“There is in England …no scope whatsoever for the girl who designs fashions by drawing them.’”. Fashion Education in Paris and London in the twenties and thirties”, Marie McLoughin, compte-rendu journée d’étude du 15 juin 2012

“There is in England …no scope whatsoever for the girl who designs fashions by drawing them.’”(Hodgkin 1932). Fashion Education in Paris and London in the twenties and thirties.”

by Dr. MARIE McLOUGHLIN, University of Brighton 

1930 was an important year for fashion education. In September of that year the École Superièure de la Couture, the school of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture  was opened.[1] A few months later the Royal College of Art in London awarded its first diploma in fashion design to a young woman, Muriel Pemberton, who was to go on, in 1931, to lay the foundations for the Fashion Department at St Martin’s School of Art, which is still the one of the largest and most successful Fashion Schools in the world.

This paper will examine and compare the various ways a prospective fashion designer in the 1930s could learn the trade. It will look at the curriculum of the Chambre Syndicale as set out in a 1931 prospectus held in the Brighton design archive; the RCA curriculum written by Pemberton who graduated in 1931, a curriculum she later introduced at St Martin’s; The various private schools advertised in Vogue at that time, one of which Pemberton attended; and the review of all fashion education in London produced by the British Board of Education in 1936. All of this will be compared with the traditional apprenticeship in fashion design, undertaken in the 1930s by that Parisian Englishman Charles Creed, whose family had had a couture house in both Paris and London since the nineteenth century.

London County Council had funded trade schools from the beginning of the twentieth century. These specialist schools, usually found in working class areas, took children from 13+ and taught them the skills needed for the workshop or workroom; For boys furniture or the leather trades and for girls dressmaking, embroidery, millinery or similar trades. There was no college funded by the industry itself, as in France. Before 1930 designers would have come either from within the industry, like Creed, or from the middle and upper classes, like Lucile, Lady Duff Gordon, and Hartnell, one of a group of Cambridge aesthetes which included Cecil Beaton. All were people of ‘taste’ and their friends and peers were also their customers. There was no possibility of making the transition from the trade school, via the workroom, to the design studio.

Local art schools also took children from 13 but, unlike trade schools, they also had classes for older children and exceptional students could gain a scholarship at 18 to the ‘National’ school, the Royal College of Art in London. Here social mobility was a real possibility. When Pemberton got there in 1927, a graduate of the Wedgwood Institute in Burslem, part of Britain’s industrial heartland, it had talented students from all over the country irrespective of class or wealth. However it did not teach fashion design. This paper will discuss how she was able to change this, forging links with such upper class strongholds as court dressmaker, Reville and Rositer and the private fashion academy of Katinka, whose principal had trained with Lelong.

This paper will look at the similarities of Pemberton’s RCA, and subsequent St Martin’s, curriculum of drawing, cutting and historical studies and compare it to that outlined in the prospectus of the École Superièure de la Couture in Paris. The education that Charles Creed undertook before he was allowed to design for the family firm, one which took him to Vienna and New York, provides a fascinating counterpoint to these early exercises in fashion education.

[1] This is the date given in an English report written in the 1940s. The website of the École Superièure de la Couture cites 1927 as the date of its creation.



Ashwin, Clive. Art Education. Documents and Policies 1768-1975. London: Society for Research into Higher Education, 1975.

Bell, Quentin. The Schools of Design. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd 1963.

Breward, Christopher, Edwina Ehrman, and Caroline Evans. The London Look : Fashion from Street to Catwalk  London, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Creed, Charles. Maid to Measure.London: Jarrolds, 1961.

Hodgkin, Eliot. Fashion Drawing. London: Chapman & Hall Ltd., 1932.

Reynolds, Helen. Couture or Trade. An Early Pictorial Record of the London College of Fashion. London: Phillimore & Co. Ltd. Copyright London Institute 1997.

Journal Articles, magazines and newspapers

Grosvenor, Ian. “ ‘The Art of Seeing’: Promoting Design in Education in 1930s England.” Paedagogica Historica Vol. 41, Nos 4 & 5, August 2005. Pp 507-534.

UK Vogue 1920s-1930s


Brighton Design Archive

Box 78: File 357. Training, miscellaneous. Contains the 1931 syllabus of École Superièure de la Couture, the school of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture. The school opened on 15th September 1930.

Central St Martin’s (Museum) Archive


St Martin’s School of Art, Committee of Managers Minute Book 1922-1937

The National Archive. Kew                                                                                        

Board of Trade papers.

BT 57/13/218

Dress Committee 1938. Council for Art and Industry. This file contains a copy of the report together with the evidence assembled in its preparation. There is also a (rare) copy in the University of Brighton Design Archive.

BT 57/15/259

Includes Discussion on Dress Design. Some discussion, pre 1938, following letter from Lennox Lee Calico printers in response to suggestion from Frank Pick at CoAI, on inviting designers from Paris to set up businesses in the UK.

Board of Education papers.

ED 46/151

This file contains a response to the proposed Board of Trade Report on the Dress Industry.

It has a review of all London art school classes for designers and all trade school classes for workroom hands.

Board of Education minute dated 23rd May 1936. The subsequent Board of Education Report was dated 29th June 1936.

RCA Library

Cunliffe-Charlesworth, Hilary. “The RCA: Its Influence in Education, Art and Design 1900-1950.” Unpublished PhD Thesis. Royal College of Art, 1991.

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