Friday, May 22, 2015

Summer Book Club: London Society Fashion 1905-1925

A surprise early birthday gift (thank you, DG) brought me "London Society Fashion 1905-1925". The book is subtitled "The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank" but should be sub-subtitled "Who She Was, What She Wore and Why".

Heather Firbank, age 20

"In 1926 Heather Firbank packed away her extensive wardrobe of fine clothes, bought from London's very best dressmakers and tailors. These treasures lay undiscovered for the next thirty years, until they were given to the V&A [London's Victoria and Albert Museum of the decorative arts] after her death, laying the foundation for the Museum's world-famous collection."

It's hard to believe that until the 1950s fashion was not considered an art form and rarely exhibited in major museums. The Heather Firbank collection of over 400 items (not acquired in total by the V&A) was comprised of day dresses, gowns, coats, suits, blouses, lounging wear, undergarments, shoes, hats, etc. as well as bills of sale from dressmakers and emporiums she favored, clippings from the contemporary fashion press, sketches of things she wanted made and photographs of her wearing many of the outfits represented in the treasure trove.

It's also surprising that the V&A has only just published this book in 2015. The "why now?" is "Downton Abbey." Although we're into the mid 1920s in the upcoming (and last) installment of the series, it began in 1912 when the real Miss Firbank was 24 and on her way to spinsterhood (why is part of the Downton-esque intrigue). Ten years later she was very much unmarried for life and struggling with less income and less importance in British society— though she kept a lady's maid throughout and "reduced circumstances" forced her to reside in a luxurious seaside residential hotel.

The photographs are beautiful and detailed. The snippets of ephemera are charming and enlightening. What bowled me over was the wealth of information about why and how all this stuff was worn and the time-consuming importance of one's wardrobe for this segment of the population. There are the almost forgotten society dressmakers of the early 20th century, such as Lucile, Redfern and Kate Reilly. We learn how clothing was designed, marketed and manufactured and how "ready-mades" turned into the department stores of today. "London Society Fashion" is a great read for anyone who loves fashion, history... and "Downton Abbey".

The acquisition of Heather Firbank's wardrobe enabled the V&A to mount its show, "Lady of Fashion" in 1960 and opened the doors for all the amazing exhibits which followed. Currently showing is Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (below)— through August 2, 2015.

It all started with Heather...


  1. yay!- so glad you liked it, dg

  2. I'm thinking of buying this book. I love fashion that part of this tome interesting? Have you ever read Barbara Johnson's fashion scrapbook?

  3. There is a smattering of ephemera from the Heather Firbank archives (bills and clippings, etc.). The book is mostly about the clothes and the evolving process of procuring them. If you enjoy fashion and history, though, you will love this.
    I do know about Barbara's Johnson! I called her "the first fashion blogger" in a piece I wrote some time ago (see below). Would love to own a copy, but it is very pricey indeed.
    Thank you for reading and for your comments.