Sunday, 4 October 2009

A Visionary Educator

Visionaries and people who leave things better than when they found them are very often forgotten by posterity because their changes are so right that they are taken for granted remarkably quickly and it is assumed that they were always as they are after the achievement is complete.

A case in point is the fashion educator Muriel Pemberton (read an obituary here), who was born a hundred years ago. How many people in the fashion world know that name? How many fashion educators have heard of this remarkable woman – the Emily Pankhurst of fashion education, who raised the role of women in fashion from menial levels to the fully enfranchised position of female designers today? Before her pioneering work, girls from ordinary backgrounds worked as slaves in the rag trade and the few female designers – such as Lucile – were upper-middle-class women with considerable social contacts and often no dressmaking skills of any kind.

But Muriel Pemberton changed all that. Way back in the early 1930s, she refused to accept the then-current view that young girls (especially from the working classes) were not worth teaching any skills other than sewing and embroidery. In 1928 she set up a Diploma in Fashion at the Royal College of Art and then went on to make fashion drawing a core of fashion education at St Martin's. By doing so, as the course was mainly taken by women, she cunningly got them in by the back door as artists – the only classification taken seriously by the art establishment at that time.

Having made that advance, she went on to set up the Department of Dress at St Martin's, which included the previously all-male areas of art history and creative design. The rest is history. Women from ordinary backgrounds were able to move out of the back rooms into the creative studios to join their male counterparts as bona fide designers, just as they do today.

All of which came to me after reading the latest fashion book from the V&A, a facsimile of one of Lucile's books of drawings provided as a catalogue for the customers of her London, Paris, New York and Chicago establishments. The drawings have a strong period flavour, of course, and the text is exactly what you would expect from Valerie Mendes, a respected fashion theorist and scholar, but the book would have had a much broader appeal if the sketches had been smaller to enable more of the contemporary photos of the clothes being worn to be printed large, rather than postage-stamp size, as they are in most cases. It is the people who wore the clothes that make past periods and their dress of interest to a wide public. That being said, this is a useful book for fashion historians and scholars and, although it is expensive in hardback, Lucile will be well worth buying by anyone interested in the period, the woman, or the fashion when it comes out in paperback.