Curator’s Choice: Madame Clapham Ball Gown

Posted: 21st May 2021

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice: Madame Clapham Ball Gown

Emily Maria McVitie was born in Cheltenham in 1856. She left school at an early age to become a nurse, however, she decided to leave for Scarborough in North Yorkshire to complete a dressmaking apprenticeship at the Marshall and Snelgrove department store. She started by picking pins up from the floor and gained a thorough training in the dressmaking trade. She had a good eye for fashion and colour, instinctively knowing which style and colour would suit a client, and she combined this with good business sense. She went into business with her husband Haigh Clapham, a clerk from Wakefield, in 1887 investing their savings and purchasing Number 1 Kingston Square in Hull to open their own dressmaking salon.

Kingston Square was a respectable address in Hull. Just across the square from the salon, dances and social gatherings took place at the city’s Assembly Rooms. This supported the business in attracting high society ladies both from the local area and further afield.

Madame Clapham’s reputation as a fine dressmaker was at its height from 1890 until the outbreak of the First World War. This was an era of strict dress codes and many social engagements including race meetings, balls, and dinner parties. In the 1890s the salon was so successful that Madame Clapham purchased Number 2 Kingston Square in 1891, and Number 3 in around 1912.

Madame Clapham became well known for her attention to detail and exclusive designs, though she would rarely produce a design from scratch, preferring to purchase fashion plates for inspiration. She would take aspects of these and put them together to create her own designs. She would then choose the right colour, cut, finish and trimmings to personally suit her client and create a unique and exclusive dress. Finally, her team of dressmakers would craft her designs into dresses of stunning quality.
As Madame Clapham’s reputation grew, she received many orders for dresses for clients to wear when they were presented at court during the “coming out” season. Madame Clapham added the title of ‘Court Dressmaker’ to her salon’s labels in 1901 as a mark of her highly regarded reputation.

Madame Clapham became so successful that the dresses her salon was producing were considered ‘good enough’ for London, identifying Hull as a leading fashion centre.
Advertisements for Madame Clapham’s salon were rare as she much preferred to rely on reputation and quality, resulting in favourable and personal recommendations from her clients. She was soon designing dresses for Hilda Grotrian, who was the daughter-in-law of Sir James Reckitt, of Reckitt & Sons Ltd, as well as many other well-respected members of the community.

This ball gown was made by Madame Clapham and is made of mauve and cream silk brocade. The bodice is heavily decorated satin, sequins, pearl beads and silver thread. It was worn by Marian Richardson who was married to Councillor Charles Richardson, Mayor of Hull in the 1890s. Marian stood for election herself in 1909. She was deeply committed to social issues including a municipal milk supply, improved sanitation, lodging houses for poor women, education for the poor and free lunches for children. She strongly supported the Victoria Hospital for Sick Children on Park Street.

Many of Madame Clapham’s early successful connections came through the patronage of one of her most loyal customers, Miss Muriel Wilson who lived at Tranby Croft in Anlaby. She was the daughter of Arthur Wilson who co-owned the largest privately owned shipping company in the world, and she was considered a leader of local fashion. Muriel’s wedding in 1917 was broadcast, complete with photos, in the national news – and Madame Clapham designed the bridal attire. Muriel was influential in getting Madame Clapham’s salon mentioned within aristocratic and royal circles.

Madame Clapham’s most famous client was Queen Maud of Norway, who was Edward VII of England’s daughter. She became Queen in 1905 when her husband, the Prince of Denmark, accepted the offer of the Norwegian crown. Though Queen Maud was never a fashion leader, she was stylish and admired for her 18-inch waist.

Another royal client was Princess Daisy of Pless. Pless was a former duchy in what is now modern-day Poland. In 1891 she married Prince Hans Heinrich, fifteenth Prince of Pless and head of one of the wealthiest royal families in Europe. Madame Clapham provided Princess Daisy with a theatrical outfit in 1904.

The First World War had a big impact on Madame Clapham’s business as it resulted in a decline for the exquisite dresses of the earlier years. Attitudes and social codes changed after the war and women gained a greater degree of freedom and the ability to purchase off the peg designs at more affordable prices. Madame Clapham still created evening dresses in the new styles and expanded into corsetry and under garments to fit under certain dresses, but she struggled to adapt her elaborate designs to the simplified post-war fashions of the 1920s.

The Second World War had an even bigger impact on the Clapham Salon and nearly caused it to close. Rationing made fabrics expensive and scarce, and many employees were made redundant or went to serve the war effort. The business did pick up after the War but the demand for made-to-measure outfits declined. By this time Emily Clapham was elderly and used an ear trumpet to assist her hearing.

Madame Clapham died at the age of 96 on the 10th January 1952 at her home at Southwood, South Street, in Cottingham and was buried in Cottingham cemetery. Emily Wall, Madame Clapham’s niece and employee continued Madame Clapham’s legacy at Number 3 Kingston Square under her aunt’s name until 1967.

Written by Community Curator: Social History, Lauren Field