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Belinda Bellville obituary



When Belinda Bellville opened her dressmaking atelier in 1953, the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, she intended that it should do red carpet business. Back then, such carpets were not display spaces for the entertainment industry, but traditional to the “season”, the annual programme of society events just reviving after the austerities of the second world war and the years following it.

Debutantes walked the red carpet to the palace, where they were presented to the monarch; to the balls and cocktail parties where matches were made and engagements announced; and along the aisle of the wedding church.

Bellville, who has died aged 94, had been a debutante in 1947. She was brought up in a season-observing family, and came to realise that a market was emerging in custom-made glad rags for women for whom French couture was too demanding, of purse and person, and British salons not fashionable enough.

Calling her label Bellville et Cie, to fund the venture Bellville sold her Citroën car, a wedding gift from her brother Jeremy, for £500 and went into partnership with the owner of a Knightsbridge shop to gain a sales outlet: she was allotted a space too small even to sketch in, and access to an outside loo.

Her first show was at the smart home of her grandmother, Gladys “Cuckoo” Leith, who as a society divorcee in the 1920s had set up a Mayfair boutique. Bellville’s sister Camilla and fellow debutantes served as models.

The American actor Candice Bergen wearing a Slavonic outfit by Belinda Bellville, 1968. Photograph: Mike McKeown/Getty Images

She had no design training, though she had worked as an assistant to a society photographer, tried fashion journalism, and had a gift for interpreting rather than setting shifts in fashion mood. She preferred word-of-mouth recommendations to advertising, avoided a Mayfair location, and refused to show with the Incorporated Society of London Designers.

Clients trusted her for discretion as much as taste: “They would bring in a bag of jewels,” she said. “We would work out a dress accordingly.” One customer sent her to Garrard’s strong rooms to select family jewellery to match a dress, and staff brought 22 pairs of diamond earrings to choose from.

Her styles soon became the norm for grand wedding dresses – up to 100 a year – and she created bespoke clothing for every woman of the royal family but the Queen. Her majesty asked, as Princess Anne was being fitted for a bridesmaid’s dress: “Will it wash?”

Bellville would have appreciated the practicality of the question. As a teen during second world war rationing, she and her mother, Audrey (nee Kidston), had made their own clothes from anything, including their curtains. Audrey and her husband, Seymour Bellville, inheritor of a fortune made from mustard, in the prewar years had had all the resources for racing cars, riding horses, and sailing their yacht, and dressed accordingly.

Belinda’s education was limited, since she was expected to marry well, which she did in 1952 to David Whately, who went into finance. Bellville, though, had glimpsed fashion as a career through her grandmother, and pursued it. She looked the role: soignee, 6ft tall in the flat shoes she wore so as not to loom over her clients.

Her crucial lifetime decision, which extended her business success, was to bring in David Sassoon. He was a scholarship student at the Royal College of Art, and after his graduate show in 1958, she hired him as a temporary assistant during her pregnancy. He stayed on. Sassoon came from a family of Iraqi-Jewish immigrants, had taken seriously his chance to study technical aspects of fashion, and moved in younger, design-conscious circles. He also brought in new clients, from different backgrounds.

Belville encouraged Sassoon to be kind, thoughtful about what imperfect women could actually wear, especially in cold, draughty aristocratic venues, and tutored him about the wardrobes that her kind of people ordered for their social round. He taught her to dance the twist, persuaded her to add ready-made clothes to couture, and kept her up to date with the changing basis of fashion. The formal debutante system had ended in 1958, and Bellville had no intention of turning into the specialist in outfits for the mother of the bride.

Belinda Bellville dressing her client Gillian Pepys, 1959. Photograph: Evening Standard/Getty Images

They became partners in 1970, and the firm, housed in converted Belgravia stables, was renamed Bellvile Sassoon, seen in frequent glossy mag captions rather than through promotion; the clothes themselves attracted Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy. From the late 60s and through the 70s, the partnership was at its best with a well-pressed, properly hemmed, non-hippy take on the prevailing fancy dress mode, and with the ample-skirted romanticism that succeeded it. Many non-celebrity brides were able to reproduce the gowns after Bellville agreed to design wedding dresses for Vogue Patterns.

The label’s most famous client, Lady Diana Spencer, arrived at reception in 1981, after her mother, Frances Shand Kydd, sent her there to choose an outfit for the announcement of her engagement to the Prince of Wales. A staff member had no idea who she was, and suggested she shop in Harrods, which she did. Shand Kydd, who had known the label for decades, then made the introductions, and Diana attended, timorous in the presence of the elegant Bellville.

However, Diana formed an immediate rapport with Sassoon, and, as Princess of Wales, under the code-name “Miss Buckingham”, went on to commission more than 70 outfits from him, including five coats for her pregnancies. During the years Diana remained part of the royal “firm” she often relied on Bellvile Sassoon’s establishment fashion judgment.

Bellville retired in 1982, but went on advising the company. She had retrospective exhibitions at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London and Holkham Hall in Norfolk in 2013. It was hard to prise the exhibits from their owners.

Her husband died in 2008. Her three daughters survive her.

Belinda Bellville, fashion designer, born 29 March 1930; died 5 May 2024

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