Bellvilles belles of the ball

For 50 years, fashion designers David Sassoon and Belinda Bellville were society’s fairy godparents, turning girls into princesses with their magic wands (and acres of tulle). Now, a retrospective is giving us the chance to go to the ball all over again.

If you were to leaf through Tatler’s Bystander pages from 1960 to 1990 and zone in on the grand weddings, and if you were to further investigate the wedding dresses, you would arrive, invariably, at the door of Bellville Sassoon, a partnership between the Amazonian ex-debutante Belinda Bellville (who set up the label in 1953 as Bellville et Cie because chic clothes were expected to be French) and David Sassoon, who joined her in 1958.

Together, this improbable pair — she, imposing and patrician; he, slight and Sephardic-anticipated the loosening of the reins that the Sixties would herald. The jet-set was gathering momentum, money and pace; toffs were shagging rock stats; and it was the era of the celebutante who wanted to look alluring and glamorous bur still worried what her mother might think. Indeed, David remembers making the first long dress that Princess Anne ever wore, to be bridesmaid to Lady Pamela Hicks. The Queen wanted to know if it was washable.

Bellville Sassoons designs — romantic and intensely feminine — allowed the young women who would come to be known as Sloanes to look fashionable and faintly bohemian. Tatler’s legendary society columnist Betty Kenward, who would certainly have taken a dim view of anything that read as nouveau, recorded the scene at the 1958 autumn show, featuring Davids inaugural collection for the label. (Belinda retired in 1982 and David was joined by designer Lorcan Mullany.) In attendance were a bunch of ex-debutantes who are mostly working now, she observes, before admiring a very original and comfortable evening outfit called Houseparty — a lilac grosgrain dress with a mohair top which would keep you warm in the coldest country home!

Lady Sarah Aspinall, Jane Stevens (Clara Delevingnes grandmother and lady-in-waiting to another customer. Princess Margaret), Lady Clenconner, Candida Lycett Creen, the Duchess of Roxburghe, die Duchess of Kent and Princess Alexandra were among the customers who visited the converted stable in Belgravia to equip themselves for a world where Annabels was opening and where one dressed for dinner every night. Imagine the stress, not to mention the expense — but, in 1966, Sir Jocelyn Stevenss Harpen & Queeti described the Bellville customer as ‘the young elegantes for whom money is no object’.

Where the British aristocrat went, the Hollvwood Stat followed. Soon Ehzabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Candice Bergen and Anjelica Huston wete pitching up to have costumes and civvies alike run up by this fashion house with a flair for subtle drama. ‘I remember he made me the most amazing yellow creation,’ says Lady Annabel Goldsmith of her frock for Marie-Helene de Rothschilds fabled Proust Ball at Chateau de Ferrieres in 1971. ‘It was nipped in at the waist and very bosomy and I managed to borrow every piece of the Londonderry jewels, which weren’t supposed to leave the country, bur 1 smuggled them to France in my hairdressers wash bag. I wore a tiara, a stomacher and a vast diamond necklace. I went to Bellville’s because I knew they’d make something perfect almost fancy dress but serious fancy dress.’

Many smart Eighties brides with one eye on the fashion pages and the other on Granny’s seal of approval turned to Bellville Sassoon to secure that fragile balance. Princess Michael of Kent sent a telegram after her wedding; Thank you for making me look how I should look on my special day There are handwritten notes from Diana, Princess of Wales, thanking David tor triumphs and suggesting tweaks to future designs — he made her going-away outfit and she remained devoted for years. David Sassoon retired last year, aged 79, signalling the end of the label, which had fir the life of its times perfectly The clothes from this house,’ said The Times in 1966, We completely right and eminently suited for the better end, as one might say of the British social scene. And the better end of the British social scene, one might say, agreed. Annabel Rivkin The Glamour of Bellville Sassoon is at the Fashion and Textile Museum.

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