultural life of the country but as an economic necessity. By the time of Henry Cole and the South Kensington Department of Practical Art, this initiative had manifested itself as a National School (of Design) (now called the Royal College of Art), fed by a series of regional art schools; a museum to show both historic examples of the applied arts and good practice (now the Victoria and Albert Museum); and a library (now the National Art Library). Textiles and ceramics were the leading industries and designers were to be trained for those in particular.

18Until Pemberton arrived at the Royal College of Art in the 1920s no-one in any of these national or regional design schools had specialised in teaching fashion design though Arts and Crafts textile and dress design, based on the ideas of William Morris, were taught at art schools, from the late nineteenth century. Most famously at the Central School of Arts and Craft in London, where Morris’ daughter May taught embroidery. The Royal College of Art awarded its first ever diploma in Fashion Design to Muriel Pemberton in 1931. She was a woman who would become very influential in the establishment of fashion design education in the UK, both from her long tenure a St Martin’s School of Art, from 1931 to 1975, and her position as a government examiner, overseeing and accrediting courses throughout the UK, from 1938 to 1974.

Pemberton

19Muriel Pemberton was a child prodigy. She was the youngest student at Burslem School of Art, at just thirteen years old. Burslem was the ‘Mother town of the Potteries’, one of many small towns in the English Midlands which had sprung up during the industrial revolution to service the local industry of pottery production. Josiah Wedgwood had started his china business in Burslem and Pemberton’s school was called The Wedgwood Institute in his honour. The art school, though small, had been built in the 1870s with the direct involvement of Sir Henry Cole of the V&A. In many ways it was that venerable institution in microcosm. It had a library, a small museum, and ran classes in design. The most successful students went on to the ‘National School’, later called the Royal College of Art and at that time still part of the V&A. Funded by their local authority, it was intended they would return to teach art.

20By the time of the First World War, the founding purpose of the Royal College of Art had become diluted as its fortunes declined, until it was operating mainly as a teacher training college. However local government funding meant that many gifted but poor art students could get an education of the highest level. In 1926, when Pemberton went to the Royal College, the new Principal, Sir William Rothenstein, brought in to turn around the college’s fortunes, was quite clear that the highest level of art was painting. The most able students, which included Pemberton, were taken into the painting school to be taught by him personally. He had trained at the Académie Julien in Paris where he had been a friend of Lautrec. Pemberton painted all her life and exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy Summer Shows. Her vibrant, figurative, mixed media paintings have echoes of Lautrec (see Fig 1), but after a year studying painting she asked to leave Rothenstein’s elite in order to transfer to the Design School. In later years she was to say that it was so that she would be able to earn a living as a designer. She never did return to Burslem as a teacher, and wanted to learn a craft that would provide a living. A hand- embroidered skirt she had made, and was wearing during a visit to Burslem, was admired and she thought that her interest and talent in the field of dress design might provide a profession that would enable her to stay in London.

Fig. 1. Portrait of a Girl by Muriel Pemberton c 1975. Mixed media.

Fig. 1. Portrait of a Girl by Muriel Pemberton c 1975. Mixed media.

Private Collection

  • 6 When Pemberton arrived in the school, Professor Tristram was still the official head. His assistant (...)

21In fact, the RCA Design School in the 1920s had become the most forward-looking department of the college. Paul Nash, the First World War artist, had been invited to teach in the Design School in 1922 and, although he had left by the time Pemberton arrived, his pupils Edward Bawden and Eric Ravillious were teaching assistants there, promoting a Nash-influenced modernist aesthetic in contrast to Rothenstein’s nineteenth-century style. One of Pemberton’s talents was an ability to spot the coming trends and it is quite possible that she saw that the Design School was the place to be. In addition, a fellow Burslem alumnus, Reco Capey, was all but Head of the Design School.6 As well as his teaching duties at the RCA, he was the Design Director of Yardley, the well-established English beauty and parfumerie company, where he was responsible not only for the design of all its packaging and promotional material, but also many aspects of its new headquarters in Bond Street, which opened in 1931.

  • 7 RCA library. Royal College of Art Prospectus for 1926.

22The 1926 RCA prospectus sets out the programme of study in the Design School. Much of it was centred on drawing – life drawing, memory and observational drawing, and ‘a series of careful studies in the Museum. These should, as far as possible, be uniform in size for ready reference’. In addition ‘every advanced student of design will be expected to make himself proficient in the technique of one craft’.7 Fashion, or Dress, as Pemberton called it, was not one of the crafts offered in the department, although embroidery, printing on cotton, and weaving were. She was asked to propose a syllabus that would enable her to ‘become proficient in the technique of dress design’, to paraphrase the prospectus. In addition to the drawing element above, at which she was already proficient, she divided the craft element into three parts, technique, history, and the less easily articulated ‘fashion’ as represented by the study of the changing trends at the high end of the clothing industry. In order to master these skills she sought out people and places where she could learn, often teaching drawing in return for free classes.

Pattern Cutting at the RCA

  • 8 Russell Taylor, pp. 29-30.
  • 9 Natalie Bray, Dress Pattern Designing. London: Crosby Lockwood, 3rd edition,1972. (First pub. 1961. (...)

23Pemberton saw pattern cutting as the key craft for the designer– in effect three-dimensional drawing – rather than sewing or tailoring. To learn cutting Pemberton went along to the nearby Katinka School of pattern cutting, where one day a week she had lessons in exchange for teaching design.8 As has been described, Katinka advertised in Vogue from the 1920s where it described itself as a Court Dressmaker specialising in embroidery. It is significant that the Katinka text books on pattern cutting were still set texts at St Martin’s forty years later when I was a student there (fig 2). The dust jacket, significantly for this text, states that the author, Natalie Bray, the Principal of Katinka, had trained with Lucien Lelong.9 In addition to running his own couture house Lelong was the President of the Chambre Syndicale from 1937. The Katinka method was one of flat pattern cutting and provided an understanding of the complex geometry that underlines the manipulation of a two-dimensional fabric into a three-dimensional garment.

Fig. 2 Pattern cutting text books by Natalie Bray. (Author’s own.).Bray was the Principal of the Katinka school and had trained with Lelong.

Fig. 2 Pattern cutting text books by Natalie Bray. (Author’s own.).Bray was the Principal of the Katinka school and had trained with Lelong.

Private collection. Photograph by author

History at the RCA

24Reflecting the founding principles of South Kensington, study of the history of a particular craft was seen as essential for any contemporary practitioner. Through the 1920s RCA students spent much of their time studying and drawing in the V&A; the two institutions were still on the same site. In writing her own programme of history study Pemberton approached the V&A’s Head of Prints and Drawings, James Laver, for advice. His passion was costume and the history of costume; he was later to write many books on the subject. His Concise History of Costume (1969) is still in print. He gave Pemberton a reading list that, she claimed, would tell her all she could ever wish to know about dress in other countries and eras.

25Laver’s approach to historical dress was through the secondary sources of Prints and Drawings, and literature. Pemberton’s approach, to judge by her later teaching, was one which today might be described as a material culture approach. She wanted her students to closely examine and interrogate the actual objects to better understand the techniques used in their making and decoration. Like the École Supérieure, discussed below, Pemberton used the museum as a resource for design, and encouraged her students to do the same. This approach reflects Cole’s original aims for the South Kensington (now V&A) collection. It was assembled as a teaching collection in order to show craftsmen and designers the best examples of particular materials and techniques for purposes of instruction and inspiration. It was not assembled to provide an historical or social narrative, nor was this the intention of Pemberton’s programme of study for designers.

Fashion and the development of ‘good taste’

  • 10 Georgina O’Hara The Encyclopaedia of Fashion Thames & Hudson. London, 1989. p 213.Reville and Rossi (...)
  • 11 Russell Taylor, p. 29.

26This is the most intangible part of any fashion design curriculum, even today. The presence of the progressive and dynamic designer, Reco Capey must have encouraged Pemberton that someone from relatively humble beginnings in Burslem, as hers were too, could become a taste leader in fashionable Bond Street. She also met a fashion designer called Terry who was associated with Reville and Rossiter, a company appointed Court Dressmaker to Queen Mary.10 As a student Pemberton spent a day a week at this famous London couture salon, sketching and seeing how things were done. In return she was to do fashion drawings for them if need be.11 Here she would have observed the tastes of British society, including that of the Queen and Queen Maud of Norway, youngest daughter of King Edward VII. She would have learned all about the ways in which a major London couture house designed both for fashionable and formal Court occasions. Later, Pemberton always stressed the need for students to study the latest fashions. At St Martin’s she demanded that two annual trips to Paris be part of her own teaching contract and took students to see fashions shows in London and Paris.

27The strands outlined above, together, above all, with refined drawing skill that was at the core of all Design School programmes, made up Pemberton’s fashion syllabus at the RCA. They were also to be the basis of the curriculum she slowly introduced at St Martin’s. Drawing came first.

1936 government review of fashion education in Britain

28In 1936 a British Government Board of Education review was undertaken in response to a Board of Trade enquiry into the state of the fashion industry in Britain. What it revealed is that two distinct strands of education had, as already noted here, emerged by this time. Trade Schools were teaching girls of 14-16 the skills needed to work as workroom hands in the various court dressmakers, tailors, hat makers and embroiderers in London and beyond, as they had done for many years. The art and design schools however, more likely to take students of 16-18, were only just beginning to treat fashion as an independent subject. Most of these schools, whilst embracing most forms of design that involved both hand-craft and mass production, were noticeably reticent when it came to anything to do with dress. The Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, which had a School of Costume, gradually, throughout the thirties, abandoned contemporary fashion education entirely, in order to concentrate on historical and theatrical dress design. Textiles had long been a mainstay of some design schools, notably those in the textile-producing heartlands of Lancashire and Yorkshire, but fashion was regarded as too marginal to be a design subject. As the title of this paper suggests, the prospect of any girl getting a job as a fashion designer in the United Kingdom was low. As this report made perfectly clear, most ready-to-wear fashion companies concentrated on copying Paris styles or, at the top end of the industry, London couture houses like Lucile and Hartnell, had no need of anyone in addition to their eponymous designers.

Pemberton’s Fashion programme at St Martin’s: ‘an old established institution’

  • 12 In time she became a renowned a fashion illustrator, scoring two fashion scoops in 1947 with the dr (...)

29Thus when Pemberton landed her first job at St Martin’s it was not to teach fashion design. Rather she went straight from the RCA to teach an evening class in fashion illustration at St Martin’s School of Art in 1931. She also worked as a freelance designer and illustrator, but this teaching post was her most regular source of income (fig 3).12 St Martin’s was very much an art academy dating back to the eighteenth century. With her RCA training and her own flourishing talent Pemberton could hold her own with any of the painters teaching there. Unlike its near neighbour, and future partner, the Central School of Arts and Crafts, St Martin’s School of Art, when Pemberton arrived, taught little in the way of design, other than illustration, and, even more curiously, its teaching programme seemed to be untouched by either industrial design or the Arts and Crafts movement. This was fortuitous for the development of fashion teaching at the school. The Arts and Crafts movement had found it difficult to accommodate fashion in its rationale; fashion’s very ephemerality was anathema to the tenets of the movement. William Morris, the father of the Arts and Crafts movement, went so far as to write: ‘fashion – a strange monster born of the vacancy of the lives of rich people,’ in Art and Socialism in 1884. He was not necessarily talking about fashion in clothing, but the whole idea that ‘good design’ might change with the times played no part in the philosophy he and his many followers teaching in art schools were espousing.

Fig 3. This Pemberton sketch is from a series Pemberton had photographed for Brighton Polytechnic library in the 1970s but dates from much earlier. The current whereabouts of the sketches themselves is unknown, believed lost.

Fig 3. This Pemberton sketch is from a series Pemberton had photographed for Brighton Polytechnic library in the 1970s but dates from much earlier. The current whereabouts of the sketches themselves is unknown, believed lost.

Private collection. Photograph Brighton Polytechnic Slide Library

Drawing

30Thus it was her skills and commitment to drawing that enabled Pemberton to gain a teaching foothold at St Martin’s School of Art, making her an acceptable addition to the staff – albeit at first only as an evening class teacher and Fashion illustration became the first of a series of classes introduced by Pemberton at St Martin’s. By the time of the major 1936 government review she had added more varied classes until she was teaching an almost complete fashion curriculum – the first n any British art school. Whilst at the RCA, Pemberton, like all students there, irrespective of their area of study, had to draw the life model from 4-6pm for four days a week. This discipline remained with Pemberton and much time was devoted to drawing at St Martin’s. Drawing from the costumed model taught not only acute observation but also how fabrics fell and draped on the human body. Bernard Nevill, Pemberton student and later in the 1960s and 1970s Design Director of Liberty and Professor of Textiles at the RCA, recalls dressing the model in an eclectic mix of historical costumes, fishnet tights, and high heels; further evidence of her magpie-like approach to historical dress.

Museum studies

31As a RCA student Pemberton had spent prolonged periods of study in the V&A museum examining and drawing historical and ethnic dress. Pemberton continued this practice with St Martin’s students who would spend days at a time studying in the museum with dedicated tutors based there. But, as indicated above, study initially focussed on technique and appearance rather than on social or cultural history. This slowly changed and the discipline of Dress History in the United Kingdom today owes much to Pemberton graduates like Professor Lou Taylor.

Pattern cutting

  • 13 Mandy Behbehani, "Marin's Fashion Icon. Gladys Perint Palmer: a Woman of Many Talents." Marin Magaz (...)

32With her clear understanding of the vital need for students to become professionally skilled in pattern cutting, this too was added to the curriculum, taught by Pemberton’s sister Phyllis – Mrs Johnson – who also trained at Katinka, becoming one of the first members of the fashion staff. She was working there by 1940; the school continued to operate throughout the war. She would be joined by five other pattern cutting tutors, more than in any other discipline. The drape method was added to the cutting syllabus. Former Pemberton student Gladys Perint Palmer, when debating which of the two cutting methods to adopt in the creation of her own fashion course, at the Academy of Arts University California, which she candidly admits is based on Pemberton’s, took the advice of Karl Lagerfeld and, like Pemberton at St Martin’s, adopted both.13

An understanding of elite fashion

33In an examiner’s report of 1948 Pemberton writes that all fashion students must demonstrate ‘the development of a sense of style, colour, texture and design and the acquiring of a broad background in the subject is most important.’ Almost all Pemberton’s staff were part-time industry professionals. She herself designed for the high-quality, middle-marker British ready-to-wear company Reldan well into the 1960s, sending students there on fact-finding visits. In addition, Pemberton insisted that her students visit both the London and the Paris shows and encouraged museum and gallery visits that looked beyond the purely fashion based, evidence that Pemberton tried to instil in her students an instinctive ability for critical aesthetic reflection in all matters associated with dress and fashion. The St Martin’s prospectus again: ‘The Department’s main emphasis is upon the creative design side of the craft, and we do not teach Dressmaking as an end in itself.’ This is the crux of the St Martin’s course ethos. It was always about that elusive concept of fashion; it did not grow out of training for the clothing industry. Pemberton also broadened the syllabus by exchanging students with other London colleges and I myself went to the Central School to do weaving and Cordwainers College to study shoe design. (Both are now, like St Martin’s part of the University of the Arts London.) Links with the fashion industry were far less well developed than they are today but Pemberton did introduce graduation fashion shows at St Martin’s, possibly using the promotion and PR skills learned from Capey to garner widespread press coverage.

The Shadow of Paris over London fashion training

34The shadow of the total supremacy of the Paris haute couture industry hung over all these developments in England. Its dominance over the international style and business world of fashion was undisputed. Hodgkin rightly identified that France was the epicentre of fashion in the 1930s. If London offered no facilities for the training of designers, it is useful now to look at what educational opportunities existed in Paris for aspiring fashion designers.

  • 14 Centre Pompidou. Portrait of Jean-Charles Worth by Man Ray. 1930. Acquisition Musée National d'Art (...)

35Charles Frederick Worth, the Englishman who is regarded of the father of couture, founded his couture house in Paris in 1858. It positioned itself as more important than a dressmaking salon in that Worth was a designer – an artist – in addition to being the head of a large and hugely successful atelier producing the highest level of craftsmanship. Ten years later, in 1868, he went on to found the Chambre Syndicale de la haute couture Parisienne to codify and represent such establishments to the international world of fashion, which copied the Chambre’s seasonal style change. It is significant to this story that in 1927, his great grandson, Jean-Charles Worth, founded the École Supérieure de la Couture, under the auspices of the Chambre Syndicale, a school which still operates very successfully today. Jean-Charles was at the forefront of the vibrant artistic scene in Paris at that time. Maintaining his great-grandfather’s stance as an artist rather than a craftsman, two years before founding the school he was photographed, nude, in a long series of photographs by the surrealist Man Ray.14

The École Supérieure de la Couture

36The University of Brighton Design Archives has some notes from the 1931-32 academic year of the École Supérieure. The Chambre Syndicale at that time was based in quarters within the Paris Chamber of Commerce, underlying its place as an industry initiative, at 27 rue de la Sourdière. The address for the school is given as 19 rue de l’Arbre sec, in Paris’ first arrondissement. According to the detailed notes the purpose of the course was, ‘to form a sound basis for the dressmaking and design profession. Providing preliminary training essential to shape direction (the techniques of execution, atelier organisation, fundamentals, etc.). It was for ‘girls and women endowed with the necessary imagination and taste.’ The intention was, as the notes state very clearly, ‘to find the future elite of the profession’.

37The course lasted two years and the reference to ‘girls and women’ suggests that the age range was broad. What is clear from the outset is that this was not a trade school as seen in the United Kingdom, where the London County Council had funded trade schools from the beginning of the twentieth century. One, illustrated in fig. 4, was Barrett Street Trade School for Girls; it is now the London College of Fashion. These specialist schools, as already noted, usually found in working class areas, took children from the age of thirteen years on and taught them the skills needed for the workshop or workroom: for boys, furniture or the leather trades and for girls, dressmaking, embroidery, millinery or similar trades. There was no college funded by the industry itself, as in France.

Fig. 4. C 1927 Embroidery Workshop at Barrett Street Trade School for Girls. (Now London College of Fashion)

Fig. 4. C 1927 Embroidery Workshop at Barrett Street Trade School for Girls. (Now London College of Fashion)

With kind permission of the University of the Arts London: London College of Fashion Archives

38The École Supérieure was superior in every way to these schools. Training there, in the technical aspects of dressmaking seemed cursory and it was made clear that students would have help in the execution of their designs from ‘operators who perform various mechanical tasks’. Even Pattern Cutting, a fundamental technical skill in Pemberton’s syllabus – and still to this day the craft that distinguishes the most gifted students, like Galliano and McQueen, as designers rather than stylists – was described as ‘a basic course planned to cover the subject of cloth with respect to form or kind only’. Thus students were not expected to be highly skilled in the complex, intricate techniques of haute couture making.

39The links at the École Supérieure de la Couture with the profession are very clear. Fitters and designers came into the school at appointed times to critique the students’ work. ‘Thus the École brings the masters to its pupils’. Well-known establishments brought model garments into the school to dissect and discuss their construction and design. The final goal was that students should be able to conceive and execute, with the help of the operatives mentioned earlier, their own designs. No institution in Britain in the 1930s was teaching the development of personal, creative, commercial, fashion designing in this way.

40In addition to this directed study of the design and making of couture garments there was a broad syllabus of peripheral studies at the École Supérieure. The History of Costume was studied in depth, for general knowledge, but also as a source of ideas that might be implemented in contemporary designs. Much as it was to be at St Martin’s. In addition, there was an expanding library, containing not just books on costume but also books and photographs on all aspects of art. With echoes of the RCA/V&A teaching collection it had reproductions of period costumes and accessories. Field trips to museums were included in the syllabus, as they were at both the RCA and St Martin’s. But what really sets the École apart in these early days is that specialists came in to lecture on the history of the profession and the organisation of a dressmaking concern. Business training of this sort would not be introduced into British art schools for many years. The trade-affiliated École Supérieure was able to call upon well-known couture establishments to come into the school to demonstrate elite design principles at first hand.

41Pemberton’s requirement for fashion students, quoted earlier, was for ‘the development of a sense of style, colour, texture and design and the acquiring of a broad background in the subject is most important.’ This mirrors the École Supérieure’s study of ‘ornament, colour and philosophy’ but falls short of their access to top couture houses, a situation that Pemberton made every effort to overcome at St Martin’s.

Conclusion. Pemberton’s legacy

42When Pemberton got to the RCA in 1927, it had talented students from all over the country irrespective of class or wealth. However, it did not teach fashion design. This paper has outlined how she was able to change this, forging links with such upper-class strongholds as court dressmaker Reville and Rossiter and the private fashion academy of Katinka, with its links to the French couture. Before 1930, as noted, London designers would have come either from within the industry, like Creed, or from the middle and upper classes, like Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon, and Hartnell, one of a group of Cambridge aesthetes with included Cecil Beaton. All were people of ‘taste’, fluent in French, like their friends and peers who were also their customers. All of them were familiar, one way or another, with the world of Paris couture, whose dominating shadow hung over London couture.

43Before Pemberton the possibility of becoming a dress designer in London if you did not belong to this elite social class was almost impossible. Creed’s apprenticeship, or even Molyneux’s or Amies’, was open to few, relying as it did on a private income and letters of introduction into the closely guarded world of high-class fashion. By introducing fashion design into the state Higher Education art and design curriculum in the United Kingdom, Pemberton uniquely helped create an environment where designers of all backgrounds and classes flourished. Thanks to heavy investment in the post-war years to bring British art school diplomas up to university level qualifications – reforms in which Pemberton was an active participant at national government level – British designers are still world class. Thanks too to the emphasis given to the study of dress history as an important component of the fashion degree, with links back to Laver and the V&A, the United Kingdom has a growing constituency of Dress Historians.

44Whilst both the French and British systems have gone on to produce internationally famous designers, Galliano and McQueen from St Martin’s and St Laurent and Miyake from the École Supérieure to name just four, the vital missing element of a strong couture industry in the United Kingdom has meant that many British designers have been forced to seek employment overseas.

45Both systems, the École in Paris and St Martin’s in London, quite deliberately did not train les petites mains, the workroom hands. Trade schools have all but disappeared in the United Kingdom and apprenticeships are now still the primary route to acquire needle skills. Where the United Kingdom excels, in Savile Row tailoring for example, a training McQueen enjoyed before he went to St Martin’s, or the Royal School of Needlework, that training is second to none. But in the world of women’s couture, London – since the unravelling of many famous London couture establishments – simply cannot offer the large number of historic elite ateliers as can Paris. As this paper has demonstrated, Britain’s strength as a training ground for fashion designers from all social classes lies in its well-developed network of art schools, a network which extends all the way back, though the Royal College of Art and the V&A, to Cole’s Great Exhibition; and to one woman painter from Burslem who, almost by accident, founded one of the world’s largest and most successful fashion schools.

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Notes

1 This is the date given in an English report written in the 1940s. The website of the École Supérieure de la Couture cites 1927 as the date of its creation. [Why the discrepancy? Can you call and find out?]

2 There is a substantial body of French research on professional schools and techniques (Carole Christen, Stéphane Lembré, etc.) which this essay does not draw upon. Similarly it does not compare French municipal schools and specialist schools such as École Boulle or École Estienne. An examination of the parallels between these two specialist schools and the Royal College of Art would be interesting but is not within the remit of this paper.

3 Edwina Erhman, writing in The London Look suggests that Katinka was one of several establishments, often specialising in embroidery, run by Russians escaping the revolution, p. 86.

4 Caroline Evans. Jean Patou’s American Mannequins: Early Fashion Shows and Modernism Modernism/modernity, Volume 15, Number 2, April 2008, pp. 243 263

5 For more on early design education see: Quentin Bell. The Schools of Design. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd 1963.

6 When Pemberton arrived in the school, Professor Tristram was still the official head. His assistant Capey took over shortly afterwards.

7 RCA library. Royal College of Art Prospectus for 1926.

8 Russell Taylor, pp. 29-30.

9 Natalie Bray, Dress Pattern Designing. London: Crosby Lockwood, 3rd edition,1972. (First pub. 1961.) and More Dress Pattern Designing. London: Crosby Lockwood, 2nd edition, 1970. (First pub. 1964.)

10 Georgina O’Hara The Encyclopaedia of Fashion Thames & Hudson. London, 1989. p 213.Reville and Rossiter was founded in 1906 and was appointed court dressmaker to Queen Mary in 1910, making her coronation robes the following year. In 1936 the house merged with Worth.

And Diana de Marly The History of Haute Couture 1850-1950, Batsford, London, 1980. pp176-17. Reville and Rossiter was founded by two buyers from Jays. William Reville Terry was the house designer and Mrs Rossiter was the administrator. In 1922 they made the trousseau for Edwina Mountbatten (née Ashley).

11 Russell Taylor, p. 29.

12 In time she became a renowned a fashion illustrator, scoring two fashion scoops in 1947 with the drawings of Dior’s ‘New Look’ and Hartnell’s wedding dress for the Royal Wedding of the present Queen.

13 Mandy Behbehani, "Marin's Fashion Icon. Gladys Perint Palmer: a Woman of Many Talents." Marin Magazine March. 2008. Gladys Perint Palmer is a fashion illustrator with an international reputation in as well as the Director of Fashion at the Academy of Arts University California.

14 Centre Pompidou. Portrait of Jean-Charles Worth by Man Ray. 1930. Acquisition Musée National d'Art Moderne Stock Number: AM 1994-394 (1605).

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Fig. 1. Portrait of a Girl by Muriel Pemberton c 1975. Mixed media.
Private Collection
URL http://apparences.revues.org/docannexe/image/1372/img-1.jpg
image/jpeg, 220k
Fig. 2 Pattern cutting text books by Natalie Bray. (Author’s own.).Bray was the Principal of the Katinka school and had trained with Lelong.
Private collection. Photograph by author
URL http://apparences.revues.org/docannexe/image/1372/img-2.jpg
image/jpeg, 180k
Fig 3. This Pemberton sketch is from a series Pemberton had photographed for Brighton Polytechnic library in the 1970s but dates from much earlier. The current whereabouts of the sketches themselves is unknown, believed lost.
Private collection. Photograph Brighton Polytechnic Slide Library
URL http://apparences.revues.org/docannexe/image/1372/img-3.jpg
image/jpeg, 192k
Fig. 4. C 1927 Embroidery Workshop at Barrett Street Trade School for Girls. (Now London College of Fashion)
With kind permission of the University of the Arts London: London College of Fashion Archives
URL http://apparences.revues.org/docannexe/image/1372/img-4.jpg
image/jpeg, 63k
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References

Electronic reference

Marie McLoughlin, « Fashion Education in London in the 20s and 30s and the Legacy of Muriel Pemberton  », Apparence(s) [Online], 7 | 2017, Online since 01 June 2017, Connection on 21 October 2017. URL : http://apparences.revues.org/1372

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Author

Marie McLoughlin

University of Brighton, Historical and Critical Studies Coordinator for Fashion, Textiles and Fashion Communications
M.Mcloughlin@brighton.ac.uk

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Les contenus de la revue Apparence(s) sont disponibles selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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