T GLAMOUR & GOWNS Couture by Belinda Bellville and Bellville Sassoon

Couture by Belinda Bellville and Bellville Sassoon
Belinda Bellville
An exhibition in the Statue Gallery
David Sassoon
his exhibition celebrates the career of Belinda Bellville, society dressmaker
and Viscountess Coke’s mother. World renowned for her stylish dress
designs and as co-founder, with David Sassoon, of Britain’s foremost couture
label Bellville Sassoon, the dresses on display illustrate her career from the 1960s
to her retirement from Bellville Sassoon in 1982.
Born in Leicestershire, the eldest of three children, Belinda had a traditional
upbringing being educated initially by a governess in Wales and then at the girls
school “Miss Faunces”. There was no opportunity for design qualifications in the
1930s and 1940s, however Belinda remained determined to design clothes.
Belinda Bellville had no formal training, but as a former debutante, she knew the
social circles she needed to attract. In 1953 she created the label Bellville et Cie
and dressed young women and their fashionable mothers at every ball, party and
society event of note.
With an eye for style, a flair for colour and a talent
for knowing what would suit a client, Belinda
Bellville began designing and making dresses for
society ladies and debutantes with the view that
young women wanted clothes to be beautiful,
stylish and of exquisite quality. She wanted to give
them something new, something with a sense of
the modern times, but still in the couture tradition.
Together Belinda and David went on to perfect what she had started. They
developed an ever-changing collection of wonderfully glamorous couture dresses,
bridal wear and a ready-to-wear collection, as well as a successful licensing
relationship with Vogue Patterns. Over the course of 30 years they achieved
international success.
Famed for dressing some of the world’s most glamorous women as well as
royalty, Belinda’s clients included several members of the Coke family, long
before her daughter, Polly Whately, met and married Viscount Coke and became
Viscountess Coke.
David Sassoon turned down a place at RADA to
pursue a career in fashion. His father was adamant
his son would not follow an acting career and, so
instead, he took up a place to study fashion at
Hammersmith School of Art. As the only boy on
the course, he attended extra sewing classes at
the trade school next door, in order to learn the
tradition of dressmaking. This was followed by a
Masters degree at the Royal College of Art and it
was here Belinda met him in 1958. David became
a partner in 1970 and the business name changed
to Bellville Sassoon.
The Journey from Bellville et Cie to Bellville Sassoon
In 1952 Belinda Bellville, aged 22 years, married
David Whately.
By 1957 she was working very hard to meet demand and now
they offered a millinery service and sold fur hats and coats.
After a variety of jobs including fashion journalism,
assistant to a fashion photographer and in a clothes
shop on Bond Street, Belinda decided what she really
wanted to do was make dresses; to create designer
clothing in a younger style. So in 1953, she started
Bellville et Cie.
Then in 1958, pregnant with her second child Victoria, Belinda
decided she needed some assistance. She met David Sassoon
at the Royal College of Art. David brought experience of
pattern cutting, as well as expert technical know-how in the
creation of women’s clothing.
Her first sales space, in partnership with Sydna Scott,
was located in Kinnerton Street, Knightsbridge. "The
space was so small, it had an outside loo and I used
to visit the neighbouring pub to design and sketch the
Prior to her first collection,
she went to Paris. "I went
to a Balenciaga show, a Dior
show; I met Molyneux and
looked at his collection of
Taken at Belinda's first show in 1954, this photograph shows a group of teenage girls in
the front row paying close attention; this was the very audience Belinda was hoping to
pictures. I had a drink with
attract, soon many of them would be wearing her dresses.
Hemingway in the Ritz Hotel,
and above all I watched everyone and
looked at everything."
Boutique, their ready-to-wear collection was launched in 1963
and they were invited to join 'The Incorporated Society of
London Fashion Designers', a group established by the likes of
Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell. They declined, keen to
maintain their independence and forward thinking reputation.
In 1965 Vogue Patterns invited Bellville et Cie to join their
pattern books. And in 1967, Belinda
had her third daughter, Polly.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a whole
host of glamorous women wear
their clothes, including many
members of the royal family, Jackie Belinda outside her shop on Cadogan Lane at the start of the 1960s,
a very busy and exciting period for Bellville et Cie.
Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey
Hepburn, and Catherine Deneuve.
By the end of the decade, a survey in
Tatler showed that Bellville et Cie had
made more society wedding dresses
over the past 30 years than any other
couture house.
Back in London in 1954 she held
her first show at her grandmother,
Cuckoo Leith’s house in Manchester
Square, she used her friends as
models and photographs of the show
appeared in Illustrated magazine.
David was made partner in 1970 and the
name was changed to Bellville Sassoon,
they now had a staff of over 100. The
business continued to prosper through
the 1970s.
To give an initial cash injection to the
business, Belinda sold the old Citroën
her brother had given her as a wedding
present. This cash kept the business
going whilst word spread and orders
began to flood in.
Belinda with daughters, Sophie and Victoria, 1959.
In 1955 Belinda became a mother for
the first time, to daughter Sophie.
This photograph taken in 1956 by Belinda shows her talent for
form and shape beautifully.
In 1982 Belinda retired to focus on
family life. She continued working as
consultant for a further five years and
worked closely with David whilst the
business moved into another era.
Audrey Hepburn with her co-star Albert Finney, wearing
Bellville in ‘Two for the Road’ 1967.
Evening Wear
Bellville et Cie, and then Bellville Sassoon, were the dressmakers of choice for society ladies. Worn by debutantes, models, aristocrats and royals, their collections
of evening wear were snapped up by anyone who was anyone. Belinda Bellville’s first collection was shown in her grandmother’s drawing room in Manchester
Square, London W1, where the guests arrived in Rolls Royce and Bentley cars, society girls modelled the clothes and photographs appeared in Illustrated magazine.
In 1960 the Daily Mail said, “titled ladies applaud the titled model. Two hundred women crowd into an elegant drawing room in Belgravia to see eighteen year old
Lady Beatty and five other models show off the latest creations of Belinda Bellville. The Duchess of Westminster, Lady Derby, Lady Rupert Nevill, Lady Oppenheim
and Lady Ebury were squeezed onto little gilt chairs. The less fortunate had to strain to see from the corridor outside”.
The Dresses on Display
Owned by Lady Glenconner, Bellville et Cie, 1965.
Pale blue organza over silk,
broderie anglaise with satin ribbon.
Worn to a ball hosted by the Duke of Rutland at
Belvoir Castle, and many London society dances.
Owned by Lady Glenconner, Bellville et Cie, 1963.
Pearls and diamanté on pale blue chiffon with beaded fringe.
Worn to ‘The Party of the Year’, the coming out ball of Alexandra Phillips,
as featured by Beryl Hartland in The Daily Telegraph.
Owned by Lady Coke, Belinda Bellville Boutique, 1965.
Pink silk with frosted organza, crystal
and pearl embellished bolero jacket.
Given to Viscountess Coke on her 40th birthday
by Holkham Hall staff, purchased on eBay.
The Royal Connection
Bellville’s royal connection began in 1960 with the design of a bridesmaids dress for
Princess Anne, worn at the wedding of Lord Mountbatten’s daughter, Lady Pamela
to David Hicks, the interior designer.
In the same year, Princess Alexandra commissioned her first dress, pictured right.
Belinda worked closely with the princess and they struck up a great friendship sharing
a similar sense of humour and a love of elegant fashions, wonderful fabrics and colour.
Princess Margaret was seen regularly in Bellville Sassoon. On a royal tour of America
she and the Earl of Snowdon were photographed everywhere they went, her
outfits were the subject of constant scrutiny and Women’s Wear Daily, who gave
outfits a mark out of 5, awarded the Bellville Sassoon outfits 5 out of 5!
In 1981 Bellville Sassoon
created the outfit that
Lady Diana Spencer wore
on the announcement
of her engagement to
Prince Charles, and her
Princess Margaret,
first official appearance
for the cover
with the Queen. They
of LIFE magazine
created her wedding
dancing with
President Johnson
trousseau, as well as
in 1965.
her going away outfit.
Between 1981 and 1993 Bellville
Sassoon created more than seventy
outfits for Diana, Princess of Wales.
The sketch for the dress that Princess
Margaret wore to the White House
with a sample of the material attached.
Between 1960 and 1982 Bellville
et Cie, and then Bellville Sassoon,
dressed all female members of the
royal family with the exception of the
Princess Alexandra in polka dot.
The Dresses on Display
Owned by Lady Glenconner,
Bellville Sassoon, 1974.
Navy blue lace and organza.
Worn on a royal tour to Canada, whilst
lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret.
Owned by Valeria, Viscountess Coke,
Bellville Sassoon, 1981.
Sea green silk taffeta.
Worn to the royal ball in celebration of
Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding.
Owned by Lady Glenconner,
Bellville Sassoon, 1975.
Green silk faille.
Worn on a royal tour to Australia, whilst
lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret.
Bellville Brides
Debutantes inevitably became brides and Bellville Sassoon dressed more society brides than any other British couturier.
By 1962 wedding dresses accounted for 25 percent of the business and space was given over to a dedicated bridal workroom.
As well as a ready-to-wear collection for London’s most stylish department store, Woollands in Knightsbridge, they designed
an exclusive collection for Bergdorf Goodman New York and continued to design and make couture wedding dresses for
private clients around the world.
“Intensely romantic, elegant and feminine,” is how Bellville brides were described. Belinda herself explained “We love doing
brides. It’s the only time you can be completely impractical.”
Famous brides included fashion editor at Harpers Bazaar, Lady Philippa Wallop, actress Anna Massey, Candida Betjeman,
daughter of poet John Betjeman, as well as Lady Carey Basset, daughter of the 5th Earl of Leicester.
In 1963 the Sunday Times reported that Bellville et Cie had just finished their eightieth wedding dress of the season, with twenty
more to finish by October.
The Dresses on Display
A Bellville Bride: Lady Sarah Curzon, married
Piers Courage 1966. Bellville dressed more
society brides than any other British couturier
of the time.
Belinda created wedding dresses for all three of
her daughters. “A dress like a Sargent portrait” was
the request Sophie Whately made to her mother,
resulting in a dress fashioned from over 50 metres
of the finest ivory parachute silk.
Left: Worn by Polly Whately
to the evening reception of her wedding to Viscount Coke.
Silk satin with hand embroidered bolero, 1996.
A long-sleeved bolero trimmed with ostrich feathers
was worn for the wedding ceremony.
Right: Worn by Sophie Whately
at her wedding to Jonathan Coltman-Rogers.
Parachute silk on taffeta, embroidered roses made of
silk and rose pearls, 1982.
Bridal gown under construction in the studio.
The 1960s
Fashion and style were changing rapidly, London was the place to be. It was a time of creativity, optimism and change.
Audrey Hepburn, Dusty Springfield, Jean Shrimpton and Britt Ekland all wore Bellville designs.
The Dresses on Display
Lady Beatty models a similar version to the dress on display, 1960.
Camilla Bellville being fitted for a dress by her sister, Belinda Bellville.
Owned by Mrs James West (née Camilla Bellville), Bellville et Cie, 1960.
Owned by Viscountess Coke, Bellville et Cie, 1968.
Bright pink raw silk skirt, silk from Abrahams, with hand beaded lace top.
Green silk and taffeta with cream ruffles.
Owned by Mrs James West (née Camilla Bellville),
Bellville Sassoon, 1968.
Worn to Henry Pembroke’s 21st birthday party, “it was a very grand ball
and I had my hair put up and tiara put on in London. I went straight to the
ball and then had to fly back to Germany that night to be with my husband.
I couldn’t get the tiara off, so I put a silk scarf over the whole outfit and flew
back with the tiara still on!”
Inspired by the Toulouse Lautrec model, La Goulue, image above left, the original
design for this dress had ruffles up to the bust line, image above right. A more
modest version, as shown here, was requested by a royal client.
Blue pure silk gazaar with laced bodice and appliqué.
Camilla Bellville, Belinda's younger sister adored clothes and
helped her sister by modelling in her shows and for fittings
on many occasions. She loved wearing her sister's creations
to balls and parties, including the Chatsworth Ball.
The 1970s
Fabulous prints, hand painted fabrics, exotic colours and the caftan were signs of the 1970s.
Actresses Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor were just two of the many glamorous women seen in Bellville Sassoon.
The Dresses on Display
Drawing of ethnic inspired caftan in a Bernard Nevill Liberty print with tasselled
bell sleeves and hood, worn over a tunic and matching knickerbockers for
Elizabeth Taylor’s 1972 film, Zee and Company.
Hand painted white wool crepe coat, bordered with flowers from a Persian
miniature and matching hand painted canvas boots by Andrew Whittle and
Richard Crawley, Vogue, 1970.
Photograph: Barry Lategan/Vogue, The Condé Nast Publications Ltd.
Owned by Mrs James West (née Camilla Bellville), Bellville et Cie, 1970.
Black silk satin tulip shaped cocktail dress with bolero.
Worn to a variety of cocktail parties and formal dinners.
Owned by Lady Glenconner, Bellville et Cie, 1972.
Silk organza sari with hand embroidery. Shown with silk cape. “I wore this to many parties, balls and dinners; it was one of my favourite most
useful dresses, and wonderful to wear. Belinda was always so imaginative, if I had a
fabric I loved, I could take it to her and she would come up with something beautiful.”
Owned by Mrs James West (née Camilla Bellville), Bellville Sassoon, 1975.
Halter neck dress and jacket in pink giverine from Abrahams.
Worn to a variety of cocktail parties and formal dinners.
The late 1970s to 1980s
The Dresses on Display
Owned by Viscountess Coke, Bellville Sassoon, 1987.
Flamenco style dress in silk taffeta and printed silk organza.
Worn by Viscountess Coke in the 1980s, the flamenco style reflects
her love of Spanish, which she studied at University, and flamenco
dancing, which she also studied whilst travelling in Argentina.
Owned by Viscountess Coke, Bellville Sassoon, 1985.
Red and cream silk organza with poppy print.
Included in the V&A’s dress collection, featuring a print
by the world renowned fabric design company Ascher.
Owned by Lady Glenconner, Bellville Sassoon, 1978.
Printed silk chiffon and taffeta.
Worn whilst on a state visit, as Princess Margaret’s lady-in-waiting,
to Tuvalu and to Manila where she met Imelda Marcos.
Belinda Bellville’s eldest daughter, Sophie, designed the flower print
on this dress whilst at Chelsea College of Art.
The late 1980s to 1990s
Belinda Bellville retired from Bellville Sassoon in 1982, however she worked as a consultant for a further five years.
Every designer dreams of a magazine cover and to make it onto the cover of Vogue is the pinnacle.
a nd
neckline, cape
April 1977.
Undulating flow
dress in white
Supermodel Cindy Crawford in lemon taffeta
bow-bodice dress, Vogue, February 1987.
An earlier incarn
ation of the ple
ated neckline,
Harpers & Que
en, May 1971.
The Dresses on Display
Owned by Viscountess Coke, Bellville Sassoon, 1980.
Pink silk paper taffeta with bustle trim, ruched bodice and draped skirt.
A Bellville cocktail dress similar to this is featured on the cover of Vogue,
illustrated above, middle image.
Owned by Viscountess Coke, Bellville Sassoon, 1980.
Candy stripe silk paper taffeta, strapless with puff ball skirt.
Created for Belinda Bellville’s daughter to wear to a variety
of parties and balls, including the Feathers Ball, a society ball
which raised money for youth work in London.
Owned by Belinda Bellville, 1996.
Silk sari evening dress.
“Worn on the evening of my daughter’s wedding, made up from
a sari given to me by my grandmother, Cuckoo Leith. I’ve always
loved working with saris, the colours, the embroidery, wonderful!”
Vogue Patterns
Set up in 1905, Vogue Patterns focused on the glamour of Hollywood life and stylish dressing. In 1947 when they announced the introduction of original
patterns by leading Parisian couturiers to their collection, the paper pattern industry was revolutionised, heralding the start of a lucrative licensing opportunity
for those fashion houses fortunate enough to be selected to be shown on their pages.
In 1965 Belinda and David had just launched their ready-to-wear collection and were approached by Vogue Patterns who were interested in purchasing a
number of designs. In 1960s Britain, dressmaking was a popular hobby and a lifeline for young women who were desperate to replicate the fashion of the day.
Bellville Sassoon couture was now available to the home dressmaker and gave the company a reliable income which has continued for more than 40 years.
Each season the Vogue Patterns team came to the studio and selected dresses from the latest collection, they knew exactly which designs they were looking
for and what would appeal to their customers. They would purchase copies of the original samples, toiles (a mock up of the garment) and the paper patterns.
The pattern would then be photographed and distributed to a worldwide audience.
Today Bellville Sassoon remains the only British designer on the books at Vogue Patterns and Belinda Bellville patterns can be purchased via many vintage
pattern sites online, offering today’s increasing number of dressmakers the opportunity to reproduce these fashions once again.
The Dress on Display
Owned by Lady Carey Basset, Bellville Sassoon. 1960s.
Bellville Sassoon joined the big names in fashion
including Dior, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and
Versace on the pages of Vogue Patterns.
Yellow jersey, pin tucked dress, pattern was available from Vogue Patterns.
Belinda Bellville in her studio.