So Paul Poiret mentions Maison Redfern in a list of great Parisian couture houses of the 1890s. Well that’s something. From that one reference, I was off to the races. I mean Redfern is usually the only name mentioned along side Charles Frederick Worth (considered the father of haute couture as we know it) so he must be more significant than just an English dressmaker. Here is what I discovered along the way.
John Redfern was an English tailor who first established a name for himself on the Isle of Wight. His claim to fame was designing women’s sports wear in the 1870s. And by 1881 he had shops (or salons) in London and Paris. His son Ernest supervised the London location while Charles Poytner supervised the Paris branch. In 1888 Redfern was named the official dressmaker for Queen Victoria.
No surprise Redfern had such luck with clients. When you are appointed dressmaker for Queen Victoria, you might get a few of her relatives to buy your gowns as well! In addition to the Queen, Maison Redfern counted among its clientele the Princess of Wales (later Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII), Queen of Denmark (Louise of Hesse-Kassell), Queen of Portugal (Maria Pia of Savoy), Tsarina Maria of Russia, and Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt (later Tsarina Alexsandra of Russia) .
The above two paragraphs were cobbled together over months (if not years of research). And for this blog post, I conceded the actual text from my thesis (more later). And I used eight sources to make sure the facts were correct. Eight sources to confirm information is overkill even for a historian (three is the rule). But so little information was out there about Redfern, I wanted to make sure that I was getting it right. One of the reasons for the reboot of all this research is that so much has evolved in the last 15 years. The majority of my initial research into Redfern was done between 2001 and 2005. And because my thesis was on Katherine Carson Breckinridge primarily and not Maison Redfern, I had to limit my Redfern research path.
Not only were my printed sources limited but my internet options were laughable in 2003. As I’ve mentioned previously, an internet search for Redfern, John Redfern or Maison Redfern didn’t give me much information. In my original bibliography for my “Chasing the Dress” paper (spring 2001), I cite three websites: a faculty page from the University of Washington (no longer active), the Costume Gallery’s Research Library, and the Museum of Costume in Bath, England (now Fashion Museum Bath). I have no idea what I found there because they are listed in the bibliography that I turned into my professor to show her what I was looking at and were never cited in the actual paper. And I visited both sites for this post. Costume Gallery doesn’t have a search feature and Fashion Museum Bath has no records when you search for the word Redfern. The final “Chasing the Dress” paper cites The Redfern Gallery‘s website. I remember this website vividly. It is an art gallery located in the building originally inhabited by Maison Redfern in London. Back in 2001 they had a lovely section about Redfern on their website but no longer.
Now if you google Redfern or John Redfern, you get a Wikipedia page plus dozens of personal blogs or museum collection sites with photos and tidbits about this creations. But there are still missing pieces. For a fashion designer whose name is often uttered in the same breath as Charles Frederick Worth, very little is know about Redfern.
For Redfern research phase 2, I thought I’d revisit my original secondary sources. Maybe I missed something back then that makes more sense now or didn’t seem relevant at the time. But most of that stuff is in a storage unit and I need to wait until the craziness of the holiday is over before bring tubs of beautifully organized binders into my small house!
So in the meantime, let’s tackle what’s been published since 2005 about late 19th/early 20th century fashion or haute couture.
One of the coolest finds of my public library research was a DVD entitled The Story of Fashion with Karl Lagerfeld. It appeared when I did a WorldCat subject search for Redfern, John. And the library I work at just happened to own a copy. It couldn’t hurt, right?
This documentary is from the early to mid-1980s but wasn’t put to DVD until 2010. Well in the first 20 minutes of Disc 1 (3 Discs in total), Mr. Lagerfeld not only answers some long unanswered questions about early couture stitching  but he states that Maison Redfern exhibited at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair. He explains that the Exposition Universelle had a pavilion devoted to “the new fashion of Paris couturiers.” Lagerfeld specifically mentions Redfern and the documentary goes on to say that Redfern was an Englishman known for hunting and walking clothes whose tailored, simple designs were significant for the time. 
Didier Grumbach’s History of International Fashion, published 2014, has two reference to Redfern and three references to Charles Poynter Redfern (although pages are same in two instances). On page 22 with the section heading Charles Poynter Redfern, Grumbach states that “despite the rivalry between France and Great Britain, couturiers settled on either side of the Channel. It was even considered in good taste and recommended to open a subsidiary in London if one was Parisian. or vice-versa.” He goes on to say about Redfern
“an English tailor established in London and Paris, whose talent ranged from Anglo-Saxon distinction to ‘Parisian chic’ was the first to offer the ‘skirt suit’ in 1885, then the ‘tailored coat’ inspired by the severe cut of gentleman’s clothing. While he excelled at sober, British-style garments for which he became famous, he was also one of the most sought-after theatrical costume designers.”
In his conclusion Grumbach again references Redfern but only by name and as a reference to grand history of fashion. In his commentary on the future of haute couture, Grumbach states that “the fashion pendulum is constantly swinging from London to Milan, finding its balance in Paris.” He lists Redfern as one in a long line of “couturier-createurs” who “joyfully exult the transformations of fashion.” Along side Worth, Grumbach places Redfern with modern couturiers such as Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano.
Lucy Johnston’s 19th Century Fashion in Detail is the first secondary source with real information on Maison Redfern by featuring an example of one of their bodices. Aside from being an amazing book that anyone interested in nineteenth century fashion and/or costume should own, it is a great reference to all the little details of these intricate creations. Johnston’s mention of Redfern refers to his innovation in what we would now call sportswear. (Although nineteenth century sportswear was much more refined and formal than the running suit or yoga pants of today.) Most of the secondary sources that refer to Redfern in any detail refer to his groundbreaking transformation of women’s riding habits, cycling garments or walking suits. Johnston states that “Messrs Redfern & Co. made sporting dress that was practical as well as chic.
“Designers including Charles Frederick Worth and Emile Pingat produced some of the most expensive and beautifully made creations in day and evening wear. Low necklines, confections of lace, feathers, flounces, dainty trimmings, swirls of silk chiffon and jeweled embroidery encapsulated femininity. Coats and mantles worn over the top we’re made of equally luxurious materials and decoration, often complementing the colour and textures of the gown. To own a made-to-measure garment from one of the top Paris fashion houses was a sign of wealth and success, and couture houses often stamped their name on the waist tape on the inside of the bodice. Sometimes dressmakers and retailers made copies of Paris designs for their fashionable clientele. Upper-end fashion houses and court dressmaker like Liberty and Redfern marked their garments…”
Johnston details this riding jacket that Redfern made for May Primrose Littledale. In the analysis Johnston outlines the use of braiding in the mid-1880s “inspired by ornamentation on regimental dress as well as the flamboyant hussar designs.” She also cites The Queen magazine’s May 10, 1884 edition praised the Hungarian and the Polish braid styles as striking and handsome.
In Daniel Milford-Cottam’s 2014 Edwardian Fashion, he refers Redfern twice. First as a mention alongside Paquin on page 10, he states “along with the British house of Redfern, Paquin was one of a number of couturiers to have salons in London and Paris by the beginning of the 1900s. This meant that clients did not need to travel internationally in order to purchase Paris gowns.” Then on page 19 he spends a whole paragraph talking about Redfern and late nineteenth century activewear. He states that “Redfern outfits were so stylish that their royal and aristocratic clients wore them as smart daywear.”
Christopher Breward’s Fashion, published in 2003 as part of the Oxford History of Art series, make a single name reference to Redfern in the chapter entitled “Fashion Capitals.” He says “from the turn of the [twentieth century] to the start of the Second World War, while West End dressmaking establishments such as Lucile and Redfern provided adapted versions of Parisian couture for English court presentations and the social round of the Season, ladies’ tailoring firms were producing neat outfits for the shopping spree or the grouse moor.” His endnote is possible the most helpful. He cites Amy de al Haye’s The Cutting Edge: 50 Years of British Fashion and Christopher Sladen’s The Conscription of Fashion “for useful interpretations of English style in this important period.”
In the process of finding all this stuff with one or two references to Redfern, I come across some older books. Ok so this books were published pre-2005 but either they never come up in searches or I couldn’t get a copy at the time.
A Hundred Years of Royal Style by Colin McDowell was published in 1985 and right there under R in the index are 2 references to Redfern. On page 17 is the sketch of Queen Mary in “a sensible walking costume by Redfern.”
Then on page 72 McDowell states “Princess May [later Queen Mary] already had a trousseau, but it had been prepared in December 1881, and quite apart from its unfortunate associations, it was no longer in the height of fashion. It was replaced by a new trousseau that was elaborate, costly and all-English, having been provide by Linton and Curtis, Scott Adie, and Redfern.”
In Mary Brooks Picken and Dora Loues Miller’s Dressmakers of France: The Who, How, and Why of the French Couture (published in 1956), Redfern is mentioned in reference to other designers. First in the section about Paul Poiret (the guy who made the list that gave me my first tip of Redfern’s importance), the authors state that Poiret started his career as sketch maker “as so many designers in our era began, to houses like Doucet, Worth, Rouff, Paquin, and Redfern.” And again Redfern is mentioned in the section on Robert Piguet, who started his career working for Redfern. Pickens and Miller note that “[Piguet]’s first employment was as a modelliste with Redfern, and he later went to Poiret.”
And then on page 77 there it is! A whole section on Redfern. It’s really TWO paragraphs but beggars can’t be choosers, right? The paragraphs are in a section entitled “Names Worthy of Remembering” and Doucet, Lucile, and Mainbocher are included as well. The two paragraphs are as follows
“This house was established n 1881 at 242, rue de Rivoli. Later Redfern established himself in London and New York. He was more popular with the English than with the Americans. He had a real flair for the theater and is reported to have lost money designing for this medium which appealed to him so much. Many look back with nostalgia to his Greek-type costumes designed for Mary Garden. He also designed for Sarah Bernhardt, and it is said that he had a part in redesigning the mousquetaire sleeve which was often called, in its modified form, the Bernhardt sleeve.
He was a rather “rough and ready” type, preferring outdoor activities to indoor, but he had taste and knew how a pretty woman should dress to make herself even prettier.”
In Kings of Fashion written by Any Latour and published in 1958, Redfern appears in the table of contents (what!!!) and gets a whole page and a half dedicated to him!!!! Unfortunately the book isn’t indexed (!!!!) so I’ll have to read the whole thing or at least skim most of it to see if Redfern is mentioned any more. But for the purpose of this post, I’ll just take the page and a half thank you very much!
In the chapter entitled “Haute Couture on the Stage,” the section on Redfern details the start of the firm and the opening of the Paris salon in 1881. The author states that John Redfern started in the house in 1824 and “for years had been dressmaker to the aristocracy and included Queen Victoria among his regular patrons.” She also differentiates between John Redfern and Charles Poynter
Latour provides tidbits that I’ve never seen before. She claims that Redfern employed a staff of five hundred in their Paris salon by 1892. She also contends that “it was soon considered chic to be dressed à l’ Anglaise by Redfern” and that he affected “strong English accent” and behaved as English “in manner as possible.” She quotes an unnamed comtemporary of Redfern’s who described him “as cool as an Englishman and capable of a Frenchman’s enthusiasm.”
Finally my husband (two historians in one family can be very useful) found a thesis/ dissertation about Redfern listed in WorldCat. It seems to have been written by Susan Frances North for her Master’s Degree at the University of London Courtauld Institute of Art. Unfortunately no libraries are listed as having a copy. Odd?!?! Tried ILL from CALS and they confirmed that it “does exist in any library.” Bummer! Well maybe by putting this out there, the author or someone familiar with the author will contact me. I’ve always been a big believer in if you put it out the universe…
I’m waiting on a few more secondary sources to come from other libraries. And then on to any primary sources I can track down!
Jane Ashelford, The Art of Dress: Clothes and Society, 1500-1914 (New York: Abrams, 1996), 266; Charlotte Mankey Calasibetta, Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion (New York: Fairchild Books, 1998), 654; Georgina O’Hara Callan, The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Fashion and Fashion Designers (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998), 199; Stephanie Davies, Costume Language: A Dictionary of Dress Terms (Malvern, England: Cressrelles Publishing Company Limited, 1994), 127; Georgina O’Hara, The Encyclopaedia of Fashion (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1986), 211; R. Turner Wilcox, The Dictionary of Costume (New York: Scribner’s, 1969), 96.
Lagerfeld states that early Worth gowns were poorly made. He explains that they were made in one day or afternoon because they were costume party dresses commissioned on very short notice. He compares them to stage clothes or costumes in their construction. He goes on to explain that it wasn’t until the 1880s/1890s when Worth’s son took over the shop that everything was made to perfection. Lagerfeld described these later creations by saying the “inside [was] more astonishing than [the] outside.”
Grumbach, Didier. History of International Fashion. Northhampton, Massachusetts: Interlink Books, 2014 cites Boucher, François. Histoire du costume en Occident: de l’antiquité à nos jours. [Paris]: Flammarion, 1969.
In 1891 Princess May was engaged to Prince Albert Victor, the oldest son of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VI), but he died six weeks after the engagement was announced in the 1889-90 influenza pandemic. Queen Victoria was very fond of May and encouraged her engagement to Albert Victor’s brother, Prince George. They were married in July 1893.
Picken, Mary Brooks, Dora Loues Miller, Claire Valentine, and Patricia Rowe Waters. Dressmakers of France: The Who, How and Why of French Couture. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956. According to Historical Dictionary of the Fashion Industry by Francesca Sterlacci and Joanne Arbuckle, a modelliste is employed by a couturier to “assist with the creation of the design, fabric, and trims.” Sterlacci, Francesca, and Joanne Arbuckle. Historical Dictionary of the Fashion Industry. 2017. <http://site.ebrary.com/id/11406968>, 222.
The fashion house is usually referred to as simply Redfern and many assume that the head designer is Redfern. But in fact scholars disagree on the name of the man in charge of the actual design. Most agree that a man named John Redfern originally established the house on the Isle of Wight in England but some scholars believe that Charles Poynter was John Redfern’s son and other believe the two men were not related. More on this later.