Articles

TROUBLES OF A ROYAL DRESS DESIGNER

MARJORIE EARL June 1 1952
Articles

TROUBLES OF A ROYAL DRESS DESIGNER

MARJORIE EARL June 1 1952

HARDY AMIES, the Queen's new dressmaker, is a buoyant, handsome, youthful-looking man of forty who counts himself lucky that he was born a diplomat. In less than a year upon the pinnacle of British dress designing he has learned that running a business after royalty has bestowed the accolade of its custom calls for more ways to parry a question than the Communists use to perpetuate peace talks.

To make the Queen’s dresses is an ambition which burns in the breast of every successful British designer. It was realized for Amies last June when he was suddenly summoned to Clarence House and asked by Princess Elizabeth to design some of the clothes for her tour of Canada. Since then his star has shone brighter than any other in the firmament of British haute couture, his name has surged into international headlines and the telephone in his public relations department has been buzzing continuously with queries he cannot answer. But the position has not been without its hazards.

Long before June, Amies was fighting for position at the top of the heap. His ascent was effected by the excellence of his product, an appreciation of both business and female curves and a thorough understanding of the value of publicity.

He is the only member of London’s Big Ten, otherwise known as the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, who is the business as well as the artistic brains of his house and he is the only one to employ a press agent. He has about three thousand customers who pay anything up to a thousand dollars for a garment with his name in it and some who spend nearly ten thousand in a year. He is the nation’s biggest dollar exporter of custom-made clothing and says his objective is to make his fashions “sexy without being obvious.” He has ten scrapbooks of press clippings which relate the history of his climb to the top. But now the Press can hurl him from the heights if he isn’t careful what he says.

He hasn’t yet got an unassailable foothold. The final stamp of approval is the granting of a royal warrant. This gives a trader the coveted privilege of using the words “by appointment to” and reproducing the coat of arms of his royal customer. Normally three years of faultless service are required before a royal warrant is granted. It is obtained upon application to the Royal Warrant Holders’ Association, which regulates closely the issue and tenure of warrants. Amies has been supplying the Queen for less than a year and then only when she was heir apparent and did not have the sovereign’s prerogative of granting warrants. Now that she is Queen it is believed she may confer these honors without regard to the three-year limit, possibly about the time of her coronation. Meanwhile, Amies must watch his step.

Like any well-dressed and beautiful woman exposed to the public, the young Queen likes her clothes to come as a pleasant surprise. In this respect Amies protects all his customers. If the secret of an ordinary customer’s choice did happen to leak out no great harm would be done. But if a description of the Queen’s dresses was released before she wore them, society matrons, stenographers and shopgirls all over the world, helped by enterprising wholesalers and style pirates, would be wearing them first.

He has already felt the chill wind of disapproval. When he was commissioned to design clothes for the Canadian tour he was told to make no comment to the newspapers about his royal assignment. He didn’t. But a sharp Canadian newspaperwoman, Jane Armstrong of the Toronto Telegram, happened to overhear a useful conversation one day at a cocktail party. A young woman, unquestionably in the know, said the Princess had chosen Hardy Amies to be her new designer. She then obligingly described some of the clothes being prepared for Her Royal Highness. Miss Armstrong published the story. It was wired back from Toronto to London and immediately Amies’ public relations department began to work overtime.

At first the onslaught was met by a blanket denial. But soon life became so intolerable for press agent Peter Hope Lumley that he appealed to the palace for help. So far as he knew there had been no leak in Amies’ establishment; all the employees who knew anything about the royal order had been checked and warned. It looked as though the leak might have come from the palace itself. Lumley’s explanation was accepted, he was given a stern warning and permission to acknowledge that Amies was, in fact, the new royal dressmaker, but he wasn’t to embellish it with any details.

The Queen’s choice of Hardy Amies had its beginnings about two years ago when Prince Philip is said to have admired the wedding gown and trousseau Amies designed for the Hon. Sarah Ismay, a close friend of the royal couple. Amies was then also designing for other women of the court.

The first sign of royal favor came when the palace announced that Princess Margaret wished to see Amies’ fashions. A private showing was arranged in the couturier's elegantly furnished office. About six months later, at eleven o’clock one otherwise peaceful morning, the palace called a second time: Princess Margaret wished to see the latest collection.

Amies shows his new fashions every afternoon to a small group of customers. It was impossible, he told the palace on this occasion, to arrange a private showing on such short notice. The palace said that Her Royal Highness would have no objection to seeing the show in public.

About one o’clock the same day a second message said that Princess Elizabeth would accompany her sister. The royal party saw the collection and about six months later Amies was invited to Clarence House.

Amies approaches his royal assignments with the same systematic calm he applies to designing the two collections he shows the public each year. He goes away for two weeks and nobody knows where he is except his secretary. When he was designing his first collection as an independent couturier he attempted to do it in his studio. But business details distracted him and he eventually packed up and disappeared. “I’m not coming back until all the designs are finished,” he told his secretary. “If you should by any chance discover where I am it’s more than your life’s worth to say so.” Now this is regular procedure.

When he’s ready to leave he hands his secretary a list of materials to get. These consist of two paint brushes, a mapping pen, a bottle of India ink, a box of soft pencils, a small box containing thumb tacks, elastic bands, razor blades and an eraser and a small drawing board to which is clipped three sheets of paper showing the front, back and side views of a human figure divided into sections. After about two weeks he reappears with five folios containing about fifteen drawings each of coats, suits, day dresses, party dresses (his name for cocktail dresses) and evening gowns.

His drawings are not the ethereal sketches usually prepared by fashion designers. They are austere diagrams influenced, he thinks, by his architect father. They designate exactly where seams, pleats and gores start and end. They are complete with dimensions and explicit instructions for his tailors and fitters, with whom he works in close harmony. These members of his team then produce what he calls a draft in cloth. This he pins, pulls, fixes and amends through three fittings until it satisfies his hypercritical taste.

When the cloth draft of the royal assignment is ready Amies telephones the Queen’s personal maid. Then with a tailor, dressmaker and saleswoman he goes to Clarence House. The fittings usually last about fifteen minutes. The Queen, he says, is an admirable customer: she doesn’t fret or fuss when she’s being fitted and she isn’t impatient. When she orders clothes she discusses with Amies the occasions when they will be worn, the weather they will have to withstand and what is needed to round out her wardrobe.

Amies does most of his routine work in a cluttered studio at a desk facing a printed scrawl on the wall which says: “To hell with Vogue but be kind to the Press.”

Just before the royal tour of Canada last year a paper in the U. S. published an interview with Amies. In it the reporter said that Princess Elizabeth had a twenty-four-inch waist. Amies was not quoted but it looked as though he had provided the information. He was warned that he was expected to protect what the palace regards as “intimate details.” These are Queen Elizabeth’s measurements, her favorite colors, the size of her shoes, favorite styles and the descriptions of the outfits she orders.

When Amies is pressed by reporters he passes the buck to Lumley, his public relations agent, whose invariable reply is, “Sorry, I don’t know.” Even when the reporters ask questions like “Short evening dresses are popular in court circles this year, aren’t they?” he must answer. “Sorry, I can’t say.”

In the back of Lumley’s mind is a distressing experience of the Queen’s shoemaker, Edward Rayne. Rayne has enjoyed a royal warrant for many years. Three years ago in New York he was interviewed by a persistent woman reporter who wanted to know all the details of the Queen’s shoes. To every question Rayne replied with a dutiful, “Sorry, I can’t say.”

Finally the reporter, all sweetness and smiles, asked him how much his shoes cost per pair. He said about thirty dollars. Then, a cocktail or so later, she asked how many pairs of shoes a rich well-dressed woman leading a public life would be likely to buy in a year. He said twenty or possibly thirty. The reporter went back to her office and wrote an article quoting Rayne as saying the Queen spent thousands of dollars a year on shoes. This was pie in the sky for the Communist Daily Worker. The London and New York editions carried front-page articles of royal extravagance spotlighting the workers’ misery. Rayne was deeply worried and had nightmares of his royal warrant being scraped from the plate-glass window of his shop, but he managed to talk himself out of serious trouble.

Royal warrant holders can use the crest of their royal customer on stationery, labels, vans and trucks. For instance the man who collects garbage at Buckingham Palace is allowed to paint on his truck, beside the royal coat of arms, “By Appointment, contractor for removal of kitchen waste to His Majesty King George VI,” and the man who decorates royal horses for state ceremonials can dub himself, “By Appointment, horse milliner to His Majesty King George VI.” (They will continue to use this phrasing until Queen Elizabeth grants new warrants permitting her name and coat of arms to be used. Should they not obtain a warrant from the new sovereign they may retain their present one.) The royal coat of arms may also be embossed on windows and placed inconspicuously in advertisements and circulars. As it happens Amies doesn’t advertise.

The sedate Royal Warrant Holders’ Association, operating from offices near Buckingham Palace, even has its own espionage system which operates to prevent what it considers objectionable practices by warrant holders.

Can a voluntary association of merchants prevent a Queen shopping where she chooses? No. Queen Elizabeth can go on buying her dresses from Amies for as long as she wishes and there is no law to prevent him from divulging the secrets he is asked to withhold. But if the association doesn’t like his conduct they can recommend against his application for a royal warrant and he probably won’t get it. And if he doesn’t get one after the conventional trial period it will likely do his reputation incalculable harm.

In addition to the ticklish matter of etiquette royal favor now presents Amies with another hazard. Before he was designer for the Queen his occasional mistakes were confined to a comparatively narrow circle. But if he designs an unpopular dress for the most photographed woman in the world his reputation is bound to suffer. And he is the first to admit that no designer can be good all the time.

“There’s a beast in every collection,” he says. That’s clothing-trade talk for a model ignored by customers and reviled by the trade. In the past, when Amies designed a “beast” he frankly acknowledged his mistake. “I no longer get any satisfaction whatsoever in designing something that doesn’t sell,” he says. “I have every respect for the public taste. My customers are always right.”

It is on the conviction that the customer is always right that Amies has built up his export business to exceed one hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year, the highest figure in the British couture industry. He has also built up his own name. He is the most popular British designer in the United States and Canada and both his dollar income and his international reputation were carefully nourished to their present healthy proportions.

He first attracted the notice of Americans in 1937, the coronation year, when he was designer for the house of Lachasse. During the war he collaborated with other British couturiers in a showing of British fashions for the American market. His clean-cut suits were an instant success.

In 1945, at his first independent showing, he made some notable sales to American retailers. He immediately pressed this gain with a trip to the United States. Three later visits produced more valuable publicity. Now his clothes are sold in major cities in Canada and the U.S. at prices up to five hundred dollars, and most fashion-conscious women know and are impressed by his name.

One bad mistake in the Queen’s wardrobe could explode much of this tenderly erected fame. When Norman Hartnell, royal warrant holder and designer for both the Queen and the Queen Mother, designed an unattractive dress for the Queen Mother to wear to a big society wedding the British, American and Canadian papers were merciless. When Amies was chosen royal designer and it looked, as it still does, as though the young sovereign would gradually transfer more of her custom, one of Hartnell’s friends said: “I don’t think Norman minds. Somebody else will now have to share the credit and the blame.”

The Press and the public have created a rivalry between the two royal designers that doesn’t really exist. At the same wedding which resulted in such unfortunate publicity for Hartnell, the bride, Lady Carolyn Montague Douglas-Scott, a niece of the Duchess of Gloucester, wore a fabulous tulle gown designed by Amies. It drew sighs of envy and admiration. On her honeymoon the bride cabled to Amies: “Thousand congratulations. Thanks for superb achievement. Have been overwhelmed with letters of praise about the dress. So delighted and grateful.”

This brought Amies dozens of commissions for other important wedding gowns and, he thinks, it helped bring him the young Queen. It also started talk that Amies was replacing Hartnell.

So far as the Queen is concerned this isn’t true, Amies claims. “For gala-occasion ball gowns Hartnell is un-excelled in the entire world,” he declares. “For state occasions the Queen must dress like a fairy princess. People expect it and would be disappointed if she didn’t. Hartnell will always be best for this type of dress.”

Amies became a designer by accident. His mother was a saleswoman at a court dressmaking house but she didn’t exert as much influence on his career as his architect father. In Birmingham his father helped to establish him as a salesman of weighing machines. He found this such heavy going that he took the first chance to get out of it.

One Christmas he wrote a letter to a fitter in the establishment where his mother worked. In it he described a dress worn at a ball by the business owner. The fitter was so impressed by the design sense evident in this letter that she sent it to the head of the couture house of Lachasse. Amies was immediately offered a job. Less than three years later he had acquired a personal lustre in the galaxy of British fashion.

He decided to go into business for himself but the war intervened. In 1939 Lachasse closed down and Amies became a private soldier. Even the universal tragedy of war worked to Amies’ advantage. He was given special leave to design a Lachasse collection for export and it got him some valuable publicity.

Through his knowledge of French and German he rose to lieutenant-colonel in Intelligence and director of Belgian underground activities in London. But he was not allowed to fade from fashion. From time to time the Board of Trade arranged special leave so he could design clothes for export and his reputation, particularly in Canada and the United States, grew.

In Nov. 1945, after he was demobilized, his own firm moved into 14 Savile Row, an exquisite but decayed Georgian mansion which Amies has had restored and from which bailiffs once ejected Richard Sheridan the playwright.

Amies, who numbers hundreds of famous names in his clientele and who admits that his favorite customers are “rich ones,” does a brisk business with actresses, whom he accuses of being the worst dressed group of women he knows. “The British actress has no fashion sense at all,” he says flatly. “Obviously you can’t have a talent for clothes and a talent for acting too.” Notable exceptions to this are Vivien Leigh, Dame Edith Evans, Glynis Johns and Diana Wynyard.

No matter who his customers are, Amies isn’t afraid to say what he thinks. When Linda Christian, wife of Tyrone Power, wanted a suit with a square-shouldered jacket to match her husband’s Amies refused to make it. “We can’t have you going out of here looking like a boxer,” he said.

When designing a collection Amies says his basic problem is to reconcile simplicity with femininity. “My aim is to make women appear not so young as to be uninteresting and not so old as to be a bore.”

To a designer, he adds, fashion changes like the erratic rise and fall of the hemline are not really as chaotic as they seem. “All fashion is a child of a fashion before,” he claims, offering to prove it from his library of the history of costume. “We can only expose so much of the human figure and from time to time we change the display.”

As with all successful designers Amies’ greatest asset is his inherent good taste. This is evident in the furnishings of his apartment, his country home and his business premises. It is also obvious from his personal appearance. He sets off his fresh-faced good looks with impeccable suits and shirts made from the best British textiles by the country’s leading craftsmen. These personal recommendations undoubtedly help give his customers, who come from all over the world, including Paris, proper confidence in his judgment of what the well-dressed woman should wear.

One Canadian woman relies on him to select her entire wardrobe. She came to see him in 1946 and was so impressed with his designs that she bought a dozen outfits. Ever since she has shopped by mail, asking him to choose for her. Her annual order, which exceeds three thousand dollars, merely states the kind of outfit she needs.

Amies likes this kind of customer. “She’s no trouble and she spends a lot of money. What could be better?” he asks.