Black History Month: Celebrating Fashion Designers Willi Smith and Duro Olowu.

The Costume and Fashion Special Collection at Chelsea Library celebrates Black History Month this October.

Chelsea Library is home to the Costume and Fashion Collection, a treasure trove of books and magazines chronicling the history of Costume and Fashion. This also includes an archive of British Vogue dating from 1923 to the present.

The Costume and Fashion Collection is supported by the digital resource Bloomsbury Fashion Central (, a comprehensive research tool for students, professionals and anyone interested in fashion and is free to use online with your library card.

For this year’s Black History Month, we are featuring the work of two designers: Willi Smith (1948-1987), whose important legacy has often been overlooked and Duro Olowu, the Nigerian born, British designer, who in 2003 opened his first boutique in the North Kensington. Both featured in major exhibitions in 2020.

The cover of Willi Smith: Street Couture

Willi Smith

It has been over thirty years since Willi Smith’s death and last year saw the first retrospective of his work – Willi Smith: Street Couture at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York.

 Willi Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1948. Initially he studied fashion illustration but later went on to study Fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York. Early in his career he worked for Arnold Stassi, a designer known for his high society ball gowns. He then worked for Digit Inc. Sportswear, where he quickly made name for himself and was nominated for the prestigious Coty Award in 1972. After Digits Inc. went bankrupt in 1973, he unsuccessfully set up a company with his sister Toukie Smith and then in 1976 while in India, inspired by the cotton fabrics and street fashion, he and his friend Laurie Mallet came up with the idea of setting up WilliWear Ltd and by the time they return he had designed a capsule collection that was ready to go.

WilliWear quickly captured the interest of the fashion industry. His designs crossed over from sportswear to couture. His clothes were oversized, colourful and gender fluid. He was the first designer to unite womenswear and menswear under the same label. This is echoed in his unisex patterns for Butterwick and McCall’s, which still seem radical today.

Willi Smith’s design ethos was that his clothes should be functional, fun, affordable and cross boundaries of race, gender and social status. He was inspired by how people on the street dressed. He called it Street Couture for his seminal Fall 1983 Collection. It was urban not ballroom. He famously said, ‘Being black has a lot to do with being a good designer. My eye will go quicker to what the pimp is wearing than to someone in a gray suit and tie…Most of these designers who run to Paris for color and fabric combinations should go to church on Sunday in Harlem. It’s all right there’. (Vogue online July 2020)

Willi Smith was one of the few successful ‘non-white’ designers at the time to navigate the fashion industry on his own terms and by the time of his death in 1987, aged thirty-nine from an AIDS related illness, he had become the most successful black designer in history with annual sales of over twenty-five million dollars and selling in five hundred stores worldwide.

Willi Smith pioneered Streetwear which has influenced generations of designers. Throughout his career he worked creatively with artists, architects, filmmakers and dancers. Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer were amongst the artists who he worked with on his ground-breaking artist t-shirts in 1984 – now ubiquitous in the industry. He started collaborating with Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1967 and in 1985 designed the worker’s uniforms for the wrapping of the Pont Neuf in Paris. The radical architects SITE created his urban street vision for his show rooms and with artists Nam June Pak and Juan Downey his fashion shows became more performance than catwalk.

So, it seems strange that his legacy has largely been overlooked. Perhaps it was because his career was cut short, maybe it was also due to ‘the negativity associated with AIDS at the time’ (James Wines, SITE, Surface Magazine Jan 2020). But it is also true, as Kim Jenkins, founder of the Fashion and Race Database says ‘…fashion history for the most part, has been white history. On the whole, we have designers of color missing from our textbooks’ (WMagazine Jan 2020).

The cover of Duro Olowu: Seeing.

Duro Olowu 

Duro Olowu is a Nigerian born British designer. In 1998 he opened his first boutique off  the Ledbury Road in Notting Hill with Elaine Golding, called Olowu Golding, where he showcased  his early designs  and Elaine Golding’s shoes. Then in 2004 he launched his womenswear label.  His  Spring-Summer 2005 Collection was an instant success and he was named New Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards, the only designer to receive the award prior to their first runway show. His empire line dress with flowing sleeves, dubbed the ‘Duro’ became a sensation, hailed ‘Dress of the Year’ by both American and British Vogue.

Duro Olowu punctuates designing with curating. He moves with ease between Fashion and  the Art worlds. Last year he guest curated Seeing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where he brought together over 300 works of art selected from public and private collections from around the Chicago area arranging them in thematic groups.

Previously in 2016 he curated ‘Making and Unmaking’ at the Camden Arts Centre in London. Mixing and placing works which included photographs, paintings, sculpture and fabrics. The exhibition was like wandering through his stream of consciousness. There was a sense of freedom, where seemingly unconnected work flowed from room to room in a kind of beautiful choreography. In the interview with Glen Ligon for the exhibition he explained, ‘…the process of discovery and experimentation is very empowering and that is what ‘Making and Unmaking’ is ultimately about’ .

Duro Olowu’s designs are a sophisticated  play of pattern, colour and cut, suffused with the influence of African textiles, with their symbolism and how they translate to the street fashion of a continent and then melded seamlessly with western couture to create designs that are both powerful and subtle at the same time.

The exhibition publications: Willi Smith: Street Couture, Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, Rizzoli Electa, 2020 and Duro Olowu: Seeing, Naomi Beckwith, Prestel, 2020  are on display in Chelsea Library during the month of October in the Costume and Fashion Collection.

For further information on Willi Smith, the Willi Smith Community Archive created inconjunction with Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum gives personal accounts and insights into the designer by people who knew and worked with him.

You can also listen to Duro Olowu in conversation with Valerie Steele, fashion historian, who also curates  Bloomsbury Fashion Central’s fashion photograhphy archive. The conversation is from the Series: at home: Artists in Conversation, Yale Centre for British Art.

Nadia, Chelsea Library.


Parties, Presents and Peers: an A-Z of London’s Mid-Century Models

In April this year, Chelsea Library marked 40 years since it moved to its present site, at Chelsea Old Town Hall. We celebrated that anniversary in the Sixties fashion style, since the library is famous for its extensive Costume and fashion collection. It has a wide range of books on the history of costume from its earliest times to present days, stage costumes, the history of twentieth century dress, including books on prominent designers, and so on.

Bearing this in mind, we’ve decided to bring back fashion talks and workshops to the library. We invited John-Michael O’Sullivan to give a talk on ‘Parties, Presents and Peers: an A-Z of London’s Mid-Century Models’.

He spoke about top Fifties fashion model, Barbara Mullen, and he has compiled an extraordinary list of celebrities, fashion models, fashion designers, film icons and aristocrats for his talk. From debutantes to Teddy Girls, and from Carnival Queens to couture stars, the lives of the women whose images shaped Britain’s beauty ideal in the 1950s, and continue to do so today, need to be better known to a wider audience.

The audience at Chelsea Library was, indeed, very much impressed by John-Michael’s captivating talk. Charming and witty he led us through this extraordinary alphabet of mid-century models, occasionally interrupted by loud sighs and comments from the engaged listeners, several of them having personal connections with the mentioned models.

In his article for The Observer, about Barbara Mullen, the misfit model of the 1950s, John-Michael wrote:

“The era’s other great models (sex bomb Suzy Parker, platinum blonde Sunny Harnett, long-limbed Dovima, all-American Jean Patchett, exquisite Evelyn Tripp) were always reliably, recognisably themselves. But Mullen was different – beanpole-tall, with slicked-back hair, startled eyes and a rosebud mouth. Her features, in front of a lens, somehow morphed, endlessly transforming her into somebody else.”

While I was gathering information for the talk, flicking through our collection of Vogues and Harper’s Bazaars  from the  1950s, I found it extremely difficult to find the names of those gorgeous models, yet, everything else was listed – from gowns, lipstick, jewellery, to location and the photographer’s name. That was the time before Twiggy, before Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Elle Macpherson, Claudia Schiffer or Kate Moss – before the times of superstars.

As John-Michael wrote:

“These days, most top models are social media stars in their own right and have the power to shape and share their stories themselves. But most of their predecessors died without ever being given the chance to share their experiences. Barbara Mullen, who turned ninety in 2017, is one of the few survivors of a remarkable era.”

Charming and modest Barbara told John-Michael that she and her friends were just ordinary girls – young, thin and extremely lucky. She was wondering why people today would be interested in their lives.

John-Michael has launched a campaign with publishing house, Unbound which is producing books by crowdfunding. He has been gathering the funds to print ‘The Replacement Girl’ Mullen’s first biography. I am sure that it will be fascinating to see that era “through the eyes of one of that pioneering generation’s last survivors”.

For more information on the fundraising campaign to publish Barbara’s story, visit: Unbound’s website

Zvezdana, Chelsea Library

Happy 40th anniversary Chelsea Library

Today, Thursday 12 April, marks Chelsea Library being in its current location on the Kings Road for 40 years. Over to the staff there to tell us more…

After having spent its youth and most of its middle years in Manresa Road, Chelsea, one fine spring day in 1978 a new library for the now “Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea” opened here at Chelsea Old Town Hall.

At the time of the relocation the King’s Road was arguably a much more diverse place and the vibrant and challenging, fashion and music scenes of the time were very much in evidence along the road.

Some local faces and places were captured for posterity by an ex-member of staff and quite a few of her images are included, with gratitude, in a display here at the library. Also included are some images of the library as it was when it was first opened.

To mark this anniversary we will be running a birthday card making workshop with 70s fashion theme in the style of designer Celia Birtwell as the library has an amazing Costume and fashion collection.

The workshop will take place today in Chelsea children’s library 3 to 5pm with some refreshments. We will also have some games, musical chairs, pass the parcel…come and help us celebrate!

Edited to add – if you’d like to see photos from the celebration, take a look at our Facebook page

Forty years young at Chelsea Old Town Hall!

Fashion for the People: a history of clothing at Marks & Spencer

Reference librarians Karen and Gillian write:

Recently, Rachel Worth, Professor of Dress and Fashion at Arts University Bournemouth, delivered a presentation on the history of Marks & Spencer at Chelsea Library. This post is based on what we learnt about the high street giant from Rachel’s fascinating and insightful lecture.

From very humble beginnings in a Penny Bazaar stall at Leeds Kirkgate Market in 1884, Michael Marks and – from  a partnership that began in 1894 – Thomas Spencer together built a company that would become Britain’ s biggest clothing retailer.

From the archives
From the archives

Today, Marks & Spencer is a company synonymous with quality, reliability and customer care, but do we associate it with fashion?

Well – yes! Marks & Spencer was at the forefront of bringing accessible and fashionable clothing to the masses, at the same time being a pioneer in using new textiles, displays techniques and marketing methods – including the use of “supermodels” before the word was ever invented.

In the 1890s most working class people made their own clothes, and initially the market stall sold haberdashery (dressmaking materials). The sales slogan of “Don’t Ask The Price, It’s A Penny” summed up the business model. By the outbreak of World War One the company had expanded considerably and had diversified into homewares, but clothing remained at the heart of the business.

Marks & Spencer revolutionised how we bought clothes and also how clothes were sold, focusing on ready-to-wear affordable goods; high quality, well designed and fashionable clothing. In the 1920s M&S was ahead of most other retailers in its marketing and retailing methods setting an upper price limit on clothes. It also accepted the return of unwanted items, giving a full cash refund if the receipt was shown, no matter how long ago the product was purchased, which was unusual for the time.


Picture from M&S Magazine, Christmas 1932 Womenswear advert with three women and two young girls
M&S Magazine, Christmas 1932 Womenswear advert © M&S Company Archive

M&S Fashion advertorial with a series of women in M&S clothes
M&S colour supplement in ‘Woman’ magazine, May 1958

It entered into long term relationships with British manufacturers, and sold clothes of the “St Michael” brand, introduced in 1928.  As the company dealt directly with manufacturers it was able to keep prices low and to maintain input in the design and quality of clothes sold in its stores. It was one of the first companies to introduce standardisation in sizing.  It also aimed to cater for all members of the family; children’s clothing and ready-to-wear suits being particularly popular.

M&S Fashion 4
A Marks and Spencer’s window display of St Michael Terylene skirts, Swansea store, 1957, taken from Fashion for the People, by Rachel Worth

Pioneering methods included having its own textile laboratory to enable the testing of fabrics and dyes before mass production, and the use of rainmaking machines to test water repellent fabrics. New synthetic textiles were particularly popular between the 1950s and 1970s. These included Tricell which was first used in 1957. Another synthetic fibre called Courtelle was first launched, nationally, by Marks & Spencer during  the 60s as was Crimplene and Terylene.

These fabrics were easy to wash, often drip dry, easy iron and held their colour or shape. Terylene, for instance, meant the fashionable 50’s woman could have a permanently pleated non-iron skirt. The introduction of Lycra in  the 1980s revolutionised hosiery,  swimwear and underwear because of its elastic properties.

M&S hosiery advert
Lycra hosiery, The M&S Magazine, Autumn/Winter 1988, taken from Fashion for the People by Rachel Worth


M&S Fashion 6
St Michael News, July 1953 taken from Fashion for the People by Rachel Worth

Marks and Spencer has always been design conscious, and no more so than in the 1950s when designs were Paris-inspired with an interpretation of the New Look being all the rage. Colour coordinated clothing and jersey knitwear enabled the fashionable women on a budget to change her look , updating key pieces when on a tight budget.

Picture of a large window display unit with knitwear suspended from the top
Window display of St Michael Orlon knitwear, 1950s

Display and marketing was always a key element of the presentation of M&S fashion ranges.  Before the days of mass advertising it was the window display that dominated; these were eye catching and innovative (see above). Early advertising concentrated on the opening of new stores, but post-war the company began to employ models in print media using the well know faces of the day, including Twiggy in the 1960s:

Ambassador Magazine, 1967 taken from Fashion for the People by Rachel Worth
Ambassador Magazine, 1967 taken from Fashion for the People by Rachel Worth

The heyday of this form of mass marketing was the 1990s when M&S began to use supermodels such as Linda Evangelista and Claudia Schiffer.  Here is Vogue’s front cover of July 1996 with Amber Valletta wearing a Marks & Spencer shirt, which we found in our archives at Chelsea Library:

Vogue, July 1996
Vogue, July 1996

If fashion  is a concept based around our attitudes to  clothing then Marks and Spencer is part of its fabric: with its  high  quality/ good value ethos,  innovative and strong relationships with customers,  and its technological innovations  it  led the way in fashion for the masses.  Our thanks to Rachel for  revealing some of the secrets to the success of  the company over the last hundred years.

Rachel’s book, Fashion for the People: a history of clothing at Marks & Spencer is available to read at Chelsea Reference library.

Fashion and Flowers in Chelsea

Gillian Nunns, Reference Librarian writes…

We noticed some new trends on the King’s Road over the past week… garden inspired shop-fronts, beautiful floral dresses and new visitors to Chelsea Library, who are exploring the area whilst visiting the Chelsea Flower Show.  Surrounded by so much floral beauty and enthusiasm, we’ve also caught the flower fever and been inspired to explore fashion and flowers in our Costume & Fashion collection.

The Chelsea Flower show in the 1920s:

From The Chelsea Flower Show by Hesten Marsden-Smedley
Taken from The Chelsea Flower Show by Hesten Marsden-Smedley

And we love this image of the flower show in 1918, showing off the fashions of the time:

From The Chelsea Flower Show by Hesten Marsden-Smedley
From The Chelsea Flower Show by Hesten Marsden-Smedley

In our Vogue magazine archives we found lots of garden-inspired illustrations, fashions and adverts from the May and June issues in the 1920s.  In May 1926, as well as checking out the flower show, here is what you mind find shopping along Sloane Street:

Vogue, May 1926 edition
Vogue, May 1926 edition

And from the same month, an illustration of a fashionable garden of the time:

Vogue, May 1926 Ed.
Vogue, May 1926 ed.

And when it rains…

Stormproof... taken from Vogue May 1926 Ed.
Stormproof… taken from Vogue May 1926 ed.

We liked this arty picture from Vogue May 1924, with the shadows of trees in the background, entitled Flowered crepe is a medium of the mode:

Taken from the Vogue archives, 1924
Taken from the Vogue archives, 1924

In June 1929, a model poses in a rock garden:

The description for this beautiful dress also sounds like a delicious dessert.
The description for this beautiful dress also sounds like a rather delicious dessert.

In fact, everywhere we looked in the May and June Vogue issues we found flowers and gardens.  Here is Twiggy in May 1967 and on her dress is a “Pyramid Myriad of Flowers, triangles of tiny multi colored ones….”:

Twiggy from the May 1967 edition of Vogue
Twiggy from the May 1967 edition of Vogue

In the 60s Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell had a chic Chelsea boutique Quorum, and we found this great floral design of theirs from 1968:

From Fifty Fashion Looks that Changed the 1960s
From Fifty Fashion Looks that Changed the 1960s

Fast forward again to May 1988, a budding affair:

A fashion shoot from May 1988
A fashion shoot from May 1988



We hope you enjoyed  taking a quick browse through the flowers and fashions at Chelsea Library.  There is lots more to discover in the library and online, in the Berg Fashion Library Online, which you can access for free with your library card.

Our top ten all time best posts!

We were having a browse through the archives and loved reading the posts that stirred the most interest! Revisit the top 10 writings that most tickled your fancy…

1) A little bit of French ooh-la-la! Read all about Margaine-Lacroix and the dresses that shocked Paris

2)  Vogue cover stars at Chelsea Library. The Shrimp, Twiggy, La Moss and Naomi Campbell all graced the cover of Chelsea Library’s Vogue magazine collection

Kate Moss cover #2
Kate Moss, Vogue, 2012

3) The clothes of a Dandy are simple but impeccably cut…Learn more in  The history behind Mr Darcy’s wardrobe

4) A celebration of all things sporty, including Agnes Beckwith, The Greatest Lady Swimmer in the World. Sport and fashion

5) Do you find your children need to be coaxed into drinking their cocktails? Here’s the answer: Modern Publicity – cigarettes and alcohol

6) All things knitting! Did you know men are doing it too?! Knitting: the beautiful game.

Edward Llwyd of Bala, photgraphed around 1875, believed to be one of the last of the local stocking-knitters
Edward Llwyd of Bala, photgraphed around 1875, believed to be one of the last of the local stocking-knitters

7) It might sound like a leg-pull, but you do realise that the library that you visit is haunted, don’t you? No? Then read on…Haunted Libraries

8) The first ever Brompton Blog! Meet all the Brompton bloggers in The Brompton Blog- September 2012

9) Patrick Leigh Fermor was a young man of 17 when he decided to walk, in 1933, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Read about his journey in The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Long- Awaited Third Volume

10) Winter Kimonos: beautiful images from beautiful books in Chelsea’s costume and fashion collection

Kimono by Issey Miyake
Kimono by Issey Miyake

We’ve covered everything from swimming costumes to kimonos, books to ghosts, in our blog, and there’s plenty more where that comes from…what would you like to see in your local library blog next?


Dressed to Impress? Fashion and photographs from the early twentieth century

Karen Ullersperger, Reference Librarian, writes: 

Have you ever looked at old family photographs from before 1940 and wondered what they could tell you?  I found out that they can give a direct connection into the lives of the people portrayed in them through the clothes that people wore.

In an absolutely fascinating presentation at Chelsea Library in late October by the fashion expert and author Jayne Shrimpton, I learnt about history of fashion in ordinary family photographs.

Jayne Shrimpton (
Jayne Shrimpton (

In the nineteenth century photography was a cutting edge technology, but by the early twentieth century photography became more accessible with the advent of the Box Brownie camera. This meant that ordinary families could start to take their own photos and as a result pictures were more informal and can give us more information on the daily lives and fashion preference of our forebears. This eventually began to replace the more formal professional images often printed on postcards done in a studio setting.

Jayne showed us that by reading the fashions in a photograph correctly you can date images, but you can also study the history of fashion by looking at the images.

Fashion  a hundred years ago  was moving away  from the  formal and quite restrictive styles of the late Victorian era.The period between 1910-14  saw the development of a much more practical style with the introduction of shirts and ties for working women,  and the gradual raising of hemlines. That fashion staple the pencil skirt first appeared. It was during this time the lounge suit for men began to appear and moustaches became all the rage.

Women of all classes would dress for formal occasions, and we saw some great images of women in afternoon dress of linen or cotton, wearing extremely large hats and gloves even when taking tea with their neighbours outside the back door.

Children’s clothing began to change: some of the photos we were shown had little boys still dressed as girls until they were of an age to be “ breeched”, when they would start to wear trousers or even shorts. By 1914 girl’s dress was moving towards a more boyish or more practical style, maintaining their femininity by wearing a huge bow on the side of their heads.

Family, 1918(Family Photographs & how to date them by Jayne Shrimpton)
Family, 1918 (Family Photographs & How to Date Them by Jayne Shrimpton)

The development of more active life styles led to the development of sportswear and also influenced the introduction of knitwear for a more casual look. Jayne showed us images of specific clothing for cycling, golf, and tennis and for the more wealthy and intrepid ski-ing and skating outfits

During World War One women’s garments became shorter, they began to cut their hair shorter and the overall look was much looser. Many young women undertook war work whether in factories or in the Women’s Land Army (est. 1917), where for the first time women wore breeches or jodphurs, covered by an overall coat to maintain modesty. Of course after the war it was straight back to wearing skirts.

When dating your family photographs Jayne advise looking not only the rise and fall of hemlines, but also what people are doing and what is in the background, for example the modes of transport, so if there is a car you can often date the image from the make and model.

In the 1920s people still “Dressed to Impress” but studio images were in decline and these would only be taken for special occasions such as weddings, christenings etc. In these images as Jayne explained, you can see a history of fashion through the generations with older women still wearing black floor length gowns and their daughters and granddaughters  in more contemporary clothes and hairstyles.

Family, c. early 1920s (Family Photographs & how to date them by Jayne Shrimpton)
Family, c. early 1920s (Family Photographs & How to Date Them by Jayne Shrimpton)

By the late twenties and early thirties the photos showed another shift  for both men and women. This is particularly true of sport and leisure wear. During this  period  it became increasingly fashionable  to have a suntan and as a result women’s bathing costumes began to change from the modest and concealing fashions of the early 20’s  to the much skimpier versions with cutaway sections  by the 30’s, and other beachwear  clothes  such as  the introduction  of beach  pyjama’s.

Swimwear, 1934 (Family Photographs & how to date them by Jayne Shrimpton)
Swimwear, 1934 (Family Photographs & How to Date Them by Jayne Shrimpton)

Men’s swimwear generated some discussion after the presentation  because  men used to swim in the nude but with the introduction of mixed bathing this was no longer acceptable. By late Victorian times they were wearing  trunks but with a vest section which everyone agreed was to hold the trunks up as they were of a knitted fabric . Most of us may have heard a story from our grandparents about their swimwear being so wet and heavy it fell down when they came out of the water!

During this time men’s began to wear informal styles, flannel trousers, sports jumpers, plus fours, and even on occasion shorts. Three piece suits became more relaxed, and had a boxier style; pinstripes were popular as was the Trilby hat.

Women’s and girl’s hemlines rose even further to knee length and their hair became shorter. Knitwear became an established part of dress and new fabrics such as jersey and rayon enabled more women to look stylish and modern and to keep up with the latest trends.

August 1937 (Family Photographs & how to date them by Jayne Shrimpton)
August 1937 (Family Photographs & How to Date Them by Jayne Shrimpton)

I went home after the talk and dug out some of the family photos and looked at them with renewed interest-  large hats,  hairstyles, hemlines, were all there and as a result of Jayne’s talk I  was able to  get a better idea of the dates.

If you are interested in fashion, or forthcoming fashion related events,  why not join our mailing list by e-mailing your name and contact details to Or, if you follow this blog, you will see regular features on our fashion and costume  collection, and you can look at photographic images from our archives in our local studies Library Time Machine blog.

With thanks to Jayne Shrimpton, who allowed us to use her images here. You can find these photos, and much more, in her book Family Photographs & How to Date Them. 

Shrimpton, Jayne.  Family Photographs & How to Date Them. (Berkshire: Countryside Books, 2008) pp.123, 138, 161 and 163.


Fashion on display- new images at Chelsea Library

Reference Librarian, Gillian Nunns, writes:

Chelsea Reference Library had a bit of space on the wall above our costume collection, and what better way to fill it than with some beautiful images from our fashion and costume periodicals?

Chelsea Fashion Collection & our new fashion images
Chelsea Fashion Collection & our new fashion images

Staff at the library were asked to pick their favourite images from a shortlist, and choosing was tricky! The images, depicting costume spanning the Regency and Victorian eras, were all picked from our own magazine archives of La Belle Assemblee, The English Woman’s Domestic Magazine and Les Modes Parisiennes. We like the fact that the winners show how the shapes and styles of fashionable dress changed over 5 decades:

La Belle Assemblee November 1808
La Belle Assemblee November 1808

Classical Greece influenced dress was at the height of fashion in 1808, featuring a high empire waist line and long straight skirts. Woman dampened the muslin draperies so that they clung to their figure!


La Belle Assemblee November 1812
La Belle Assemblee November 1812

This evening dress from 1812 features a great turban – indoor caps for daywear weren’t that fashionable in this era but essential for evening wear and turbans were a very popular choice.


La Belle Assemblee 1828
La Belle Assemblee 1828

By 1928 a very different silhouette was in fashion –with so called leg-o’-mutton sleeves and skirts with tiny waists and wide bases. Check out the elaborate trimmings and hats!


Les Modes Parisiennes 1852
Les Modes Parisiennes 1852

By the 1850’s ladies skirts were so domed that they had to be supported by hoped cages called crinolines and lots of petticoats.


 English Woman’s Domestic magazine 1872
English Woman’s Domestic magazine 1872

And then by the 1870’s the fashion was to have a flat front of the skirt, with lots of fabric pushed to the back… called a bustle. This image features a popular style called the Dolly Varden (Charles Dickens fans will get the reference) – where you have an overskirt which is shorter at the front with the sides and back bunched up.

Here are a few other images that were on the shortlist but didn’t make the final cut. We hope you like our choices!

Les Modes Parisiennes 1852
Les Modes Parisiennes 1852

English Woman’s Domestic magazine 1872
English Woman’s Domestic magazine 1872

La Belle Assemblee 1828.
La Belle Assemblee 1828.


The colours of these prints are really vibrant even after all these years, but we also loved seeing some amazing pictures of the actual fabrics in one of the books that we have in our collection – Nineteenth-Century Fashion in Detail by Lucy Johnston published by Victoria & Albert Museum:

Promenade Dress made of silk plush. British 1855-57
Promenade Dress made of silk plush. British 1855-57

Woman’s dress of woven silk with applied plated trimming, lined with linen. British, about 1805.
Woman’s dress of woven silk with applied plated trimming, lined with linen. British, about 1805.

Day dress (sleeve detail) of block printed cotton.  British, 1825-30 (page 194)
Day dress (sleeve detail) of block printed cotton. British, 1825-30 (page 194)

Evening Dress made of machine-made silk bobbin net, hand embroidered.  British, about 1810
Evening Dress made of machine-made silk bobbin net, hand embroidered. British, about 1810

Women’s shoes made of silk and linen satin lined with kid and linen with a flat leather sole.  British, 1830s-40
Women’s shoes made of silk and linen satin lined with kid and linen with a flat leather sole. British, 1830s-40

Bustle made of horsehair woven with linen  British, 1870-75
Bustle made of horsehair woven with linen, British, 1870-75

To find out a bit about costume in this era we also read History of Women’s Costume by Marion Sichel. Come along to Chelsea Library to find lots more about the world of Costume and Fashion, or log on to Berg Online with your library card!


Happy World Book Day!

As it’s World Book Day, we thought we’d take the chance to show off some of our latest aquisitions from the Chelsea Library fashion collection…any excuse really!

Natalia Vodianova plays Alice with milliner Stephen Jones as the Mad Hatter and designer Christian Lacroix as the March Hare.
Natalia Vodianova plays Alice with milliner Stephen Jones as the Mad Hatter and designer Christian Lacroix as the March Hare.

From Vogue: the Editor’s Eye, (edited by Eva MacSweeney, 2012), a glossy new purchase full of fantastic images. This photograph is by Annie Leibovitz, from December 2003. 

Isabella Blow's fashion collection
Isabella Blow’s fashion collection

This image is from Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! (edited by Alistair O’Neill, 2013), a publication that accompanied her fabulous collection, photographed by Nick Knight at Blow’s ancestral home. 

Avedon Fashion, 1944-2000
Avedon Fashion, 1944-2000

Another new purchase…  Avedon Fashion, 1944-2000, a book encompassing seven decades of extraordinary images by phographer Richard Avedon.  This black-and-white shot was taken in 1959. 

Naomi Campbell
Naomi Campbell

Naomi Campbell races a cheetah in Hair: Fashion and Fantasy by Laurent Philippon, 2013. Photographed by Jean Paul Goude, another striking image found on our shelves.

Looking through the large scale images in these books is a great way to appreciate some amazing work.  As well as our shiny new books, our costume collection also contains some treasures from a bygone age… fashion from before the birth of photography even. The contrast between fashion images then and now is astonishing.

These old volumes are really tactile things that we love to pore over.  Do come along to the library to have a look!  Happy World Book Day!

English Woman’s Domestic Magazine, June 1867.
English Woman’s Domestic Magazine, June 1867.

La Belle Assemblee, December 1808
La Belle Assemblee, December 1808


Hair: Fashion and Fantasy by Laurent Philippon, 2013

 Avedon Fashion, 1944-2000 by Richard Avedo

 Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! edited by Alistair O’Neill, 2013. (page 98-99.)

Vogue: the Editor’s Eye edited by Eva MacSweeney, 2012.  (page 190-191.)


The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon – and the people that wear the clothes

Debby Wale, Chelsea Reference Librarian, writes:

I have been looking through David Sassoon’s marvellous book in Chelsea Reference Library. I’d seen Bellville Sassoon gowns at the V&A’s Ballgowns exhibition last year, but nothing prepared me for the out-and-out glamour of the Bellville Sassoon exhibition at the Fashion and Textile Museum (ends 11 January 2014).

Bellville Sassoon was founded in 1953 as Bellville et Cie by Belinda Bellville. Sassoon joined in 1958 Lorcan Mullany joined in 1987. It’s the people who wear the clothes that are of interest to me. You need an occasion to wear such glamorous outfits. So who wears Bellville Sassoon? As Britain’s foremost couture label from the 1960s onwards, Bellville Sassoon have dressed many of the world’s most stylish women, including Diana, Princess of Wales.

 Many well known clients of Belleville Sassoon had lent dresses for the exhibition: Lady Shakira Caine, Cilla Black, Minnie Churchill, Angela Rippon, Lady Jane Rayne, Lady Anne Glendower, Lady Woolf, Baroness Fiona von Thyssen, Gaby Harris-Lyons and Brazilian socialite, Renee Behar.

Princess Diana, Princess Alexandra, Princess Michael of Kent, the Duchess of Kent and Princess Margaret were also clients. Princess Diana needed a dress for her engagement to Prince Charles. A formidable member of staff in Bellville Sassoon didn’t recognize her and suggested Harrods might be more appropriate. When David Sassoon found out, he was horrified.

She did return to Bellville Sassoon to purchase a number of outfits, including the one below:

From The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon by David Sassoon and Sinty Stemp.
From The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon by David Sassoon and Sinty Stemp.

The Princess of Wales arrives  for a 1993 film premiere in Bellville Sassoon’s little black dress, with beaded jewelled straps, one of the glamorous evening dresses that were auctioned at Christie’s New York in 1997.

 From an interview with David Sassoon in the Sunday Telegraph February 17 2013:

Another sketch, for a claret taffeta dress with bows, shows her enthusiasm to have the dress made up, with the words “Yes please!” next to the design, which she subsequently wore to the opening of the Barbican Centre with the Queen in March 1982, when she was six months pregnant.

“We had to let it out at the very last minute because her bump had suddenly grown,” said Sassoon. “She was very excited about the baby but also conscious of looking appropriate for the occasion during her pregnancy.”

Diana Princess of Wales in a maternity gown by Sassoon
Diana Princess of Wales in a maternity gown by Sassoon

 Bellville Sassoon are also famous for their wedding gowns. In April 1971 when Sarah Donaldson-Hudson married Nicholas Haydon at Caxton Hall, she wore Bellville Sassoon, but as she was marrying a divorcee, her mother forbade her to wear white. She wore a hand-painted coat, lined with silk, which had graced the pages of Vogue in November 1970.

 Sarah Donaldson-Hudson on her wedding day with Dorothy Donaldson-Hudson and Lt. Col. Ralph Davies-Cooke 23 April 1971:

From The Wedding Dress: 300 years of bridal fashions by Edwina Ehrman
From The Wedding Dress: 300 years of bridal fashions by Edwina Ehrman

  And the coat as it appeared in Vogue, 1970:

Cream wool crepe coat from the Indian-inspired couture collection, ‘Rajputana’
Cream wool crepe coat from the Indian-inspired couture collection, ‘Rajputana’

Bordered and panelled with exquisite flowers from a Persian miniature. Designed and printed by Richard Cawley and Andrew Whittle, who painted the boots by hand to match.

The coat proved to be very popular. The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon reproduced an article from Women’s Wear Daily 6 October  1970. Rajputana was ordered by ‘a tall member of the Royal Family’, but the name was not to be revealed. Baroness Fiona Von Thyssen (former fashion model Fiona Campbell-Walter) also ordered this costume.

 The Indian theme continues. In The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon, David Sassoon has a picture of Lady Londonderry wearing one of his Indian inspired costumes (in the December 1974 issue of Harpers & Queen, alongside the original picture, her name is given as Mrs Clive Powell. At the time of publication, she was married to Georgie Fame, a pop star, and Clive Powell was his real name.)

Harpers & Queen December 1974
Harpers & Queen December 1974

 Mrs Powell wears blue and coral printed silk georgette long sleeveless dress embroidered in gold, with wide waistband and gathered skirt. Matching printed and embroidered cardigan, with gold sequins.

 More famous clients dressed by Sassoon:

Catherine Deneuve (Mrs David Bailey), Vogue December 1965
Catherine Deneuve (Mrs David Bailey), Vogue December 1965

Actress Julie Christie, Vogue December 1965
Actress Julie Christie, Vogue December 1965

My favorite is the evening dress with gold lame spots on black chiffon:

From Ballgowns: British glamour since 1950 by Oriole Cullen
From Ballgowns: British glamour since 1950 by Oriole Cullen

This was made in 1996 and is in the V&A collection: T.76-1997. In the exhibition, it stands in a glass case, the fabric spreading out in a sumptuous puddle of almost liquid fabric.

You have until 11 January 2014 to visit The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon. Make it a New Year’s resolution!

From Chelsea Reference Library


Vogue from 1923 – current issue

Queen from 1949 – 1970

Harpers & Queen 1971 – current issue

For a full list of newspapers and how long we keep them, click here


The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon by David Sassoon and Sinty Stemp. Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd, 2008.

Ballgowns: British glamour since 1950 by Oriole Cullen. V&A Publishing, 2012.

The Wedding Dress: 300 years of bridal fashions by Edwina Ehrman. V&A Publishing, 2011