Hardy Amies: A Dagenham Designer (Valence House)

A new exhibition opened on Saturday exploring the life and work of Sir Hardy Amies, British fashion designer, tailor and royal dressmaker.

The exhibition, conceived by Create London and curated by LCF’s Amy de La Haye, takes place in a beautiful old manor called Valence House in Dagenham.

Hardy Amies: A Dagenham Designer

Amies grew up in Dagenham, first living at Gale Street Farm (now demolished) then later the White House, which interestingly, is being restored as a community arts centre – also by Create London.

His father worked as an architect helping to create the Becontree Estate, once the largest public housing project in the world, whilst his mother was a dressmaker, working in London’s elite court dressmaking industry

Amies followed his mother into the world of clothes, training at the London couture houses of Lachasse and Worth, and after serving as a Special Operations Executive in the Second World War, opened his own couture house on Savile Row in 1945.

He became dressmaker to the Queen is 1955, and remained so until his retirement in 1989. He also made suits for the 1976 Olympics team and costumes for Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey – some of which are on display in the exhibition.

Because of his relationship to the Queen and position on Savile Row, Amies is seen as a bit of a posh/elitist sort of figure, however this exhibition really disproves this, and by exploring his Essex upbringing and his effect on the local community, makes him seem much more accessible.

Hardy Amies: A Dagenham Designer

Two of Steve Lawrence’s Hardy Amies outfits

One thing I particularly loved was how the exhibition featured suits from a local carpenter, Steve Lawrence. Steve was working on the restoration of the White House when he heard about the exhibition, and being a keen collector of Amies’ suits, he offered to loan some of his suits for display.

He wears an Amies suit every day, often finding bargains on eBay, and states: “I see young men wearing very expensive bespoke suits staring at mine, wondering why it looks so much sharper.”

Amongst the other designs on show are dresses designed for the Queen, including a beautiful blue and white silk evening gown for a state reception in Germany, and a bold pink silk crepe ensemble designed for the opening of the Olympic Games in Montreal.

There are also a number of items worn by Amies himself. Following his death, his wardrobe was donated to the archive at Central Saint Martins, and this is the first time these items have been exhibited.

One of the highlights is a wool tweed suit, which is displayed with a quote about the tweed weaving design, which I particularly liked:

“The principle used to be quite simple. You wore clothes that blended with the colours of the countryside so that you did not frighten the pheasants.”

There are also suits which feature Edwardian revival styling, which appealed to members of the Teddy boy culture. I have never seen a full Teddy boy outfit, so this was really interesting, especially the accessories, which included a signature boot-lace tie – inspired by those worn by American cowboys.

These are really only snippets of what is a fascinating exhibition. Coming into the show, I really only knew Amies because of his Savile Row tailoring and work for the Queen, however his role in British fashion history extends further than this, and it’s really interesting to learn about.

It is worth checking out the exciting programme of related activities which will take place at The White House, Create’s new space for art and social activity, and Amies’ former home. You can find out more here.

The exhibition runs at Valence House Museum, Dagenham from Sat 3 December – Sat 25 February 2017.

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