Dress-stories: From the 1900s to the 1980s, Lily Kingston Chadwick

Texto de Lily Kingston Chadwick. Revisão de João N.S. Almeida e Tomás Vicente Ferreira..

If to some this title might suggest a peculiar effort, an ill-advised attempt at summing up roughly a hundred years of fashion and social history in a matter of pages, I would have to agree. Hence, what is to follow is rather a series of illustrated tales which shall hopefully speak a little of the ways in which the items that have clothed us can be used to tell stories.

The pieces included are part of my own collection (or have at some point passed through my hands), a fact which I mention only as their selection naturally reveals (most often accidental) biases particular to the path which my collecting and work have taken. For instance, you will note a general absence of menswear, not because its history is any less interesting or rich, but because those are pieces whose stories I am not well enough placed to tell. Much the same could be said in speaking of economic availability. The skew, in this instance, is largely toward garments which would originally have been within the remit of the “middle to upper classes.” Another exclusion, that of any piece dating to the 1940s, is purely accidental.

Though they are so often unaccompanied by provenance, it is possible still to recover traces of the hands that imagined, designed and crafted them and further still of the bodies that brought them to life. And so to start.


It is perhaps unsurprising that first amongst this selection is a garment which speaks at once to the time’s changing artistic mores and (though slighter) the effect of the previous century’s technological advances upon the garment industry. Close-ups show a combination of machine (a creation popularized, though not first invented by Isaac M. Singer (1811-1875) in the second half of the 19th Century) and hand stitching, as well as decorative hand-smocking to the yoke and cuffs.

Though unlabelled, it is likely that the dress would have been produced in the workrooms of Liberty & Co’s Artistic and Historic Costume Department, originally headed by the architect and designer E. W. Godwin (1833-1886).[i]It served as a less radical, commercial venue for items of “aesthetic dress,” as described by Valerie Cumming, C. W. Cunnington and P. E. Cunnington in The Dictionary of Fashion History (2010):

[…] an attempt to revive in modified the “artistic” dress of the 14th century. Encouraged and espoused by those associated with the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists […] it took the form of high-waisted, flowing garments using natural dyes with patterned materials […]. Liberty & Co Ltd provided fabrics and also produced a catalogue of dresses which captured the quasi-medieval, classical lines which suited those with such tastes.[ii]

This particular dress (circa. 1900-1905) was likely originally intended for girl of 10-12 years of age, curiously featuring a large, hand-stitched seam allowance to the hem of the skirt, which would have accounted for it’s wearer’s growth over time. It bears similarities to the designs worn by the figures in illustrations by Kate Greenaway (1846-1901) – take for instance But Flinders Foots Were Cold (1900)[iii] – one of the reported sources of inspiration for Liberty’s children’s designs.[iv] Though not so clear a departure from contemporary popular childrenswear as Liberty’s aesthetic designs for women, the free fit and stretch to the decorative elements give a nod to changing societal notions of beauty and health.


Visually, this could not be a much farther departure from its predecessor. It consists of an evening purse (circa 1918-1919) made – relatively crudely – out of silk velvet, trimmed in ostrich feathers and topped with two faux-tortoiseshell celluloid handles. 

Though this, in and of itself, makes for a striking design – and a rebuttal to the occasional misconception that vivid colours weren’t a regular feature of fashionable dress at the time – it was the lining which first peaked my interest. It is made up of two squares of silk, differing colourways of a print which features lanterns and tassels amidst a sea of curvilinear streamers. As became apparent, its clever maker – likely also the original wearer – had made use of two handkerchiefs, designed in 1918 by George Sheringham for (1884-1937) for Sefton Fabrics, a seemingly short-lived Belfast manufacturer.

In a stroke of luck which is not entirely common-place, I happened across a recently auctioned lot of 13 kerchiefs by the artist, displayed within their equally decorative original packaging. The cover read “Shéhérezade ¦ Silk Handkerchiefs ¦ Designed by George Sheringham.”[v] He was, aside from other ventures, a theatre designer[vi] (of both set and costume), so it makes perfect sense that the influence of the great Leon Bakst (1866-1924) – particularly his work for the Ballets Russes’s staging of Scheherazade (1910) – would have trickled through into his textile designs. 

The purse presents itself as a mixture of the overt – note just how directly Sheringham referenced the lanterns from Bakst’s Scheherazade set design[vii] – bearing of the Ballets Russes’s production on the work of a particular designer, but also the more nuanced influence of exoticized Russian imagery on early 20th Century fashion.


1920s – Choosing what item to speak of from this decade was no easy task. This was, I think, because the overlap between the so-called “fine arts” and period textile design is of particular interest to me – and so, choosing between even the few examples at hand was a little like picking between favoured books or paintings, over-dramatic as that may sound.

Raoul Dufy (1877-1953) is generally known as a fauvist painter and print-maker. He was, however, equally accomplished in the world of applied design, producing works in ceramic, furniture and textiles.[viii] It was in this last capacity that, after a brief tenure at Paul Poiret’s (1879-1944) Petite Usine, he was hired by the Lyonnaise textile manufacturer Bianchini-Férier.[ix] Between 1912 and 1928 he would go on to produce thousands – reports vary in number between approximately 2000-5000 – of designs for the company, many of which were explorations of themes which had or would be seen in his painted works and woodcuts. 

Such is the case with the textile from which this particular coat (circa. 1924-25) was made. The design for the shawl from which it was cut was based on Le Souris[x], a monochromatic woodcut which Dufy produced for Guillaume Apollinaire’s (1880-1918) Le Bestiaire (1911).[xi]

Poiret (who would continue to fruitfully partner with Dufy’s in his dress designs) wrote in his 1931 memoir The King of Fashion:

Am I a fool when I dream of putting art into my dresses, a fool when I say dressmaking is an art? For I have always loved painters, and felt on an equal footing with them. It seems to be that we practice the same craft, and that they are my fellow workers.[xii]

Though the textile design lacks the impish mouse and birds which narrativize Le Souris, it is remarkable for Dufy’s boldly stylized forms, his use of colour and luminosity – by virtue of the golden, though varyingly tarnished, lamé threads which are woven into it. Beneath a sparsely clouded sky, bright red strawberries jostle for attention amidst the yellow of wheat sheafs, squash, the orange of peaches and pumpkins. Theirs is a glowing vitality.


If I waxed lyrical about the Dufy textile’s visual impact, then I’m afraid that I can’t quite extend the same commentary onto this piece. It is, in fact, quite a departure from the printed, embroidered pieces towards which I tend to gravitate. Though finely crafted, these racing overalls (broadly speaking, from the 1930s, though quite probably its latter half) are markedly simple in appearance, utilitarian in design. 

They were retailed by PUB, a major Stockholm department store founded by Paul Urban Bergström (1860-1934) – on a vaguely related note, also known for employing a young Greta Garbo (1905-1990) just prior to the start of her career in film. This, combined with the fine quality of the fabric (seemingly a linen blend) and the fact that motor-racing was, simplistically put, a not inexpensive pursuit, suggests that their purchaser was of a “middle/upper class” background.

There is at least one more thing to address, that is that current research points toward an added layer of interest. Though it is proving difficult to say with any certainty whether the dress of early 20th Century racing-drivers – and indeed crew-members – followed particular fashions, or whether it was in certain cases gendered – and marketed as such – it seems increasingly possible that these overalls were intended for a woman. Though it is, at this point, still conjecture, aspects of its construction – namely the drop-seat and comparatively short central zip – do seemingly begin to set it apart from the garb of male contemporaries.

If indeed this is the case, it is interesting to ponder just how seriously their wearer might have taken the venture and indeed what their experiences are likely to been at a time where women’s participation in racing was beginning to be slightly  less rarefied than one might at first imagine – I would urge any interested parties to scroll through the wonderfully illustrated photo-reportages on women racers at Brooklands, the early English autodrome, available online[xiii].


Now for the only item of footwear chosen, a pair of heels (circa. 1958) by a Florentine designer, Frattegiani. The firm was founded in the early years of the 20th Century and was operated by brothers Alfredo and Edoardo Frattegiani (dates of birth/death as of yet unknown). Their Florentine shopfront was located directly opposite Ferragamo’s premises on Via Tornabuoni and yet while the latter’s name is a mainstay of major fashion histories, Frattegiani has remained largely forgotten.[xiv]

A pair of shoes which is near identical in form to those pictured – save their open toe – is held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s costume collection. They formed part of a sizeable donation made by Charline Osgood, who, in an undoubted nod to the sensuality of their design, is said to have noted their “[…] emphasis on the ‘derrière’ of the foot, a fascination which she saw as paralleling clothing fashions […].”[xv]

As arresting as the curve of their heels, and somehow more so because of it, are the (not quite micro) mosaicked designs which were applied to this pair. Referencing this centuries-old tradition, craftsmen arranged the tiny tesseraearound the rear of the heels, forming on each a single bunch of flowers. The special effectiveness of the design lies in the fact that in doing so they come close to achieving a trompe loeil effect, with the kid suede bows “holding” the stems in place.

Theirs is a name which, though not affixed in current memory as is that of their most famous neighbour, played part in the patchwork of Italian designers, craftsmen/women and manufacturers that helped popularize Italian design in the mid-century and beyond. 


This piece arrived as somewhat of a mystery. It had come from the estate of a Spanish comedic (stage and film) actress. There are two ways, I suppose, in which it had suffered over time. 

Firstly, it had been improperly stored. Not in any of the ways which would have led to an actual breakdown of its materials – its bobbinet base structure and the silk of the flowers are remarkably unspoilt – but rather in disregard for the fragility of its structure. In short, the large blooms which had been glued and stitched to the net base had wilted. Having for so long remained pressed flat, few clues remained as to just how three-dimensional they had once been. It is further possible that the garment was at one point steamed, which would have reversed the effects of the heat-pressing processes used to form the flowers – yet another reminder of the fragility of works fashioned from textiles (particularly those in natural fibres).

In second place, the garment was label-less, but for a small, numbered paper tag affixed near a seam (most likely corresponding to its original order number). The piece’s construction – almost if not entirely hand-stitched – was fine enough that it was deducibly a couture piece, and indeed the actress who it had belonged to had been a long-standing client of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s (1895-1972) Spanish house, Eisa. 

The stroke of luck, in this case, came in the form of a 1966 Photograph by Tom Kublin. Kindly scanned by a friend from a page of Marie Andree-Jouve’s Balenciaga (1981)[xvi], it shows a model wearing a full-length gown made of a slubbed fabric and over it, a highly structured cropped cape, covered in rows of (what were now clearly) cabbage roses. It is likely that a milliner trained in the art of silk flower-making would have been able to re-shape the roses, recovering its originally sculptural design. It is a garment which would once have been both singularly delicate and arrestingly dramatic (a slight departure, I would argue, from the more classic designs through which he maintained the loyalty of a more conservative clientele).


I did at one point say that, regrettably, I was going to be sparing few words for menswear. This is the single exception, a man’s dress by (attributed to) Michael Fish– not to be confused with the same-named British meteorologist. 

Following spells at several Jermyn Street Tailors, notably including Turnbull & Asser – during which time he was integral in the making of Sean Connery’s (1930-2020) Bond shirts – he would go on to found his eponymous label, Mr. Fish.[xvii] It is under that name that he is known for having designed men’s tunics and dresses for likes of Mick Jagger (circa The Rolling Stones’s 1969 Hyde Park concert) and the cover-shoot of David Bowie’s (1947-2016) The Man Who Sold the World (1970/71) album. 

An alternate cover of that same album[xviii] features a dress remarkably similar in cut (possibly also fabric) to we speak of. According to a second-hand source (whose father had worked with Fish) these “kaftans” were brought back from Morocco, then altered to fit his designs/ideas and sold as ready-to-wear. That same individual was unable to confirm who was behind the Medieval-inspired beaded motifs – the interlocked birds, berries and leaves. 

The piece came from a single-owner estate which, though divested of any information as to its original owner, was filled with other pieces of vibrant, custom-tailored or customized menswear – including at least two other Mr. Fish men’s dresses (none of which, regrettably, I had the chance to compare this piece’s construction to). This is sufficiently unusual for it to be feasible to suggest their having belonged to a performer, of some capacity. If any one wardrobe were to have encapsulated the so-called “Peacock Revolution” – a period spanning most of the 1960s and the beginning of the 70s in which there was, at least in some areas of the country, a move away from traditionally staid, muted forms of menswear – that would, if I might say so, have been it.[xix] The material evidence of a time when people were reminded that given forms of dress are not – and one needn’t look too far back in history to find times when they manifestly were not – inherently the preserve of any one group of people. 


And so we come to the last of the objects, a piece which seems increasingly relevant. A t-shirt made up from yellow “parachute silk” (a material not entirely dissimilar in weight to the girl’s smock) and printed in bold black capital letters “PROTEST AND SURVIVE.”

   It was designed by Katharine Hamnett for Fashion Aid (1985)[xx] a one-off concert/fashion show organized by Bob Geldoff – an offshoot of Band Aid (1984) and Live Aid (1985) – intended to help raise funds to combat the Ethiopian famine, a crisis which would, by its end, have killed around one million people and left many more still feeling its devastating consequences.[xxi]

In a 2017 interview Hamnett noted “It’s funny, I look at those ones [graphic t-shirts] we did at the time and they were regarded as quite contentious: ‘Save the world’, ‘No war’. These were regarded as quite threatening.”[xxii] And yet (or perhaps because of this resistance) Hamnett’s – admittedly commodified – anti-establishmentarianism has remained her hallmark. 

The t-shirts were not only worn during the show – alongside a slew of other graphic shirts – but were (if I’m not very much mistaken) intended to be sold to the public. This particular example looks to remain unworn, and yet, while it bears no obvious traces of a past life (in wear), it is far from a silent object. The words, the typeface/set are bold enough that they act as silent provocateurs upon the surface of the silk. They are not expected to practically motivate change, but sew the seeds of critical though in the minds of those who read them.

This may, I realize, have seemed a fairly aimless ramble (in the travelling sense of the term), so to tie it up may be tricky. So, I’ll make use of a favourite quote by Virginia Woolf (one which I’m sure I have or will overplay in conversation, taken from her Orlando (1928):

‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have…more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us’ (Orlando, 179)[xxiii]

It seems perhaps a little too obvious that the clothes we wear and have worn have an effect on the way that other people perceive us, acting as first visual mediators (alongside our body language). What I think is perhaps a little less often considered is the extent to which they act as interface between our private selves (our minds) and the outside world. When we dress in a given way, we allow space to express particular aspects of our selves, whilst benching others. This may owe more to practical concerns – as in the case of specially conceived racing overalls – to one’s wish to explore fluctuating social mores – as was conceivably the case with the man’s dress – or the myriad reasons for which one may want to participate in the more avant-garde iterations of fashionable dress – as is the case with the Dufy coat. Either way, I hope that someone may have been struck by the notion that garment histories have as much to offer us of their original artistic and social contexts as they do the considered ways in which they would have been created and worn.


Photograph Captions:

  • Front-view of girl’s dress (circa 1900-1905), L. Chadwick (2020);
  • Back-view of girl’s dress (circa 1900-1905), L. Chadwick (2020);
  • Close-up of back-view of girl’s dress (circa 1900-1905), L. Chadwick (2020);
  • Close-up of smocking on a girl’s dress (circa 1900-1905), L. Chadwick (2020);
  • But Flinders Foots Were Cold, Kate Greenaway (1900);
  • Front-view of a purse (circa 1918-1919), L. Chadwick (2021);
  • Lining of a purse (circa 1918-1919), L. Chadwick (2021);
  • Lining of a purse (circa 1918-1910)¸L. Chadwick (2021);
  • Set Design for Scheherazade, Leon Bakst, 1910; Close-up of the lining of a purse (circa 1918-1919), L. Chadwick (2021);
  • Front-view of an evening-coat (circa 1924-1925) with design by Raoul Dufy , L. Chadwick (2020);
  • Back-view of an evening coat (circa 1924-1925) with design by Raoul Dufy, L. Chadwick (2020);
  • Alternate front-view of an evening coat (circa 1924-1925) with design by Raoul Dufy, L. Chadwick (2020);
  • Close-up of fabric of an evening coat (circa 1924-1925) with design by Raoul Dufy, L. Chadwick (2020);
  • La Souris, Raoul Dufy (1911);
  • Front-view of a pair of 1930s Swedish women’s (?) racing overalls, L. Chadwick (2021);
  • Back-view of a pair of 1930s Swedish women’s (?) racing overalls, L. Chadwick (2021);
  • Closer shot of the drop-seat on a pair of 1930s Swedish women’s (?) racing overalls, L. Chadwick (2021);
  • Close-up of the front of a pair of 1930s Swedish women’s (?) racing overalls, L. Chadwick (2021);
  •  A view of the heel and front-decoration to a pair of Italian-made shoes (circa 1958), L. Chadwick (2018);
  • A view of the heel and side of a pair of Italian-made shoes (circa 1958), L. Chadwick (2018);
  • A view of the interiors of a pair of Italian-made shoes (circa 1958), L. Chadwick (2018);
  • Front-view of a cropped cape by Eisa/Balenciaga (attributed) (Spring-Summer 1966), L. Chadwick (2020);
  • Back-view of a cropped cape by Eisa/Balenciaga (attributed) (Spring-Summer 1966), L. Chadwick (2020);
  • Close-up of the silk flowers applied to a cropped cape by Eisa/Balenciaga (attributed) (Spring-Summer 1966),L. Chadwick (2020);
  • Close-up of the hand-stitching to the inside of a cropped cape by Eisa/Balenciaga (attributed) (Spring-Summer 1966), L. Chadwick (2020);
  • Cape du Soir de Roses “Choux” en Soie Rose, Février 1966, Tom Kublin (1966);
  • Front-view of a beaded men’s dress by Mr. Fish (attributed), L. Chadwick (2017);
  • Back-view of a beaded men’s dress by Mr. Fish (attributed), L. Chadwick (2017);
  • Close-up of the beading to a men’s dress by Mr. Fish (attributed), L. Chadwick (2017);
  • An Alternate Frame to the Eventual Cover of The Man Who Sold the World, Keith MacMillan (1970);
  • Front-view of a 1985 silk t-shirt by Katharine Hamnett, L. Chadwick (2020);
  • Side-view of a 1985 silk t-shirt by Katharine Hamnett, L. Chadwick (2020);
  • Back-view of a 1985 silk t-shirt by Katharine Hamnett, L. Chadwick (2020).

[i] Grant, Alistair. Edward William Godwin (Date Unknown); 

[ii] Helms, Ruby-May. Theme of Month: Artistic and Aesthetic Dress (2020);

[iii] Greenaway, Kate. But Flinders Foots Were Cold (1900);

[iv] Andrews, Meg. Liberty’s Girl’s Dress C 1900 (Date Unknown);

[v] Mellors & Kirk. Sheherezade. A Rare Album of Thirteen [of Sixteen] Silk Handkerchiefs (2017);

[vi] Curators at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Design for the Set of ‘Midsummer Madness’ (Date Unknown);

[vii] Bakst, Leon. Set Design for Scheherazade (1910);

[viii] Curators at the Tate. Raoul Dufy: 1877-1953 (Date Unknown);

[ix] Halle, Titi. A Catalogue of 20th & 21st Century Costume and Textiles 2017 (2017);

[x] Dufy, Raoul. “La Souris” in the Book Le Bestiaire ou cortège d’Orphée by Guillaume Apollinaire (1911);

[xi] Halle, Titi. A Catalogue of 20th & 21st Century Costume and Textiles 2017 (2017);

[xii] Curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Paul Poiret and Raoul Dufy (Date Unknown);

[xiii] Baker, Ron. Brooklands, and the Amazing Women Racing Drivers of the 1930s (2018);

[xiv] Curators of The Historialist: Of Shoes and Showmakers. The Shoemaker Frattegiani ¦ Florence ¦ Part 1 (2013);

[xv] Curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Cocktail Shoes (Date Unknown);

[xvi] Kublin, Tom. Cape du Soir de Roses “Choux” en Soie Rose, Février 1966 a photograph taken from Marie-Andree Jouve’s Balenciaga (1981): page 256;

[xvii] Curators of Mason & Sons: The Home of British Style. A Peculiar Fish (Date Unknown);

[xviii] MacMillan, Keith. An Alternate Frame to the Eventual Cover of The Man Who Sold the World (1970);

[xix] Curators of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Peacock Revolution: 1960s Menswear (Date Unknown);

[xx] Hamnett, Katharine. Protest and Survive (1985);

[xxi] Wooldridge, Mike. World Still Learning from Ethiopia Famine (2014);

[xxii] Bumpus, Jessica. Katharine Hamnett Tells Us Why We Need to Protest to Survive (2017);

[xxiii] Woolf, Virginia. Quote on Clothes (1928);