Recently, the MA Textiles group at Chelsea College of Arts, UAL, became involved in a new project titled’Unpicking the Past’: A project aimed at documenting and researching a garment that were given to us in a Forensic manner.

We received a dress that was as incredible as its history was fascinating. The Dress was what the owner had worn for her 1951 Debutante Ball- the presentation to the King. This gave us a lot to start with. The dress was made at Harvey Nichols Knightsbridge. It was a double layered: an outer Tunic and an Inner Sheath Dress. It was off-white in colour and reached a few inches above the ankle.

harvey nichols

Although the dress was heavily stained due to years of storage and had a few tears, it is interesting to note that it was over-all in great condition. Obviously the owner was able to maintain extremely well, but it just proves that if a garment is made of the best quality and has emotional value, it can last more that 60 years.

It was classic 1950’s dress featuring a H-line silhouette, nipped in waist and big square pockets that would accentuate the figure. The tunic dress also featured a low cut V neck and was made of gorgeous Broderie Anglaise fabric. The strapless sheath dress would have been worn over the nylon corset popular in the 1950’s- ‘waspies’. This accentuated the bust and the hips and nipped in the waist. It would be worn with gorgeous matching white silk gloves and nylon stockings. Easy-care fabrics like Nylon gained huge popularity around mid century. The debutante, to complete her look, would have worn a pair of matching stilettos, even as stilettos got sharper and longer. Hat, if at all, would have been a small dainty thing which would sit well on curled hair set short.

The 1951 was a fascinating year to be a debutante in London. The social structure was definitely shifting following the war years (until presentations to the Queen were discontinued altogether in 1958). Dior had introduced the ‘New Look’ in 1947 and the fashion world hailed the return of excess and style after years of war-time deprivation. The most important event was the Festival of Britain, a National Exhibition held in the summer of 1951 throughout the U.K to promote British contribution to science, technology, industrial design, architecture and the arts. Other events that shaped the early years of the mid-century decade were: the passing of the King George VI in 1952 and the coronation of Queeen Elizabeth II, the rise of Teenagers and the market for young people, Rock and Roll and Hollywood stars.

The project was extremely engaging and gave us a lot of insight into research methodologies and 1950s in general.

We hope you enjoy going through our blog.

We are Ayesha Thaheem and Charumathy Murali


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