Costume Archive Garment in focus: Blanes of London 1950s party dress

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One of the best things about volunteering at the Beecroft is I get to work closely with the fantastic costume archive. This could mean researching for treasures to post on this blog, accessioning items into the collection, or sourcing material for researchers. I came across this week’s garment in focus whilst preparing items for a visiting researcher and I could  couldn’t resist its glittering fabric!

Ready-to-wear fashion

IMG_20170505_145337 The garment was made by Blanes of London, a British ready to wear firm founded in the 1950s. We have a great collection of similar 20th century British ready to wear pieces from firms such as Fredrica and St. Michael (Marks & Spencer) which are excellent resources to see examples of everyday dress.

This particular dress dates from the 1950s but was probably manufactured later in the decade. Whilst it still shows the distinctive 1950s shaping of bodice and waist, the unstructured lining and shift silhouette anticipates the transition to looser 1960s styles.

The 1950s textile revolution

IMG_20170505_144942When handling the dress I was struck by its sparkling, iridescent fabric, created by the interwoven metallic weft.  Although rough to the touch, you can see in the image above the reverse of the fabric is smoother and would not have irritated the skin of the wearer.

The textile is evidently a synthetic fibre and this is not unusual in 1950s dresses. In the post-war period man-made fibres were increasingly used in garments, following technological advances in creating fabrics using coil and oil bases. These were revolutionary fibres, which were easy to wash, non-creasing and had exciting names such as ‘Crimplene’ or ‘Dacron’. Earlier synthetics had existed, such as nylon, whose inherent stretch was ideal for foundation garments, such as girdles and corsellettes and the stiff petticoats necessary for supporting fifties full-skirts.

This dress can excitingly be positioned as part of this synthetic revolution, which was to continue into the 1960s, when even high-end designers such as Pierre Cardin and André Courrèges would boldly experiment with new plastics.

Easy-to-care for and easy-to-wear

IMG_20170505_145350

Although not as radical as the 1960s synthetics would be, this simple garment’s fabric would have been revolutionary in its labour-saving properties. You can clearly see the dress has perfectly uniform pleats, miraculous considering it was made over sixty years ago. This retention of shape, would not have been possible in natural silk or wool fibres, which would have creased and required careful storage and pressing.  Despite this, this dress would not have been as easy-to wash as other synthetics. It is likely that the interwoven metallic threads, would have become damaged in a washing machine, and an internal label advises it to be dry cleaned only.  Although, as a cocktail dress it would not have been worn as frequently, nor needed to have been washed as regularly as everyday wear.

Fashion repeats itself

Prada 2017 RTW

Prada Spring/Summer Ready to Wear 2017. Image copyright Monica Feudi / Indigital.tv

The pastel pink colour and sparkled texture,  would have made it the ideal party-dress, that would not be out of place in a modern setting. Indeed, current designer collections have featured a similar ‘uncomplicated’ prettiness in their designs, which is a distinct departure from the androgyny of recent years.

Prada’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection saw a return to elegance and femininity with flattering fifties and sixties silhouettes, that were telling of fashion’s endless recycling of the past. Formal dresses, coats and suits were created in pastel shades that sparkled with touches of embellishment and feather edging.

The fashion ‘glitterati’ have also taken up the trend with vigour. Model and socialite Suki Waterhouse was photographed at a recent fashion launch in a similarly girlish garment in saccharine shades of blue and pink. She donned a glittering beaded and sequined dress, accessorised with tottering heels and a fur stole.

It seems that the desire for a bit of sparkle will never go out of fashion…

Suki Waterhouse and Poppy Jamie

Poppy Jamie and Suki Waterhouse  at the LA Launch of their accessories line. Image copyright of Sam Deitch/BFA.com

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Iona Farrell 

Costume and archive volunteer