French haute couture is often hailed as the pinnacle of fashion and while it may be true that France has produced many of the greatest fashion designers of all time, clothing constructed entirely by hand in innovative fabrics and silhouettes could be found in other countries during the 20th century.
Haute couture, as defined by the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in Paris, has certain conditions. Firstly, that the clothing be entirely constructed by hand and made to order in a Parisian atelier at least twenty skilled employees. An haute couture house must also present a collection of at least fifty garments twice a year. Obviously, this definition heavily favours designers of French origin, so for this blog post we'll focus on what we deem to be the most important factors of 'couture' (literally, sewing), the fact that garments are made entirely by hand in a workshop - wherever that may be based and that the clothing is custom made with fittings. Under these conditions, all of the following British fashion designers (and designers of other countries, which we'll blog about at a later date) certainly create beautiful couture clothing, even rivalling their French counterparts.
5. Bruce Oldfield
There were two great periods and revivals in British couture during the time period we're concerned with, the 1950s and the 1980s. The popularity and success of British couture is inextricably linked to the British royal family and during the latter of the two periods we mentioned, the 1980s, the success of British couture revolved around the Princess of Wales. Many different sources state different fashion designers as Diana's favourite but as her close friend Bruce Oldfield certainly created some fantastic pieces for her which led to great success for his label. In addition to his couture made clothing he had a 'custom-made' line and a ready to wear label, both of which focused mainly on eveningwear and were very successful in the 80s and 90s. After founding his fashion house in 1975, he started producing couture creations in 1978 and is the only fashion designer on this list to still be designing and is very successful today. His notable clients have included Sienna Miller, Taylor Swift, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Diana Ross.
4. Belinda Bellville & David Sassoon
I still remember the first Belinda Bellville et Cie piece we had in our store, a green, maxi length silk organza jacket with an ever-so-subtle iridescent hue, trimmed with green marabou feathers. It was then that we realised what a fantastic designer Belinda Bellville was. There has been a long evolution of Bellville's fashion house since then. After founding her label in 1953, Bellville created fantastic couture level garments for her aristocratic clients in Knightsbridge, London called Bellville et Cie. In 1970 she renamed the label Bellville Sassoon after her partner David Sassoon who was also designing alongside her. It was this partnership that is most well known today (and is now designed by Lorcan Mullany). Again it was the Princess of Wales that helped to truly bring Bellville Sasoon to the mainstream, being one of her first prolific designers to get attention. Bellville Sassoon has since created their ladylike custom designs for the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy and Helen Mirren.
3. Thea Porter
Known particularly for her bohemian silk kaftans which were reminiscent of her Israelian heritage. She was one of the first fashion designers to reuse fashion, hand making her patchwork clothing out of old textiles and antique trimming. At the time fashionable woman such as Faye Dunaway and Elizabeth Taylor wore her designs. Since then, her name faded a little into obscurity and has been revived in the eyes of true vintage fashion lovers with Nicole Richie and Kate Moss being photographed in her original 1970s dresses.
2. Hardy Amies
Possibly the best known and most successful business-wise couturier on this list is Hardy Amies. In 1945 Amies moved to the legendary British tailoring quarter, Savile Row. Traditionally a place where the most expensive well made men's suits are made in the world, Amies was paving the way by creating clothes for women and men in his atelier. He became the official dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth II in 1955 and designed for her until 1990 and was eventually knighted in 1989 for his services to fashion. Hardy Amies is perhaps best known due to his appreciation of couture but pragmatic ability to see the benefit of ready to wear clothing and ability to make that clothing mainstream yet aspirational in a similar vein to Yves Saint Laurent with his Rive Gauche line and licensed goods. In particular his menswear collaboration with British store Hepworths proved quite successful and was quite fashion forward for being a mid-priced label.
1. Norman Hartnell
The 1950s was a great period of success and visibility for British couturiers. This is again strongly influenced by the royal family, Hartnell became a royal dressmaker for the Queen Mother in 1940 but it wasn't until the young Princess Elizabeth, heir to throne, asked Hartnell to design the dress for her 1947 wedding that he became truly noted.
Possibly the biggest milestone of Hartnell's career and arguably the biggest accomplishment of any of the designers on this list, was designing the Queen's coronation dress in 1953. This legendary dress was seen by 27 million people and was designed with the help of his assistant Ian Thomas (who later became a great British couturier in his own right). It took eight months to create, research and intricately embroider the dress and there aren't many dresses that have their own wikipedia page like this one. Due to this success, Hartnell became legendary having to employ 500 people in the mid 1950s and dressing famous celebrities of the time like Eileen Joyce and Fanny Craddock. Thus, placing him as the preeminent British couturier of the latter half of the twentieth century.
To see a selection of our favourite designs by British couturiers, please check out our pinterest board below!
Other honorable mentions include Victor Edelstein and Catherine Walker, other favourites of Princess Diana and Edward Molyneux who is definitely worthy of being at the top of this list but whose atelier only operated until 1950 and was based in Paris.