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Matilda Etches:
A re-discovery of a forgotten couturier

Liz Tregenza

 

Matilda Etches, Evening dress, 1947, Quilted silk crêpe lined with silk and cotton, Museum no. T.152&A-1973 Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Matilda Etches, Evening dress, 1947, Quilted silk crêpe lined with silk and cotton, Museum no. T.152&A-1973. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

British couture in the 1940s and 1950s normally conjures up a series of between 10 and 12 names; designers such as Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies, or fellow members of the Incorporated Society Of London Fashion Designers.[1]  This small selection of designers does not wholly represent British haute couture during the period though. British bespoke and haute couture garments rather than ready made or off-the-peg[2] clothing was closely associated with the court. Many famous London design houses were referred to as ‘court dressmakers’ rather than couturiers,[3] including firms such as Rahvis. Handley-Seymour[4] and Strassner.  In this article I would like to add a different name to the list of important British couturiers, a designer who should be recognised for the creativity and individuality of her designs: Matilda Etches.

The personal life of Matilda Etches has been the subject of some confusion, with varying accounts of her real name and birthplace[5]. The Sydney Morning Herald[6] states that Etches was born in Yorkshire and had lived in Montreal, whilst Ray Diffen, who worked with Etches, suggests she was Australian.[7]Census records allude that the former is true and that her birth-name was Muriel Matilda Etches.[8]  Etches married twice, firstly to engineer Robert Bamford[9] in 1919[10] and secondly to economics advisor Professor Paul Homan in 1950.[11]

Etches established her dressmaking business in 1934, although in 1935 the company encountered financial troubles and the business was dissolved.[12] The designer took a brief hiatus from the fashion industry before she re-established herself in the late 1930s, finding widespread fame in the 1940s.

The importance of Etches as a fashion designer is demonstrated in a Vogue feature “Their Business is fashion” (July 1948)[13]

With no training, but a life long passion for using ‘her scissors’, she reached the top the hard way. She had to start her own business in order to design because, she says, “no one would take such an unqualified person.” She gets her inspiration from fabrics, she drapes on a model-stand, and usually, without even making a preliminary sketch, cuts straight into the material itself.

Her clothes philosophy is for undating simplicity, for an elegance which relies on cut rather than trimming and above all for comfort: this last, an unusual and very welcome viewpoint.[14]

Fashion design though was only part of Etches repertoire as she was also a successful designer for stage and screen.  BFI lists Etches as a costume designer for just four films[15], including Beware of Pity and Gaiety George, but she actually designed for many more. The design process for Gaiety George is particularly fascinating; this film was made whilst rationing was still in force rendering it challenging to acquire fabric. [16] After an appeal publicised in the Daily Mail (1945) period garments were sent to her workrooms, unpicked and recycled to create new costumes. [17] Etches also worked closely with other leading costume and theatre designers, she ‘interpreted the sketches’ of Oliver Messell for Caesar and Cleopatra[18] and Cecil Beaton too.[19]  These designs were ‘the results of their vision, but her design.’[20] She also worked with theatre designer Sophie Fedorovitch. ‘Sophie would bring her sketches… I would fold or drape a length of stuff until the mood and feeling of the sketch was captured’.[21] Etches costume design skills meant that a number of the leading ladies who she dressed on screen also patronised her as couture clients. One of the most notable being Vivien Leigh, as seen in British Vogue in April 1948.[22]

Etches was a well-known public figure during the 1940s, as her appearance in Doris Langley Moore’s book, The Woman in Fashion demonstrates. In this publication Moore dressed leading film stars, ballerinas, theatre actresses, writers and hostesses in garments from her historical dress collection.[23] Matilda Etches is one of only two fashion designers to feature in the book, alongside fellow female couturier Bianca Mosca. [24]

 

eliz2

Charles James, Evening jacket, 1937, Quilted satin, filled with down, Museum no. T.385-1977. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

My personal interest in Etches developed whilst studying fashion design, after I saw a scalloped dress and jacket designed by Etches in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection. The striking ensemble (T.152&A-1973) seen at the beginning of this article, calls to mind the similar quilted work of Etches contemporary, and I believe friend, Charles James (T.385-1977). The most interesting aspect being the construction of the jacket, ‘the jacket has just two seams (under the arms) and is designed to be worn either way up, the shawl collar transforming into a flared peplum at the waist’.  It is this talent for cut and construction that Etches should perhaps be best remembered.

 

Matilda Etches, Butterfly evening cape, 1948, Rayon grosgrain ribbons stitched and pleated, museum no. T.185 to E-1969, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Matilda Etches, Butterfly evening cape, 1948, Rayon grosgrain ribbons stitched and pleated, Museum no. T.185 to E-1969. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

The striking dress seen above was featured in British Vogue, April 1948, where it was[25][26] described as; ‘West African cotton dinner dress; flame and deep red print on copper; diagonal neck, sari edged’. [27] The dress has a mixture of cultural influences, the fabric  with West African and Indonesian aspects was made in Manchester, and the sari edging adds an Indian influence.[28] Etches donated the dress to the Victoria and Albert museum in 1969 alongside a pleated rayon butterfly cape (T.185 to E-1969). Correspondence between Madeline Ginsburg[29] and Etches highlights the importance of Etches work, and also a rare acceptance of contemporary dress into the museum collection;

‘The image of our 20th century costume collection has received a great boost through you! For the first time clothes from this century have been chosen to show the meeting of our advisory committee – a honour usually reserved only for medieval embroideries. They are to see the Butterfly cape and the West African cotton dress’[30]

 

Matilda Etches, Butterfly evening cape, 1948, Rayon grosgrain ribbons stitched and pleated, museum no. T.185 to E-1969, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Matilda Etches, Butterfly evening cape, 1948, Rayon grosgrain ribbons stitched and pleated, Museum no. T.185 to E-1969. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

 

Etches had a rare quality for a British designer during the period; she was an individual, and as surviving garments and magazine editorials highlight she created pieces that were strikingly different yet eminently wearable.  The importance of this  ‘witty and graceful’[31] designer is due for re-assessment.

Etches spent her final years in Brighton[32], and I will end this piece with an extract from her obituary by Cecil Beaton;

Matilda Etches Homan, that beautiful moth like creature, has left us. Her death has robbed the world of theatre, cinema and ballet of one of its rare talents, and has filled friends and admirers with deep melancholy.

Matilda, always calm and serene as a designer had a special and personal gift, and as an interpreter of the costume sketches of others she worked selflessly with the same delicate flair, enthusiasm and sensitivity[…] everyone that worked with her[…] knew the joy of being able to rely on her taste, dexterity and tact.[33]

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[1] The pre 1945 members of IncSoc were: Hardy Amies, Charles Creed, Norman Hartnell, Molyneux, Digby Morton, Bianca Mosca at Jacqmar, Peter Russell, Victor Stiebel and Elspeth Champcommunal at Worth London. Post 1945 the following members joined: Michael Sherard, Angele Delanghe, John Cavanagh, Giuseppe (Jo) Mattli and Michael Donellan at Lachasse.

[2] These two definitions are more often used than ready-to-wear to describe British garments, not made to measure, in the period.

[3] In a 1937 advert for example Etches, the subject of this article, is described as a Court dressmaker.  ‘Matilda Etches’, Advertisement, Daily Mail, 11 May 1937, p. 7

[4] Handley-Seymour created the coronation robes for Queen Elizabeth (The Queen Mother) in 1937.

[5] Jonathan Walford refers to Matilda Etches background as “sketchy”. Jonathan Walford, ‘Fashion hall of obscurity- Matilda Etches’ , Kickshaw productions, 2013, http://kickshawproductions.com/blog/?p=5781 accessed on: 8th November 2013.

[6]  Anon, ‘Matilda Etches here with Aseher fabrics’, Sydney Morning Herald, March 13 1946, p. 6

[7] My memory doesn’t serve me well enough to tell you how I came to meet Matilda Etches. Her workroom was in Frith Street, in Soho. She was an Australian woman, of great charm and strangely beautiful, well known as a clever couturier, interested in the theatre and films and when I met her I fell in love! She terrified me!! Ray Diffen, Stage clothes, London: Xlibris Corporation, 2011, pp. 8

[8] There is a census record in 1901 for a Muriel M Etches in Yorkshire. This records her age as 2, which correlates with later references to her date of birth.

[9] Bamford was one of the founders of the forerunner to the company Aston Martin. The Engagement between Bamford and “Miss Muriel Etches” was announced in the Times. Anon, ‘Weddings’, The Times, 8 May 1918 , p. 9

[10] Etches and Bamford divorced in 1927.  ‘Divorce court file: 5640’, 1927, The National Archives, Kew,

http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/SearchUI/Details?uri=C8048721, accessed on 8th November 2013.

[11] Homan was President Truman’s senior economics adviser in European co-operation administration affairs . Anon, “Marriages’, Evening telegraph, 25 April 1950 p. 3

[12] Anon, No title, The Times, November 11 1935, p. 3

[13] In this article Etches is discussed amongst other prominent women such as Leda Ascher.

[14]  Anon, ‘Their Business is fashion’, Vogue: British edition, July 1948, p. 92

[15] Anon, ‘Matilda Etches Filmography’, BFI,

http://explore.bfi.org.uk/4ce2bb205ceba, accessed on 8th November 2013

[16] Anon, ‘ Costumes for films’, The West Australian, 22 February 1946, p.  11

[17] “ Her soho workrooms are stacked with bundles-some lovely sine grotesque, some pathetic, all waiting to be classified. Miss Etches says film clothes cannot be trick effects, as in the theatre. Details of workmanship and fabrics must be genuine. So every scrap of trimming, bindings, fringes, pleats and embroideries are all unpicked, ready to be reassembled according to whatever work is on hand.” Lesley blanch, ‘private view’, Daily Mail, 03 November 1945, p. 2

[18] Anon, New London fabrics to be sold in Australia, News, 4 March 1946, p.  5

[19] The costumes for both An Ideal Husband and Anna Karenina were designed by Cecil Beaton and made up by Etches. Diffen, Stage Clothes, pp. 8

[20] Ibid, pp. 8

[21] Simon Fleet (ed.), Sophie Fedorovitch: Tributes and Attributes. Aspects of her art and personality by some of her fellow artists and friends, London: privately printed, 1955, pp. 37

[22] Vivien Leigh is seen wearing a  dress by Etches in Vogue April 1948 p. 72, photographed by Clifford Coffin.

[23] Doris Langley Moore’s dress collection later formed the basis of the Fashion Museum in Bath.

[24] Doris Langley Moore, The Woman in fashion, London: Batsford, 1949, pp. v

[25] The dress was photographed by John Deakin

[26] I have a copy of the Vogue magazine in which this dress, along with the dress worn by Leigh features. Owing to copyright restrictions these cannot be published here, but if you would like to see these please do feel free to email me.

[27]  Anon, ‘Evening distinction’, Vogue: British edition, April 1948, p. 71

[28] This mingling of cultural influences was a theme that ran through Etches work, and was similarly seen in her designs for Caesar and Cleopatra in which Etches made many of Vivien Leigh’s costumes from Indian saris. Anon, ‘Matilda Etches here with Aseher fabrics’, p. 6

[29] Ginsburg was one of the curators of the fashion and textile collection at the time of the accession.

[30] Anon, ‘West African’, Victoria and Albert Museum, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O83594/west-african-evening-dress-matilda-etches/ accessed on 8th November 2013.

[31] Edgar Anstey, The Cinema’, The Spectator, 23 November 1945, p. 11

[32] Etches died on the 18th April 1974, in Brighton. Anon, ‘Deaths’ The Times, 20 April 1974, p. 24

[33]  Cecil Beaton, ‘Matilda Etches- gifted designer’, The Times, 26 April 1974, p. 20

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Liz Tregenza – 

Liz is most likely to be found with her nose in a musty 1940s copy of British Vogue.  An avid fashion history specialist she is currently conducting research into the “Model House Group”. This interest in fashions of the past was nurtured whilst studying for a BA in fashion design at Leeds University.  Liz also collects vintage clothing and has appeared in a number of publications including Sunday Times Style and Homes & Antiques. She is currently writing her first book (due for release September 2014) whilst working as a museum assistant.

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© Liz Tregenza, 2013. All Rights Reserved.

One thought on “Matilda Etches:
A re-discovery of a forgotten couturier”

  1. Fabulous Liz – I was wondering about Matilda Etches and googled her, and was so pleased to find your article. Did she leave any pieces to Brighton museum? Amazing designer – her work would not look amiss on the runway today. It seems so un-British for it’s time. Thanks for this.

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