Articles

HIGH FASHION? HUH!

JAMES DUGAN March 1 1950
Articles

HIGH FASHION? HUH!

JAMES DUGAN March 1 1950

HIGH FASHION? HUH!

Matilda Etches, the Montreal dreamer who now dresses some of the world’s most beautiful women, says, “I hate the word fashion!” Yet her inspired scissors have snipped her way to fortune

JAMES DUGAN

JUST before Christmas Matilda Etches came back to Canada after 36 years. It was a long time and a lot of things had happened to the kid who used to clerk in her father’s news agency on Bleury Street, Montreal.

For one thing, she’s now 51 and a proud grandmother. For another, she’s one of Britain’s top makers of beautiful clothes. The little girl who liked to play with scissors has won international recognition as an artist in cloth.

The fashion furore whipped up by the flying wardrobe Matilda put together in three weeks for Ninette de Valois, fiery director of the Sadlers Wells Ballet, prompted the dressmaker’s North American visit. The de Valois wardrobe wowed New York fashion editors in much the same way that the ballet itself wowed audiences on its recent tour. U. S. and Canadian manufacturers immediately made overtures to the unknown Etches for mass production licences.

In Toronto Etches (like orchestra conductors, dress designers use only the surname) “scouted” Canadian current fashions. She wouldn’t give an opinion on what she saw, but she did decide that she’d do better making her dresses in London and shipping them here with “imported” tags attached.

Etches is a small, dark, pretty woman with a schoolgirl’s figure, hazel eyes, and Renoir bangs shading her pale face. She was born in Rotherham, Yorkshire, and was brought as an infant to Montreal by her father, Major Charles T. W. Etches.

His magazine and newspaper shop was Matilda’s schoolroom after she left Berthelet Street Public School at 11. There, a skinny little girl who hated school and never went to parties, she delved into the world’s glamour magazines. She started drawing and artists who frequented the shop told her father they were good and urged she should get a chance in art school.

She used to dream of living in Chelsea, long fabled as London’s artistic quarter. Mrs. Etches died when Matilda was 14, and Major Charles bundled his family back to Britain. But Matilda never got to Chelsea.

Instead the little dreamer from Bleury Street, whose favorite game was cutting up a pillowcase, grew up to found her own dressmaking establishment in unfashionable Soho—to be precise, at 50 Frith Street, a brownstone block near Victoria Station bearing the ringing nameplate, “Buckingham Palace Gardens.”

“Don’t call me a fashion designer,” Etches now demands. “I hate the word ‘fashion.’ I loathe the word ‘smart.’ I make beautiful clothes with undated simplicity, comfortable and well cut. I don’t give a farthing for what is considered ‘high style’ this year or next year. Look at this quilted brown cocktail suit I am going to show in New York. The quilting is a pattern of little Canadian pine trees. I don’t mind telling you this suit is two years old. But I am going to wear it in New York because I think Continued on page 37

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High Fashion? Huh!

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it is beautiful. Anyway, it’s me, and I hope they like it.”

With her irreverent attitude toward the shibboleths of fashion Etches is. naturally not rated with the Big Ten of British designers. But she does rate with Ninette de Valois. And that’s how she came to rock the New York fashion critics. It’s a story of good luck and plain hard work.

When Sadlers Wells planned its nowhistoric North American tour last fall the Big Ten offered to design wardrobes for the leading ballerinas to show America the best in British modes. Mme. de Valois was shown the sketches for her wardrobe. She did not like the ideas.

The designer said, “But madame, I am providing these things free.” The small director tensed herself as if for a Nijinsky leap and soared out of the

She took a taxi to 50 Frith Street. “Matilda, will you do me a wardrobe for my tour?” Etches, who has worked on costumes for Sadleis Wells since the company was formed, said, “Of course, my dear.” She had three weeks.

Beginning with the idea that the total weight of clothing and accessories should not exceed the 66-pound baggage allowance of international air travelers, Etches produced a flying wardrobe of a dozen interchangeable pieces. Basically it was two complete day outfits, a cocktail suit and two evening dresses with capes. They can be reassembled in two score combina-

Swinging into the plane in her new full-length tweed traveling coat Mme. de Valois rocketed off to North America with a complete wardrobe of 44 pounds. Sadlers Wells got the biggest reception New York has given visiting Britons since the King and Queen. And the lady who got the most bravos for her wardrobe was de Valois.

A Week for a Wardrobe

Fashion editors raved over her two Matilda Etches shell capes for evening wear. The multicolored taffeta short capes are made in a simple circular pattern in two layers. A novice could make one in a short time with about $12 worth of material. The shell capes overdazzled $10,000 minks at the mayor’s reception and some other civic bunfights New York tossed for the British dancers.

When Etches got her breath after the New York hullabaloo she was urged to fly over to capture the dollar yield from her triumph and to look into several overtures from U. S. and Canadian manufacturers. She had only one week to invent her own flying wardrobe.

The most unusual items were a theatre coat in burgundy Sea Island cotton, quilted and embroidered in black and red sequins, and a new twist on the shell evening cape. This one is made of accordion-pleated ribbon in black and two shades of red.

Etches’ high-spirited fitters and dressmaking hands worked night and day on the boss’ wardrobe. The evening before she took off Etches designed a black jersey evening dress, which was made overnight. The last of her wardrobe arrived from the shop a half hour before plane time.

Etches does not follow the universal fashion salon practice of making dresses from drawings. She uses an older and more direct method. She drapes material on the dressmaker’s dummy, or “stand” in the trade, and

cuts it with scissors, after she has draped it in the most interesting play of fold and pattern. In sculptural terms clothing is “in the round,” and Etches believes in sculpturing fabric instead of sewing dresses from blueprints.

Graham Sutherland, a leading British modern painter, says, “She is an artist. She draws with materials.”

Etches says, “Art schools are wrong in teaching dress design by means of drawings. You must start with an appreciation of material and learn first to use the scissors. Every week I have two or three fashion school kids coming in here looking for jobs. I feel sorry for them. They know nothing about dressmaking.”

A Sailor Suit for Beatrice

Her greatest achievement in international style was to popularize British long staple cotton in haute couture. The British Cotton Board has officially saluted her for “making cotton high fashion.” Etches elevated cotton in 1948 after visiting Manchester in her ceaseless hunt for beautiful materials.

In the warehouse of J. A. Duke & Son, an old cotton house, she discovered several bolts of bold primitive African prints. Duke's explained that they were reserved for the West African trade. In the old days the house exported unbleached cotton which was then hand-printed by native craftsmen, using woodcuts of their own traditional designs. In recent years the native block-printing art had died out, so Duke’s had brought several old native artists to Manchester where they had made a series of authentic designs for machine-printing in the mill.

Etches left with a crate of the stuff and wound it around her stands, slashing away with her artful scissors. Out of that came an Etches cotton collection that brought London’s smart women running for African Gold Coast evening duds.

Etches ranges through history and art for her inspirations. She has done day dresses inspired by nun’s habits. One of her striking ensembles was a green velvet suit and three-quarter coat with large fur cuffs derived from the dress of Montreal women about 1810. She has costumed many period plays and films.

The Matilda Etches clientele is as unordinary as the designer herself. The discerning clients are represented by life casts of their torsos in wax and papier-mâché which stand in a corner of her workrooms. Vivien Leigh’s small rib cage stands beside the different architecture of Martita Hunt. There is Jean Kent, the young musical comedy actress, and Georgia Sitwell, the Montreal-born wife of author Sacheverell Sitwell. Georgia is a director of Matilda Etches, Ltd.

Other effigies in the workroom represent Margot Fonteyn, the premier ballerina of Sadlers Wells, and Canadian-born Beatrice Lillie, whom Etches finds the perfect conspira tor for puckish ideas in clothes. Bea tripped down the gangplank in New York recently wearing a “Peter Thompson” sailor suit concocted by Etches on the inspiration of a Victorian small boy’s walking-out

Etches dresses such younger actresses as Sally Ann Howes, Lilli Palmer, Paulette Goddard and Diana Wynyard, but she is equally interested in making clothes for a slightly older group, comprising Rosamund Lehmann, Constance Collier, Lady Alan Herbert and Mrs. Clive Brook.

Compared with the prices of Parisian haute couture Etches’ creations are not costly. Her finest things, representing days of skilled hand work and rich

materials, range from $200 to $300, with, of course, a 3314% purchase tax added by the Government. Many of her most beautiful and representative clothes come cheaper than that.

“I have no ambition to become a famous fashion house,” she says. “I believe in undated simplicity, fine cut and comfort. I am not fashion-minded. I invent my special dresses.”

Last year she got an idea for inventing a special day dress to be made of crochet cotton, a coupon-free material. (At the time clothes rationing still prevailed in England.) She engaged an elderly Russian named Chernakoff who crocheted the dress in three weeks, using 6,888 yards of

Etches’ Soho workrooms are located at a poor address for a hotcha couturier, in a faded region of old joys now given over to poor cafés, good chop suey joints, and prim hellholes for the visiting fireman.

You go up the stairs over a hairdressers’ trade association headquarters to three upper-story rooms, the first of which is a serent pink-and-white showroom. The workrooms above are littered with snippets of cloth on the floor, brown-paper-covered worktables, the “stands” (perhaps Vivien Leigh’s torso is fitted with falsies to simulate another client’s measurements), and a snowfall of scribbled memos Matilda has written to herself.

At the tables sit two of Matilda’s dressmaking hands, Mary Brain, of Yorkshire, and Audrey Bloomfield, of London. They work under blond Virginie Farley, chief fitter and cutter.

Even Her Flops Were Good

Working conditions at Maison Matilda are cheerful. The Minislry of Labor says chez Etches is the model ladies’ garment atelier in London. The employer in question flings the compliment right back, “My girls are marvelous. They say British workers are slow and tired. Pish and tosh! Talk about incentives. We try to shoot high here. When we have something in the shop like Ninette’s wardrobe the girls leap to it.”

The boss is there too, scissoring, soaping out lines on the cutting table, cutting the toiles for a coat.

Etches confined herself to film and theatre work during the war. Private clothing was out. Theatre and movie costume fabrics were also out, due to rationing. She dyed surgical muslin in washbasins and had them handpainted, for the costumes in “Gaiety George.” She cut Indian saris, bedspreads and shawls to make costumes. She discovered that utility jersey photographed like crepe de Chine, for wartime films. In the French-garden scene for “Henry V” she dressed Renee Asherson in a heavy medieval gown of pink utility linen. Miss Asherson’s knees buckled under the weight and an iron framework had to be made to hold the actress up.

Some of Etches’ most brilliant work has been for flops—“Gaiety George,” “Caesar and Cleopatra,” and “Anna Karenina,” for instance. Her theatre costuming includes “Duet for Two Hands,” “The Admirable Crichton,” Sartre’s “Huis Clos” and Ibsen’s “Ghosts.”

Her first important film job was “Colonel Blimp” in 1942; these Edwardian women’s costumes are still remembered as among the finest period costumes done for color film.

A feminine type herself, Etches is all for the “swooningly feminine.” Although she is one of the best-dressed women in London in public, she wears skirts and sweat shirts when wielding her scissors.

Those scissors have snipped a life out of the cloth of fate as intriguing as any gown from the Etches collection. The dreams of the artistic life in Chelsea soon faded when the awkward teen-ager returned to London with her father just before World War I.

Marconi at the Bullfrog

At 16 (she said she was 27) she went into a munitions factory and soon had charge of 500 women. “We made some beautiful shells,” she says.

Then she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, but they found out her real age and gave her a dull post in a quartermaster’s depot at Bristol. There she met and married an army officer.

“The marriage was ridiculous,” she says. “It was another time. We were silly people then.” After the birth of a daughter (who is now a mother herself) Matilda separated from her husband in 1923 and went on her own again.

She came to London to be a dressmaker. She tried to get on the design staff of the big fashion houses, but she did not have previous experience. Etches again and again faced the classic modem dilemma—“You have to have experience to get a job and you have to have a job to get experience.”

She set herself up as a dressmaker in a small flat in Bayswater. “I began work at 9 after staying up dancing till 4 in the morning. We danced at the Bullfrog night club, near the Regent Palace Hotel. We all danced. Marconi danced and the beautiful Vanbrugh sisters, and Jacob Epstein, the sculptor. We paid half a crown and danced to Marc Antony’s band.”

The years did not dance, but plodded slowly and painfully as she made dresses in St. John’s Wood, on Welbeck Street, Harley Street, Berkeley Street and Quebec Street.

In 1934 Mrs. Morton Lane, a lady of social entree, agreed to arrange an Etches fashion show at the Dorchester Hotel for a fee of 25 guineas.

The first Etches collection, 30 garments, including a white chiffon evening dress decorated with sprayed tin and a cape suit something like the New Look that Christian Dior introduced years later, was paraded at the Dorchester to a large turnout of fashion tradespeople.

“Nobody said a word—complete silence,” Etches says. “I tried to hide; I felt I was a failure until after the show when Mrs. Lane called me back and said, ‘There are people who want to meet you.’ Some were fashion editors from the U. S.

“They liked my clothes, but nobody bought anything. I walked out of the Dorchester in a divine white frock with a shilling in my pocket. I tried to sell my collection to Harrod’s, the big department store. They said, ‘Until you have made your name, Miss Etches, you cannot hope to sell your clothes.’ ”

The fashion editors, however, soon began to reward Matilda with a name, the all-important name. Annually she was discovered and rediscovered.

She received a hearty reception on a postwar visit to Australia with her cotton collection. She took bulging trunks of materials designed by Feliks Topolski, Henry Moore, Christian Berard, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, and Negro artists.

Etches plans to install a ready-made branch of her business. But she shows no signs of acquiring the last perquisite to a salon de haute couture—the befrogged Balkan vice-admiral at the curb holding his umbrella over madam as she enters the door.

If Etches met one of these dignitaries outside her workrooms she would be afraid to go in. ★