Fashion at the Royal College of Art: Paris, Kensington (1948-56)

Royal College of Art

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.

Paris, Kensington (1948-56): Professor Madge Garland
White-gloved, impeccable and intimidating, Madge Garland brought experience from a long and varied career to the College. Self-made and self-taught, decades earlier she had run away from a domineering father, who had prevented her from going to university, and fallen in with a bohemian crowd that included Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein and Man Ray. In her twenties, she landed a job at British Vogue through tenacity and door-knocking, rising to become its Fashion Editor. Eventually, Garland became a sought-after consultant to industry and an advisor to the Council of Industrial Design. It was in this phase of her career that she was introduced to Robin Darwin, who would become Principal of the Royal College of Art and appoint her as the first Professor of Fashion. When Garland was profiled in Harper’s Bazaar, her new post was described as ‘the first official recognition of fashion as a serious industry.’ Alumni would later recall a terrifying and exacting critic who expected her students to look and behave impeccably at all times, but it was that same imposing presence that gave the School its influence and power. Gina Fratini, who graduated in 1953, recalled: ‘There was a woman actually walking around in couture clothes … that to me was heaven. [She] epitomised everything to do with fashion, with style, and I sat in awe.’
Paris, Kensington (1948-56): The Students
Notable alumni from the earliest days of the Fashion School included Joanne Brogden (graduated 1953 and later to become the third Professor of Fashion in 1971), Gina Fratini (1953), Helen Jones (1954), David Watts (1954) and Julian Robinson (1955). The student cohort was largely drawn from working-class young women, and Garland maintained a ‘finishing school’ element to the tuition, with classes in literature and art history. She felt it was crucial that her new breed of designers should be able to hold their own with a prestigious client base in the future, but may also have been trying to give young women the education she had craved at their age yet been denied.
Paris, Kensington (1948-56): The Place
The School of Fashion was established in a large, near-derelict Edwardian house at 20 Ennismore Gardens in Knightsbridge, physically removed from the other College buildings and isolated from the heart of the RCA, which centred around the museums district of South Kensington. The School opened modestly, with ten students, one professor, and two other members of staff. Garland was rigorous about creating an immaculate work environment to reinforce the need for perfection in students’ behaviour and execution of their craft. A pragmatic spirit made the most of the available space: a huge L-shaped workroom doubled up as a location for soirées, while the annual dress show took place in the drawing room. Garland’s office was suffused with pink, dressed with heavy chintz curtains and theatrical lighting. Image was all.
Paris, Kensington (1948-56): The Time
The fashion industry began to change in tandem with Madge’s tenure. The RCA’s Fashion School was being equipped to support a growing international business, itself transformed by the expansion of chain stores and the expectation of women of all classes that they would have access to ready-to-wear fashions. Crucially, Garland was determined that her students should receive tuition not from art tutors but from skilled members of the industry. To this end, she recruited pattern-cutters and tailors from fashion houses to lead one-to-one sessions, an approach that was initially controversial. As she would later explain, ‘I tried so hard to marry art and industry.’ The diverse curriculum she devised included elements of dress history, accessories, children’s clothing, designing with a price limit, and lingerie. A millinery element was also important, but hats were only considered as part of an overall outfit: it would be some decades later that a distinct millinery course would be launched.

The scissor handles in this design are a bisected version of the College crest.

Explore more of the history of Fashion at the Royal College of Art:

1948-56: Paris, Kensington
1956-68: Swinging London
1968-88: The World Comes Calling
1989-98: Own Labels and Household Names
1998- : Time for Reality

Find out more about Special Collections at the Royal College of Art

Credits: Story

Text and selection:
Neil Parkinson, Archives & Collections Manager, Royal College of Art
Royal College of Art Special Collections

Project assistant:
Sara Jamshidi
Special thanks:
Nick Frayling, Henrietta Goodden, Virginia Ironside, Cathy Johns, Octavia Reeve, Simon Taylor
Cohen, Lisa, ‘Velvet is Very Important’, in: All We Know: Three Lives (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2012).
Frayling, Christopher, The Royal College of Art: One Hundred and Fifty Years of Art and Design (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1987).
Handley, Susannah. ‘Home Furnishers, Fashion Makers and Image Creators’, in: Christopher Frayling and Clare Catterall (eds.) Design of the Times: One Hundred Years of the Royal College of Art (London: Richard Dennis Publications/Royal College of Art, 1996).
McDowell, Colin, ‘Material Differences at the RCA’, in Octavia Reeve (ed.), The Perfect Place to Grow: 175 Years of the Royal College of Art (London: Royal College of Art, 2012).

Credits: All media
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