London Fashion Umbrella – Designing Women: Post-War British Textiles

As I have chronicled in recent posts, London’s art and culture antennae have been tuned to the mid-century period – an era characterised by post-war regeneration efforts which included support for the creative production of British artists and designers. The anniversaries of the Festival of Britain, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II have inspired a particularly strong wave of nostalgia for design from the early 1950s that is hard to ignore but somewhat easy to dismiss as a function of “retro” marketing.

Fashions of the 1950s already receive their fair bit of attention, and to vintage enthusiasts and style mavens, the designers of the period, both British and American are well known.  However the names  Lucienne Day, Marian Mahler or Jacqueline Groag, are rather less familiar.

The Fashion and Textile Museum’s most recent exhibition Designing Women: Post-War British Textiles serves to turn the spotlight on these influential and prolific designers, whose stylistic influence has been far-reaching in fashions for both furnishings and apparel – but who are hardly household names.

The exhibition, curated by Shanna Shelby features over 100 works by the three designers and their contemporaries, from the Denver collection of Jill A. Wiltse and H. Kirk Brown III.  Beginning with Lucienne Day’s iconic ‘Calyx’ design of 1951, exhibited at the Festival of Britain, the exhibition presents a comprehensive look at the styles and motifs that epitomise the era in the context of the optimism and progressive spirit of post-war design.

'Ducatoon' by Lucienne Day, 1959

Bold colours, geometric shapes, unexpected scale contrasts and dynamic pattern repeats loom largely in the designs, which echoed the style and impact of contemporary artists such as Alexander Calder and Joan Miro.  The textile designers featured in Designing Women thus brought the energy and newness of modern art into the home, steering the aesthetic of the British interior away from the Victorian, and the hangover of the long post-war austerity period.

'Nautilus' by Mary Warren, 1954

The exhibition also lauds the designers featured for being pioneers in the modern business of textile design, and cites Lucienne Day as being the first designer whose name appeared on the selvedges of textiles she designed for London’s famous home furnishings retailer Heal’s.

'Good Morning' by Jacqueline Groag, 1952

The designs of Day, Mahler and Groag were also used for apparel and the exhibition features a few dresses made up in fabrics designed for the home.  In fact, my visit to the exhibition proved especially thrilling when I discovered that one of my most cherished vintage skirts was made of Groag’s 1952 design Good Morning, a length of which was on display in the museum.   I had almost worn in to the museum that day, but now, knowing it is a genuine piece of British textile design history, I might relegate it to my ‘archive,’ and limit wearing to once a year – if at all!

My vintage skirt made from Groag's 'Good Morning'!

Although the exhibition includes some original drawings and artworks for the textile designs, I would have liked to have learned more about the processes of printing and how perhaps the technology of the mid-century gave rise to its aesthetic.  A showcase on the exhibition’s upper level displayed an array of swatches and some books published by Terence Conran that offered do-it-yourself advice for textile printing.

Designing Women: Post War British Textiles was an informative, concise and well-presented survey of the contributions of female designers whose vision of the modern home and its decor surely impacted not only on the history of design, but of domestic life as well.  Walking into a kitchen or living room clad in the kinetic and geometric textiles of Groag surely was a mood enhancer – and reflected a whole new way of living and being.  The exhibit was extremely timely in reminding Londoners, that even as Queen Elizabeth took the throne in 1952, the reign of Day, Groag and Mahler, monarchs of textile design,  had indeed already begun.

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  • Monica June 21, 2012 02.47 pm

    Fantastic post – so many great things to look at!

  • Marina June 23, 2012 03.12 am

    Great post! I was interested in this exhibition,, but couldn’t find much pictures from it. Thanks!


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