This whole thing started a few years ago when a wedding dress came up at auction. Not being a wedding dress swooner I could nevertheless think of quite a few (entirely rational) reasons why the museum should acquire this particular example. For one thing it was made by Victor Stiebel, one of my favourite London couturiers. Secondly, we do not have enough of his creations (one never does) and they do not come up at auction very often. The dress also had an intriguing mystery inscription. We will get to that in a moment.
The gown is minute and with a bust measuring 76 cm (30 inches) and a waist of 61 cm (24 inches) pretty much conforms to a US size zero. It does not fit on any of our regular mannequins and when we recently photographed the dress I had to put it on the so-called ‘Petite’ from our regular bustform supplier. As you can see, the silhouette is not quite right – the dummy is more suitable for 19th century garments worn over corsets. Still, you get a rough idea.
In Ornament and Crime, published in 1908, the architect Adolf Loos rejected ‘the argument that ornament increases the pleasures of life of a cultivated person, or that it is beautiful. I prefer undecorated gingerbread [Loos was Austrian]. Modern people will understand.’ The wearer of this dress was definitely demonstrating her modernity, at least when viewed from the front, before turning around to expose the numerous velvet-covered buttons and loops that serve as fastening at the back and the wrists. I like this fusion of understatement – the simple cut of the high-necked dress, the subtle sheen of the off-white fabric – with hints of wealth and class. The velvet is made of silk, the train is definitely cathedral-length, the buttons and loops would have taken quite a bit of time to make, and, more importantly, had to be fastened by a someone else and thus suggest the presence of a maid. The no-frills design has to work – there are no beads to distract the eye, either from bad pattern-cutting or from the figure of the wearer. This faux-simplicity is hard to achieve and can command large sums when it works, as Victoria Beckham knows only two well.
The date of the gown was indicated partly by the label you can see at the top of this post. Victor Stiebel set up his house at 21 Bruton Street in January 1932. From October of the same year he was based at 22 Bruton Street, the address seen on our gown. The style of the dress suggested the early 1930s. Diana Mitford had worn something not entirely dissimilar when marrying Bryan Guinness in 1929. Stiebel’s press cutting books, which you can peruse in the Art & Design Archive of the V&A, contain a clipping from the Evening Standard of June 1932, showing the designer’s first publicised wedding dress – worn by Miss John Pearson at her marriage to Anthony Acton. The V&A proper holds the design and the dress itself, which is very, very similar to ours (there is no image of the dress on the website but this lovely Lenare photo shows the bride wearing it). Maybe it was this photo that inspired the wearer of our dress to go to Stiebel in the first place?
A few pages further on in Stiebel’s press books some clippings suggest a later date. The Daily Mirror reported in May 1936 that the couturier recommended June brides to avoid shiny materials: ‘He uses supple matt fabrics for gowns, which all fasten down the back with tiny buttons of self material’, but these gowns were made with loose, wide sleeves and very short trains. In 1938 Stiebel received much publicity for his use of the new artificial fibre Celanese. Victoria Chapelle informed the readers of the Yorkshire Post on 10 June 1938 (namechecking a previous incarnation of our very own museum!!!):
The typical bridal gown of this year – if one passes into the historic collection in the London Museum – will be notable, above all, for its dignity. […] Elaborate pseudo-period gowns are now considered bad taste and the average bride refuses fussiness. […] The traditional white satin has given away, in many cases, to the new silk jersey. This can be draped and it falls so perfectly that if the bride is slim and graceful it is the ideal fabric – though the worst possible choice if she is not.
Chapelle notes that jersey had been used by ‘nearly all the French designers’ and also by Stiebel for ‘one of the loveliest’ dresses he had ever made ‘with glove fitting sleeve and long serpentine train’.
We acquired our dress together with four other objects: a Greek/Egyptian tiara of cheap material – probably fancy dress, a head ornament made of wire in a shape popular in the 1920s and a traditional orange blossom wedding wreath. The fourth object, a very large piece of (silk) net or tulle had obviously been attached to the velvet-covered circle with the blossoms at some point (they were reunited for the above photo). None of these objects were particularly useful for dating the dress, which makes this a good moment to return to the above mentioned, pencilled note.
Sewn to one of the seam allowances of our gown is a narrow silk label with the name ‘Miss Levy’ written on it in pencil. I know that Levy is not the most unusual name but – come on – how many Miss Levy’s could possibly have been married in the 1930s? Well, it turns out, quite a few.
As so often, I started with The Times as the engagement/wedding of someone who could afford Stiebel was likely to be mentioned there. This is how I found Zoe and Audrey who married in 1936 and Doris Pamela who got hitched in 1937. There was also Hylda Levy who had confusingly married Ewart M. Levy in March 1932 but could be discounted as she was reported to have worn ‘a gown of parchment-coloured satin, the corsage embroidered in rosy pearls, with a full court train’ (9 March 1932). Annoyingly The Times only seems to mention couturiers when reporting court presentations. Nevertheless something, I don’t know quite what, made me think that the 1932 Hylda Levy wedding was somehow connected with our gown.
Hylda was the eldest daughter of Sir Albert and Lady (Gertrude) Levy ‘of Devonshire House, Piccadilly, and Elstead, Surrey’ as The Times had it. Sir Albert (born 1864) was the founder of the Ardath Tobacco company (originally called Albert Levy & Thomas) which was sold in 1925, apparently at great profit. In July 1936 Lady Levy (Hylda’s mother) attended court in a dress by Victor Stiebel and in March 1939 she did so again. Women of one family often seem to patronise the same designer so I thought I might have a lead.
Particularly when I saw the engagement of Mr R.R. Edgar, ‘younger son of Mr. and Mrs. E.S. Edgar’ and Esmé, the youngest daughter of Sir Albert and Lady Levy, being mentioned in The Times on 20 August 1935. Usually a report of the wedding follows not much later but in this case there was nothing but silence.
I changed tack and – with the help of the auctioneer – managed to get in touch with the seller of the dress. She turned out to be the owner of a wedding dress shop where our gown had been displayed for about fifteen years before reaching the Museum (I guess you have to make sure a shop full of white dresses is being kept super-clean). The seller remembered buying the gown from an antique dealer friend but did not know where he had obtained it. She had been told that the dress was related to the jewellers H. Samuels. Remember this last bit of information and also that 2008, the year when we purchased the dress, minus 15 takes us to about 1993.
I cannot quite recall what happened next. A lot was going on in the museum at the time, which was probably a good thing. We were refurbishing the ‘costume’ store and were also working on the Galleries of Modern London so our quest for the elusive bride could only be followed up intermittently. But little by little we, volunteer and I, pieced together a story.
Esmé wed Robert Rex Samuel Edgar, son of Edgar Samuel Edgar (died 1933) and Ethel Julia née Cohen (1871-1922) on 19 December 1935. The marriage brought together two very prominent Jewish families and took place at the West London Synagogue, rather than the usual society venue St Margaret’s Church. Not having easy access to the Jewish Chronicle we managed to enlist the generous help of a colleague at the Jewish Museum who found this short announcement published on 27 December 1935:
EDGAR LEVY. – On the 19th of December, 1935 at the West London synagogue, Berkley Street, W1 by the Rev H.F. Reinhart and the Rev Vivian Simmons, Robin Rex Edgar, of 48, Albert court SW7, younger son of the late Mr and Mrs E.S.Edgar, to Esmé, youngest daughter of Sir Albert and Lady Levy, of Devonshire House, W1 and Westbrook, Elstead, Surrey.
Sadly no images and no description of the bride’s dress. But it turned out that Robert (he must have changed his name from Robin at some point) Samuel ran the jewellers H. Samuels with his brother Gilbert until the late 1970s. Esmé survived Robert, who died in 1981, and when she herself passed away in November 1988 left her considerable fortune of £14 million to various charities. It seems her effects were auctioned at the time, which fits in with the account of the wedding dress shop owner who remembered getting the dress in around 1993. (If you know anything about auction, please get in touch!)
I very much would like to think that the dress was Esmé’s but I do not have absolute proof at the time of writing this entry. One of Esmé’s grandson’s has been on the lookout for a wedding photo but without any luck so far (there must be one somewhere!). He very, very kindly emailed me some family photos and allowed them to be used here. I could not believe my eyes when I opened the files. The Levys were one stylish family!
The first picture shows Sir Albert, Lady Gertrude and their daughters Hylda and Esme during a Mediterranean cruise taken between January and March 1929. Hylda is the one wearing a ‘corsage embroidered in rosy pearls’ at her wedding in 1932. The third sister, Vera, had already married in 1928, which explains her absence. The second photo shows the family playing golf at Manedelieu near Cannes in January 1930 (I might – just might – consider taking up golf if that means I can wear knitwear like that.)
I leave you with one last family photo which demonstrates that Esmé could easily have fitted into our tiny dress. It shows her with her father at Westbrook House in Elstead, Surrey, some time during the 1930s. She must have been a stunning bride.