London Fashion Week: Five ways the UK changed fashion
- 13 September 2012
- From the section Magazine
London Fashion Week kicks off tomorrow, with the UK acknowledged as one of the fashion industry's biggest players. But it has also changed fashion in ways not everybody knows.
London Fashion Week is starting just days after the UK capital was voted the most stylish city in the world, beating the likes of New York, Paris and Milan, in the ninth annual ranking of 55 global cities by US-based analytics company Global Language Monitor.
Here are some of the lesser-known ways the UK has paved the way for everything from Primark to Lady Gaga.
The world became a much brighter place because of British research chemist William Henry Perkin, who was born in London in 1838. Aged just 18 he started trying to synthesize quinine, which was used for the treatment of malaria. Instead he came up with the synthetic dye aniline purple, also known as mauveine.
His accidental discovery resulted in the first mass-produced artificial dye, which he named mauve.
The fact that you could make colour in a factory from chemicals rather than insects or plants was a revelation, says Simon Garfield, author of Mauve, which details Perkin's life and work.
"It was an astonishing breakthrough. This was something truly valuable because previously this shade could only be obtained from Mediterranean shellfish, and it took an awful lot of them to make a ballgown. Soon dyers in Germany learnt how to produce a rainbow of colours."
He was quick to realise the commercial potential of his discovery. In 1857 he obtained a patent and set up a business manufacturing aniline purple. Mauve became all the rage with the fashion industry and Perkin became the acknowledged expert on artificial dyes. He also became a very wealthy man.
Invented haute couture
While Paris is considered the home of haute couture, it was a Briton who taught the French what it was all about. Lincolnshire-born Charles Frederick Worth is widely regarded as the "father of haute couture".
Born in 1825 in Bourne, he worked in the UK before moving to Paris in 1845. Starting at a well-known Parisian drapers, he ended up establishing a dressmaking department for the company. His success resulted in him opening his own fashion house in 1858 called the House of Worth.
Worth created the template for fashion houses as we now know them. Known for his expert fitting and use of expensive materials, he created the first luxury brand and dressed celebrities of his day.
His was one of the first fashion houses to start showcasing designs at fashion shows, which he put on several times a year. Previously, dressmakers largely made what the customer asked for but Worth decided on his designs. He is also widely credited as the first designer to put labels in his designs and extend his name to perfume. Such luxury brands are now a global industry estimated to be worth £70bn by Verdict Research.
The House Of Worth shut down its couture operations in 1956 - concentrating on its perfume line. It was revived in the early 2000s and now includes Lady Gaga among its customers.
The likes of rapper Nicki Minaj have a lot to thank Lady Lucy Duff-Gordon for. Known as Lucile, she was one of the first people to champion individualism in fashion.
Born in London in 1863, she became a leading fashion designer in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, shocking society with her radical outfits - particularly her lingerie.
"Rather than the idea of following trends that are applicable to everyone, her manner of design was to assess your character first and your dress was designed accordingly," says fashion historian and trend forecaster Amber Butchart.
"It was from the inward out, rather than a system being imposed on you in the form of fashion trends."
She dressed Edwardian high society and developed a following of glamorous and influential women wanting a bespoke "personality dress" designed for them. They included Queen Mary and the Queen of Spain.
Along with Worth, she was among the first designers to train professional fashion models and stage catwalk-style shows. The House of Lucile became one of the first global fashion brands, with boutiques in Paris, New York, Chicago and London.
"She was very revolutionary," says Lady Duff-Gordon's great, great, grand-daughter Camilla Blois, who revived the label this year and is about to launch its first lingerie collection.
"Her designs shocked, but also intrigued. They were creations that had never been seen before. They were all about the individual."
The spinning jenny's contribution to the Industrial Revolution is well documented. It, along with inventions like the flying shuttle, paved the way for mass production and factory working.
But the cotton weaver from Lancashire who invented it is not a household name.
The spinning jenny was created by James Hargreaves in about 1764. Born in Oswaldtwistle in 1720, he worked as a carpenter and a weaver. With no formal education, it is said that he could not read or write.
He came up with the idea of a spinning wheel that could spin many threads at once, instead of just one.
His invention is said by some to have been named after his daughter, who was using a traditional single-spinning wheel when her father had his eureka moment.
It was revolutionary because it reduced the amount of work needed to produce yarn.
It marked the transition from domestic spinning to mechanised spinning mills, one of the driving forces of the Industrial Revolution.
Workers were able to work eight or more spools at once on the original spinning jenny. This grew to over 100 as the technology advanced.
Making black the 'it' colour
Few colours are considered more consistently stylish in the world of fashion than black.
But before Coco Chanel made it "the" colour to wear in the 1920s, Queen Victoria was instrumental in bringing black into mainstream fashion, say historians.
When her beloved husband Albert died suddenly in 1861, Victoria went into mourning until her death 40 years later.
Overwhelmed by grief, she wore black mourning clothes until she died in 1901 at the age of 81.
In previous eras the colour had been in fashion for periods. The Spanish introduced black into English courts in the 16th Century, says Butchart. But the early Victorians mainly associated black with mourning.
But as Victoria continued to wear it, the colour started to be adopted by the mainstream as a fashionable colour. Black accessories, such as jet brooches and necklaces, became popular and a whole industry developed to meet demand.
"Coco Chanel really popularised black as a fashion in the early 1920s, but it was kick started by Queen Victoria," says Butchart.