Today we have a beautiful new gown in the shop. It’s a wonderfully made and shaped gown that is very comfortable and flattering – like the best of ’30s evening wear.
The back features an original ’30s celluloid Lightening zipper. These are hard to find, as most ’30s dresses used other forms of openings like press studs or buttons, and original zippers have often been replaced. An original celluloid zipper is generally a sign of high quality, and they were popular in the designs of Elsa Schiaparelli and Charles James.
An advert from World War two for the celluloid (early plastic) zippers, showing the same style as in the Peter Russell dress
As expected, the dress is full of couture quality details like waist tapes and bra keepers with a silk georgette lining. It was a delight to turn it inside out and see how it’s been made. Black dresses hide their details but if it’s well made and well cut, of a good fabric you can see it in how the dress looks when its worn.
This gown, of obvious quality was made by an unfamiliar couturier, Peter Russell. Here’s the label – couturiers of this time tend to have woven silk labels that display their address. Very handy for dating! Even if the fabric, style and construction didn’t put this into the ’30s, the address does.
Here’s a little that I found out about Peter Russell – a contemporary of Molyneux, Russell was a London designer who opened his couture house in 1931 at 2 Carlos Place, Mayfair – the address on the label – and specialised in “sporty suits and simple gowns”. His preferred aesthetic was “functional elegance” – a very modern idea really, and something many of us still strive for.
Russell’s client list included members of royalty and high society ladies, and his designs were sold across the Commonwealth. In his spare time he enjoyed hunting and was described as being “macho” and “hot-tempered”, characteristics that lost him clients although his fashions were very sought after. He had a great eye for detail, and supervised every aspect of design even dyeing and printing fabrics for his twice-yearly collections. Personally, he was quite flamboyant, championing the revival of Edwardian styles in menswear in the ’50s with drainpipe trousers and red silk cumberbunds.
In 1942 he was one of the founding members of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers, which aimed to produce and promote high quality British fashion for export, in competition with the Parisian couture houses as well as build the relationship with government and represent the industry’s interests.
In the late ’40s he showed his collection at Georges, in Melbourne’s Collins St and they started to produce some of his designs under his supervision. Then Georges asked him to design a collection of coronation gowns, for Australian women to wear for the upcoming coronation of Queen Elizabeth and her royal tour – it was “colossally successful” and he must have enjoyed the experience because in 1953 he sold his London design house and moved here, taking on a role as a fashion advisor for a local fashion house and living in an “attractive Spanish style house” in Ivanhoe, close enough for him to go hunting in Lilydale.
I haven’t managed to find any more information about his life after that, or the company who hired him as a fashion advisor so if anyone knows anything, I would be grateful to receive news.
It’s surprising this designer is not better known! I’ve found some images of his designs online and selected a few for a Pinterest board.
The Victoria and Albert museum have a 1937 Peter Russell in their collection – you can see it here.
Peter Russell with two models in 1953 – from the collection of the National Portrait Gallery.