The Queen of couture
- Credit: Archant
From Mick Jagger to Rudolf Nureyev, Petula Clark to the Princess of Wales, Caroline Charles is celebrating 50 years of dressing the stars with a new book. Katie Jarvis went to meet her
Moreover, this book is a history. A history of ourselves. Not only who we were; but who we worshipped. Mick Jagger, who went out with Caroline’s receptionist Chrissie Shrimpton, is pictured wearing an arty Caroline Charles-designed corduroy suit. “He wasn’t so famous when he first started taking Chrissie out. We just thought he was a nice skinny boy who sang a bit,” Caroline says.
“And we had great fun dressing Ringo. He used to be the Beau Brummell of the day. He got married to Maureen – they were both lovely - in one of our suits. It was made from Savile Row material, but with a big collar.”
There’s Cilla in demure (for now, but with slightly daring neckline-and-hem for the times) cotton lace, soft wool and silk crepe. Princess Margaret (“We chatted about the ballet, the steel workers’ strike and her mother.”) The unforgettable vignette of the Princess of Wales arriving to choose her clothes (including that tartan suit she wore at the Braemar Games, the summer after her wedding), giggling with her lady-in-waiting Anne Beckwith-Smith. Or the proud British moment when Emma Thompson collected her Oscar for Howards End in a Caroline Charles exquisitely-beaded bodice and wide pyjama trousers: “She did look marvellous”.
It’s hard to prise celebrity memories out of Caroline – discretion is her byword. Though one does get the feeling that some (Barbra Streisand? Petula Clark?) may have been more demanding than others. “Rudolf Nureyev? I met him at a nightclub called the Ad Lib, where this very moody, gorgeous dancer was sort of slumped. I can’t remember how we got talking. You could hardly hear yourself think, never mind talk, but somehow we did. He had a very wonderful manager, who was a ballet dancer herself with the classic tight black hair tied in a bun; and she described what he wanted made which, I’m ashamed to say, was a fur coat. But he came from a cold climate and, in those days, I hadn’t signed up for ‘no fur’ – I hadn’t thought about it because you didn’t really, then. He was an interesting character.”
We meet in Cheltenham, where she’s publicising her book in her low-key way. She looks marvellous herself, dressed head-to-toe in her collection: black and white striped knitwear; black and white spot-print scarf; black cardigan jacket; black narrow-tailored trousers. “I’m constantly in black and white; it can take colour a bit,” she says. (Hence the beautiful red swing coat with beaded buttons with which she later braves the cold outdoors.)
You can’t help but feel envious – not only of her willowy frame on which her clothes fit so beautifully, but because she was there; there at the epicentre of the youthquake that changed the world: the Swinging Sixties. Did it feel like a watershed?
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“It did,” she says. “It did because the late 50s, just after the war, was a time when people were beginning to get interested in things that had not previously been affordable. So by the time the 60s came, and one or two people like Mary Quant put out pointers to being younger and sharper and fresher, people were ready. There wasn’t a sort of rudeness to the previous generation but there definitely was a feeling that this was different. Now whether every generation feels that, I don’t know.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Caroline Charles would find her future in fashion, brought up in a family where clothes strictly denoted who you were and what you were doing. “There was always an importance placed on manners and clothing: Were you wearing the right thing for the right occasion? Was that outfit ‘becoming’? as was my mother’s favourite word. And it wasn’t anything to do with money because you could change the buttons on anything, for example. It was just a stylish background for me to grow up in, so that was fortunate.”
Her mother had enjoyed a glamorous upbringing, dotting between London, Paris and Cairo. And though Caroline’s own childhood meant boarding school – with her father’s career as a soldier, the family was constantly on the move – she spent a deal of time with her paternal grandmother: another significant muse. “She was a marvellous woman - tall and good looking - who loved those very discreet clothes which, today, would be made by Armani’s couture house; in those days, she had Victor Stiebel. She would have her gloves made and her hats fitted. Really old-style. Lovely.
“She lived in the South of France in the winter, with a flat in St James’s. And she’d ridden to hounds for years in Leicestershire – all those sorts of Nancy Mitford things. But she was a fantastically practical woman and fun.”
Did she live to see her granddaughter’s success?
“She did a bit. Enough to know. But they [the family] would presume that you were going to do well. They wouldn’t be surprised, which is rather encouraging.”
That subsequent career, lightly detailed in her book (which is packed with illustrations), may not have surprised her family; but it’s astounding to read about. Despite her desire to study in Paris, Caroline was turned down – simply because, at 16, she was too young. Instead, it was Swindon Arts School that received this bright young pupil: “We didn’t really do fashion at all there, but I learned to draw, so thank you, Swindon!”, followed by an internship with couturier Michael Sherard. A whole year without pay meant evenings dressmaking to afford the rent – a demanding but vital apprenticeship. After time as a Mary Quant salesgirl (“my heroine to this day”), Caroline branched out on her own – to astonishing success. Aged just 22, she was the subject of a laudatory Observer article, detailing how she had taken the US by storm. Presciently, the article notes that this young girl could well stay at the top for the next 50 years.
It was the beginning of a whirlwind. That first US tour of 36 shows in 16 major cities was a measure of things to come. “I did lose a lot of weight,” she admits. “It was slight madness. We did interviews in the middle of swimming pools on rafts, before being herded into some TV studio and trying to remember which city you were in. From Swindon Arts School, it was a bit of a big jump.”
There were photoshoots on submarines – “It was terrifying; the waves were getting more and more choppy and the weather worse and worse” – and the awful moment when the first samples from an entire collection were stolen in a break-in. She writes about designing for companies such as M&S and Boots, which helped the often fragile finances, though the strictures were somewhat different from high-end fashion: one particular organisation specified the size of pockets so that less scrupulous employees couldn’t waltz off with extra booty. She also broke into the international scene, seemingly with an ease that belies the years of travel and backbreaking work. The Japanese were especially receptive, as well as generous: “It’s so lovely being able to turn left when you get onto an aeroplane,” she laughs.
As to current issues, she professes herself puzzled by the zero-size debate. “Girls used to be five-foot-nine with a 35-inch hip and they are now six-foot with 32-inch hips. I’m no medical expert but something is definitely occurring in their diet or their genes to create these very, very tall girls. They’re not all Russians and they’re not all Brazilians – sometimes they’re English. But I don’t think it’s very good for a woman to have such narrow hips.”
So where does the pressure to be so slim originate?
“Actually, I’m not sure this pressure exists at all. I think it’s something people make up because dress designers need girls who have a reasonably balanced body. Photographers, I suppose, need the skinnier the better because the camera enlarges the body; but most photographers are pretty easy-going people, who are much more interested in the lighting – and quite right.
“I definitely like girls to eat up and not be too skinny.”
As to current trends, she’s ambivalent on the longevity of a nation’s obsession with “jeggings, leggings, drainpipes – whatever they’re called – they don’t seem to be able to be swept away easily. I’m not mad about it. I don’t find it very decorative.”
If she could dress anybody alive today, she says she’d choose Mrs Obama, Mrs Cameron, Mrs Merkel. “I’d really like to do clothes for all three. They’re all so different and I admire all three so much. Samantha Cameron is a wonderful shape. Everything about her is charming.”
Yes, you can see that. All three, certainly, embody the mood of Caroline’s latest collection, autumn/winter 13, which exudes confidence, contemporaneity, versatility, in pink, purple, ruby, rose, emerald green, cobalt blue, bronze, ‘elephant’ and, of course, black. Eye-catching prints. Renaissance on velvet. Architectural, graphic lines.
It’s why we still love Caroline Charles, 50 years on. Clothes that complement the woman; and a personality that combines self-belief with modesty, instilled by a mother who knew the rules.
“In my family, you were not allowed to walk into the room wearing something so terrific that everybody turned round and stared,” she laughs.
Quite. But what she fails to add is that, for the last half century, women wearing Caroline Charles have been walking into rooms feeling exactly that. Terrific.ki
Caroline Charles, 50 Years in Fashion, the diaries, scrapbooks of a leading London designer, hardback £45 from www.antiquecollectorsclub.com
For the latest Caroline Charles collection, visit the store at The Courtyard, Montpellier St, Cheltenham GL50 1SR, 01242 578111; www.carolinecharles.co.uk
This article by Katie Jarvis is from the 2013 Christmas edition of Cotswold Life
For more from Katie Jarvis, follow her on Twitter: @katiejarvis