Bellville Sassoon was the first couturier to make clothes for Lady Diana Spencer when she was a shy, 19-year-old nursery teacher about to marry Prince Charles.
The black taffeta dress with the striking décolleté which David Sassoon designed for her to attend the Royal Opera House in 1981 had the cameras clicking in the frenzied way that was to become the soundtrack to her life as Princess of Wales.
Bellville Sassoon later made the going-away outfit in which she left for her honeymoon. And this is one of many on display at the 10th anniversary exhibition of the Fashion and Textile Museum in London’s Bermondsey, exploring the work of the salon, since the 1950s.
The outfit was loaned by Princes William and Harry and is the centrepiece of the royal display showcasing dresses — and sketches — made for many members of the royal Family.
The exhibition, opened last Thursday evening by Princess Michael of Kent, features 150 gowns loaned by aristocrats and celebrities, including Shakira Caine, Cilla Black and Angela Rippon. Former Jewish clients who lent dresses included Lady Jane Rayne, Lady Woolf, Gaby Harris-Lyons and Brazilian socialite, Renee Behar.
“It’s an eclectic mix of dresses, from 1959, when I joined the company, to the present day,” said Sassoon. “I think former clients were happy to lend dresses because they think of me as a ‘kind’ designer. I enjoyed making women look their best.
“I always found that if a woman felt good in a dress, she looked good in it. The designs were of their time, but they didn’t follow fashion blindly and always flattered.”
Born to Iraqi Jewish parents, Sasson attended Avigdor High School and Lauderdale Road Synagogue in West London.
From the 1960s onwards, he and Belinda Bellville, and latterly, Lorcan Mullany, established themselves as the go-to couture house for stylish and glamorous women. Their designs were not only favourites for royals and debutantes, but for Jewish socialites and mothers-of-the-bride who could afford the price tag.
Bellville Sassoon dresses were worn at the season’s most lavish coming-out parties, the most exclusive weddings and the most high-powered charity balls, and, until the early 90s when bridal gowns stopped being featured in the collection, their couture bridal gowns were a favourite among well-heeled Jewish brides.
“They epitomise high-society glamour,” said the Museum’s Celia Joicey. “They reinvented British couture in the second half of the century and their designs wonderfully evoke a world of debutantes, socialites, weddings and royal celebrity.”