Next Saturday the Fashion and Textiles Studies program at FIT will hold their annual symposium. To get you excited, we will share some of the papers that will be presented in the week to come. We hope to see you there. The event is free and open to the public.
A Tale of Two Elspeths: Forgotten Couturières and their Impact on Modern Fashion
By Kathryn Squitieri
The birth of modernity in women’s fashion can be defined as the simplification and streamlining of clothing, as well as respect for the integrity of the material, relying on the concept of drapery rather than cutting to fit an artificially molded body. While Poiret’s innovations during the early years of modern fashion are constantly discussed, it is unfortunate that little recognition is given to the many other important, innovative designers of the early twentieth century. Fashion magazines are filled with advertisements and articles about unheard of couturiers that were quite successful at the time, and who should be studied as much as Poiret and Chanel.
Enter two Elspeths: Elspeth Champcommunal and Elspeth Phelps. Both were British couturières designing for royalty and wealthy clients in London during the early 20th century, and both had incredibly long and successful careers, starting in the nineteen teens and continuing into the nineteen fifties. So little is known about them, however, that at first glance one might believe they are the same person, especially since they were born and died within ten years of each other, worked in London in the same district in the 1930s and 40s, were both married with one daughter, and at different times both worked on the same street. Not to mention they were both named Elspeth. Yet, they were two distinct people.
Elspeth Phelps was born Constance Elspeth Phelps in Portugal in 1876. She opened her London couture house in approximately 1906, and not only designed gowns for high society, but designed costumes for the London stage that were built in her salon. She is credited as a costume designer for dozens of shows, and clothed stars such as Lily Elsie and Irene Castle in ethereal confections of tulle and lace. A pioneering businesswoman, she grew her house by purchasing other struggling dressmaking businesses, including that of Kate Reilly. At the height of her success she became amalgamated with the London house of Paquin. In 1926 she reopened her house as Elspeth Fox-Pitt Ltd., and continued as a Court Dressmaker until the late 1940s.
Elspeth Champcommunal (or Champco as she was called by her friend Virginia Woolf) was born Elspeth Mary Hodgson in 1888. She married a painter, Joseph Champcommunal, and eventually used this French identity to open a couture house in Paris, where her simple designs of striking fabrics and innovative trimmings were revered as much as those of Chanel or Molyneux. In 1916 she became the first editor of British Vogue and championed British fashion designers, including Elspeth Phelps. In 1933 she became head designer at W. W. Reville-Terry. When Reville-Terry and the London branch of Worth merged in 1936, Champcommunal became the head designer at Worth London, a position she retained until the late 1950s.
The objective of this paper is to tell the stories of both Elspeths and show that they were similarly important to the world of fashion as those designers who are frequently studied by fashion historians. They just happen to have been forgotten.
Kathryn Squitieri holds a BFA in Costume Design, a BA in Geology and a minor in Computer Science from Brooklyn College. Before attending FIT, she worked as a costume design assistant on the productions of HAIR on Broadway, RENT Off-Broadway, and numerous other theater productions in New York City. Most recently, she helped dress mannequins for Italian Futurism, 1909–1944: Reconstructing the Universe at the Guggenheim. Last summer she coordinated and supervised a team of conservators in the creation and dressing of custom mannequins for the costume exhibition PERSOL MAGNIFICENT OBSESSIONS: 30 stories of craftsmanship in film at the Museum of the Moving Image. She also assisted in dressing Bryan Cranston’s costumes for From Mr. Chips to Scarface: Walter White’s Transformation in Breaking Bad, also at the Museum of the Moving Image. In addition, she has worked as a contract conservator at the Brooklyn Museum and as a dresser and collections assistant at the Putnam History Museum in Cold Spring, NY.
 Nele Bernheim. “Modernism in fashion.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press, July 2, 2009.