From war to Dior

  • A new exhibition at Lotherton Hall, near Leeds, celebrates the fabulously feminine fashions of the 1950s. Stephanie Smith enjoys a sneak behind-the-scenes preview.
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It was a decade that redefined fashion, when ordinary British women fell in love with fashion and, most importantly, when fashion made itself more available to them. If nothing else, the 1950s is surely the decade that fashion will never forget.

“Most of our people have never had it so good,” declared Harold Macmillan in 1957, describing a post-war period in which Britain found renewed growth, prosperity and zest. For women, it signalled a return to “femininity” and elegance, following years of austerity and utility wear.

A Jacques Fath evening dress from the early 50s on show at the Age of Glamour exhibition at Lotherton Hall. Pictures: Tony Johnson

A Jacques Fath evening dress from the early 50s on show at the Age of Glamour exhibition at Lotherton Hall. Pictures: Tony Johnson

The lingerie of the day is worth a whole story in itself. When I arrive at Lotherton Hall, near Leeds, for a preview of a major exhibition celebrating Fifties fashion, Natalie Raw, curator of costume and textiles, is preparing for display some beautiful but rather elaborate undergarments – the very foundations of the new shapes. “The Fifties was very much about enhancing feminine attributes, so your bust is quite important, and then the cinched-in waist,” she says.

“In the ’40s and wartime, when women started to go out to work and do a lot more because the men were off at war, they threw off a lot of the structured undergarments to give more movement. The Fifties come in and they go back to wearing structured garments to give you that cinched-in waist look. It’s almost as if they have lost some of that freedom gained during the war.”

Maybe not so good then, for women, as the domestic goddess became the ultimate ideal. Natalie says: “There’s this idea that they have got to be the perfect housewife and glamorous and very feminine, and it’s going against everything they had achieved during the war.”

And yet, and yet... the pure glamour of the 1950s cannot be denied, and it’s not hard to understand why so many women embraced it after years of austerity, when fabric of any kind was in short supply, let alone taffeta and silk. No wonder they lit up at the sight of a voluminous, dazzling Dior New Look gown.

Ball Gown, 1951, by Cristobel Balenciaga.

Ball Gown, 1951, by Cristobel Balenciaga.

From couture to home-made, the extraordinary fashions of the Fifties will come to life for the Age of Glamour exhibition at Lotherton Hall, an Edwardian country house and estate which was once home to the Gascoigne family but now houses Leeds Museums and Galleries’ collection of fashion and textiles. “We’re showing the high-end couture and how it filters down to the High Street,” Natalie says, and points to a pink evening dress, an early ready-to-wear creation by Jacques Heim, bought at Harrods to wear to a ball at Blenheim Palace. “Jacques Heim has his Paris couture house, but in the Fifties he, along with other people like Christian Dior, are recognising the rise of the ready-to-wear industry. Before the Fifties, it was seen as shoddy and cheap, but now they are starting to go out and buy it.”

As well as Lotherton’s own archive offerings, there are gowns on loan from the V&A, including a red Ecarlate cocktail dress from Dior’s La Ligne Y collection of 1955, a 1951 ballgown by Cristobal Balenciaga, plus pieces from Norman Hartnell and luxurious ready-to-wear dresses from British designer labels Frank Usher, Susan Small and Horrockses.

Natalie says: “There were quite strict rules. For evening dress, you wore a long dress, and then for early evening dos, you wore your cocktail dress, which can be a bit shorter.”

This was a fascinating period for fashion, a style revolution led by the French couturiers, but also the dawn of High Street fashion as we know it today, with the start of mass production as department stores, including, in Leeds alone, Marks & Spencer, Marshall & Snelgrove, Schofields and Lewis’s, realised that designer looks could be copied and reproduced off-the-peg to cater for women who longed to inject glamour into their lives. This Parisian style was also captured and reproduced by clever at-home dressmakers, whose work can also be seen, and there are wonderful insights into the shopping and leisure habits of the period.

Curator Natalie Raw prepares a  wedding dress worn by Jacqueline Brotherton-Ratcliffe for her marriage to George in 1951

Curator Natalie Raw prepares a wedding dress worn by Jacqueline Brotherton-Ratcliffe for her marriage to George in 1951

The exhibition also highlights strong links to Yorkshire and the north of England, with pieces lent from the M&S Archive at the University of Leeds. Photographs from fashion shows and society events taken by The Yorkshire Post are used throughout to illustrate the backdrops and give context.

This is the first exhibition to be staged at Lotherton Hall since the completion of a refurbishment programme and now there are new cases and interactive elements such as sound and film. Plus a date for your diary – on August 9, there will be a Fabulous Fifties day for all the family. Go seek out your waist-cincher.

Twitter: @yorkshirefashQ

• The Age of Glamour opens at Lotherton Hall, Aberford, near Leeds, on May 8 and will run until December 31. For details and entry prices, go to www.leeds.gov.uk/lothertonhall.

A Waldy bag from the early 50s by H Wald and Co

A Waldy bag from the early 50s by H Wald and Co

Models on the rooftop of the Queens Hotel, Leeds, early 1950s.

Models on the rooftop of the Queens Hotel, Leeds, early 1950s.

Structured lingerie on show at the Age of Glamour exhibition at Lotherton Hall

Structured lingerie on show at the Age of Glamour exhibition at Lotherton Hall

Curator Natalie Raw prepares the outfits

Curator Natalie Raw prepares the outfits

A Frank Usher bridesmaid/cocktail dress from 1958

A Frank Usher bridesmaid/cocktail dress from 1958