Designer Diaries – Bellville Sassoon and the British Royals

Belinda Bellville had fashion design in her blood. Her grandmother, Cuckoo Leith – a name for fashion if there ever was one – ran a dress shop in the twenties. Thirty years on, her granddaughter Belinda looked around the staid, conservative British fashion landscape and decided there had to be room for a design house that provided youthful and pretty fashions. She founded Bellville et Cie in 1953, focusing on clothes for the younger crowd, including a bevy of her debutante friends.

Belinda Bellville, Independent (If you zoom in, you’ll see Princess Alexandra in the photo behind her, in the dark collar and hat)

In 1958 she invited David Sassoon, an innovative designer who recently graduated from the Royal College of Art, to join the firm. Their design ethos was simpatico, and in 1970 they became full partners. Bellville Sassoon was born.

The design house was very popular in the sixties, designing for actresses, aristocrats, and, eventually, royalty.

Fitting for Audrey Hepburn movie (Two for the Road)

The designers knew they were out of the pocketbook range of a lot of woman, but that there was hunger for good, modern designs. Bellville patterns became very popular among home sewers.

The royal connection began with Princess Anne. In 1960, Bellville Sassoon was commissioned to make a dress for the 10-year-old princess, who was to be a bridesmaid in the wedding of Lady Pamela Mountbatten to interior designer David Hicks. Sassoon was charged with the fittings, and his first few visits to the Palace were eventful. He managed to knock over a corgi’s water dish, and maintain his aplomb when the Queen herself appeared to ask if the dress “would wash.” (No record on whether it would or not!)

Pamela Hicks and Princess Anne, Vogue

Anne has remained a long-time customer of the design house. One of her off-the-rack purchases has a place in the V&A collection. Contrary to popular belief, she still does occasionally order new clothes. This Belleville Sassoon design was worn in 2008, to the state dinner held for Nicholas Sarkozy at Buckingham Palace. The design was termed the “wedgwood”, for obvious reasons, and it provided plenty of sparkle for the evening.

Wedgwood Dress, Vogue

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In the sixties, Bellville Sassoon was focused on designing structured empire waist daywear and evening gowns. This style caught Princess Margaret’s eye, and David Sassoon headed to Kensington Palace to visit with the Princess. He found her “hidden in the basement whitewashing the walls in a burgundy velvet Yves Saint Laurent smoking suit with a polythene bag over it.”

The design house was hired to make a good portion of the princess’ wardrobe for her 1965 American tour, including some spectacular evening gowns worn in Washington D.C. David Sassoon noted, not without a little glee, that not all of Margaret’s clothes from that tour were reviewed favorably, but the Bellville Sassoon ensembles met with approval in the American press.

Embed from Getty Images

Embed from Getty Images

The House that Bellville and Sassoon built would go on from strength to strength. Next week, we’ll talk about their most famous royal customer. Big hint: the relationship did not begin with a bang!

Feel free to spam the thread with any and all Bellville Sassoon fashions, royal or not.