The earliest days of the RCA's Fashion School, established in a post-war landscape by the formidable Madge Garland.
Since its creation in 1948, the School of Fashion at the Royal College of Art (RCA) has nurtured and developed an extraordinary array of design talent against a backdrop of rapidly evolving technologies, styles and perceptions. Steered by formidable, committed professors, including Madge Garland, Janey Ironside and Wendy Dagworthy, the School has launched designers whose creations have captivated the world, from Ossie Clark’s ‘flashing lightbulb’ coats to Philip Treacy’s (left) audacious headwear. But the origins of the course are less auspicious. In fact, what would become one of the College’s most visionary, ingenious, colourful and international programmes was created in 1948 in a bleak post-war landscape as a pragmatic response to economic need.
The School of Fashion Design at the RCA came into being through the vision of the College’s new Principal, Robin Darwin (great-grandson of Charles), who arrived in 1948 determined to improve the training of industrial designers, and to establish the College as the place to provide it. He took pains to include ‘the Fashion industries’ in his plan, but this was a radical idea, and not something industry itself had been demanding. There had been no fashion tuition before because there had been no high-street fashion industry to speak of, and a conspicuous gap had emerged between local dressmaking and high-end couture.
Everything changed after the war. In 1947, Christian Dior’s New Look sent cultural shockwaves through the world: the abundant femininity of its full skirts against nipped-in waists were a release from wartime austerity, but the look divided opinion in the United Kingdom and triggered a national conversation about fashion. When Darwin arrived at the College, with his plan to completely recalibrate its purpose, he quickly established programmes to align with growing industries, and so Fashion took its place alongside other new courses in Graphic Design and Industrial Design. Madge Garland, former fashion editor of British Vogue and consultant to the industry, was appointed as the ‘first Professor of Fashion’ and the press had a field day with the novelty of it all. A cover story in Picture Post in 1949 proclaimed: ‘What once seemed a feminine priority is now dignified by university status … London has just made history’, but much of the coverage took a bemused or patronising tone. In its earliest days, fashion was still considered an ephemeral activity. Within months, Garland would start to challenge these preconceptions, creating an enclave for design that would soon become known as ‘Paris, Kensington’, and paving the way for generations of talent to follow, from Gina Fratini to Holly Fulton.
Text and selection:
Neil Parkinson, Archives & Collections Manager, Royal College of Art
Royal College of Art Special Collections
Nick Frayling, Henrietta Goodden, Virginia Ironside, Cathy Johns, Octavia Reeve, Simon Taylor
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