Reading and looking through London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank is like a prolonged glimpse into a rarefied closet of clothing, of the kind lost to us in our daily routine of contemporary dressing and undressing. Three dress historians and curators who are intimately familiar with the context and particular histories of these extraordinary objects–Cassie Davies-Strodder, Jenny Lister, and Lou Taylor– guide us through this absorbing case study. This foundational fashion collection remains highly relevant for the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A). Since the V&A acquired Heather Firbank’s collection of clothing from her lady’s maid and confidant, Adelaide Hallett, in 1957, at least one of her garments has been shown in all subsequent in-house permanent displays of fashion over the last 50 years. Over 30 years ago, V&A curator Valerie D. Mendes noted the immediate distinctiveness and consistency of the “simple uncluttered lines” (Rothstein, 2010: 80) of Ms. Firbank’s wardrobe. London Society Fashion illustrates Ms. Firbank’s understated style very well, and further aims to accomplish the reconciliation of her famous clothes with her personal story. The date range of the study, 1905-1925, is tied not to curatorial preference but to Heather’s own personal life decisions–in 1926 she packed up her wardrobe to live a quiet life in Sussex, far removed from the social whirlwind that had thus far been her life experience.
Coupled with Heather Firbank’s archive, the clothing is illuminated by surviving letters (especially between herself and her well-known brother, novelist Ronald Firbank), photographic portraits, and an extensive trove of receipts and bills from the court dressmakers and most exclusive couturiers and shops in London during the first few decades of the twentieth century. As there are no extant diaries of Heather Firbank’s, the experience of her relentless social schedule, wardrobe and behavior requirements, and shopping activities are supplemented by other diaries and recollections of the time, including descriptive passages from the novels or memoirs of Vita Sackville-West, Ronald Firbank, Cecil Beaton, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, and Cynthia Asquith, the latter of whom was the same age as Ms. Firbank and was required to navigate the same complex and stifling terrain of rules and expectations set out for the young English debutante.
The authors are very clear from the outset that this is not “a broad brush historical survey” (p. 9), but rather concentrated on one woman’s tastes and life circumstances. While I couldn’t help but wish to see comparisons between Ms. Firbank’s wardrobe and what other women in her social circles were wearing at the time (or even close-up details of her impeccably made clothing compared with the ready made or handmade pieces worn and bought by middle class women), I can understand the decision to tighten the lens on Ms. Firbank’s life and the dressmakers she favored to do honor to her particular story and to retain a reasonable focus. There is only one instance of a photographic comparison with another contemporary’s wardrobe–Ms. Emilie Grigsby–in order to show the divergence between Ms. Grigsby’s vibrant and up-to-the-minute evening wear with Ms. Firbank’s sober and simple garments and the disappearance of evening clothes from her wardrobe as she retreated from society into increasing isolation. This single outside example is very effective in underscoring the change in Heather’s life from a young debutante on the social scene to an unmarried woman with few if any marital prospects.
The life trajectory of Ms. Firbank is ultimately tragic, as her parents and all other siblings died before her (most significantly, the death of her father instigated the rapid loss of the family fortune and place in society as well). As befits the time and her station, her financial and social well-being would have been tied to a husband, and she was unable or did not wish to consider other options. In her papers the authors note there is no evidence that Heather was involved in the suffragette movement, nor evidence of involvement with her brother Ronald’s bohemian lifestyle and circle of friends, where she would have been free of the constraints of strict moral codes of behavior and mandatory life milestones such as marriage and producing an heir. Despite this, Heather did enter into a short-lived, clandestine, and extremely risky affair with an older married man while in her 20s, and this experience seemed to have a lasting effect on her prospect or desire for having a long-lasting relationship.
As we have no access to Heather’s private thoughts through a diary, we will never know exactly why Heather chose not to marry or took enormous risks in having extramarital affairs. We also do not know why Heather continued to spend well beyond her means once she was placed on a strict allowance following her father’s death, continuing to rack up exorbitant bills at her favorite couturiers. Her mother and brother tried in vain to curb her spending, with several letters showing Ronald’s total exasperation with his sister, and her desperate replies for support and understanding. Was her behavior due to depression, holding onto a familiar routine, staving off boredom? The authors speculate it was largely a love of fashion, fine clothing, and the activity of shopping and dressing well that she could not bring herself to jettison or temper. In addition to her wardrobe, her collection of fashion-related clippings from newspapers and magazines, sometimes extensively annotated, attests to her passion for clothes and keeping up with the latest fashions.
Emerging from this complicated narrative one thing is clear–this is a woman who clearly enjoyed clothing and knew exactly what she wanted. Heather amassed a collection of staggering size–over 400 pieces in a time span of 20 years–dictated by the proscribed daily activities and the number of ensembles needed for each–from tailor-mades to afternoon dresses to tea gowns to evening gowns to court gowns. The V&A was not able to acquire the entire collection–less than half–and a few pieces do survive in other UK fashion collections (as well as some that have stayed with the family, including her “extravagant jewelled horse whip”(p. 62)!). While her style and public image may have been guided by social codes or through the influence of her mother and society tastemakers such as Lady Duff-Gordon (who worked under the label Lucile), her wardrobe is surprisingly consistent throughout the years; as styles change significantly from the 1910s into the 1920s, Heather’s preference for understated, elegant, and simple garments translates to the new mode.
The authors do note subtle changes in her style that coincide with particular life circumstances, such as an increase in alluring, almost seductive gowns during her secret love affair. Juvenile clothing gives way to more grown-up wear suitable for a young woman coming out in society. There are garments clearly dictated by the exclusive codes of aristocratic dress and exquisite court wear that adheres to very particular requirements, yet they all still carry Heather’s stamp (sometimes literally, with a sprig of heather motif embroidered with her distinctive signature on a pair of drawers).
In the last chapter, the story switches gears–somewhat abruptly but certainly not unexpectedly–from the personal story of Heather Firbank to unearthing the history of the makers of Heather’s wardrobe, “the forgotten world of Edwardian dressmakers”, many of which have been lost to the pages of British fashion history and recent memory. While other society women may have traveled to Paris for their wardrobes, Heather preferred to shop in London. Her favorite tailor was Redfern, she went to court dressmakers Madame Mascotte for blouses and dresses and Kate Reilly for afternoon dresses and hats, among many other couturiers and shops.
Most delightful is a historical map of the period created by the authors, “Shopping with Heather Firbank” which is superimposed with numbers referencing her favorite shopping establishments around Regent, New Bond, and Piccadilly streets—still a shopping mecca in London 100 years later. In this chapter, the authors also take the opportunity to briefly discuss the working life and work environment of the women who toiled in showrooms and workrooms before and during the First World War. The hours were long and the pay was low. Their work lives on in these extraordinary garments and accessories.
The book is wonderfully illustrated, with nearly 50 full-page color plates, many showing close-up details for which V&A publications are well-known. It also at times displays a history of dress curation at the V&A. Photos over 20 or 30 years old show changing tastes in dress and accessory display. Some older photographs have been cropped for new intended focus or are now reproduced in full color (such as the Lucile suit on the right, seen below) while some pieces are shown with new photography. Several court gowns or evening gowns are photographed flat, attesting to their extreme fragility and the challenges of displaying early 20th century garments. And yet the majority of Heather’s wardrobe does appear on mannequins, expertly presented.
This is a tightly focused, well-researched and illustrated study on a period of women’s fashion that has been generally overlooked in recent decades–or was until the drama and costumes of Downtown Abbey, on which Heather’s wardrobe had a definite influence. I would highly recommend this book as an informative and enjoyable resource for anyone interested in or researching British early 20th century couture, individual wardrobes with attached personal narratives, the history of shopping, couture workrooms and showrooms, London society, or simply beautiful and beautifully made clothes.
All photographs taken from London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank, V&A Publishing, 2015.
400 Years of Fashion. Edited by Natalie Rothstein. (V&A Publishing: 2010). First published by V&A Publications, 1984.