Val St Cyr and Baroque Ltd
Val St Cyr as the house of Baroque was a major force in the dress-designing world of London in the Jazz Age and beyond. Long forgotten and ignored, Val St Cyr’s work was nevertheless magnificent and was characterized by being original, idiosyncratic, innovative and daring.
Val St Cyr was born Arthur Andrews Hilder in Chartham, Kent, on 1st November 1890 the son of Edward Gorham Hilder (a railway booking clerk) and his wife Emma Elizabeth, He had an older brother (Edward), an older sister (Constance) and three younger siblings – Arthur, Muriel and Geoffrey.
On 23rd April 1900, his father, the stationmaster at Sandling Junction station, near Maidstone, was killed in a railway accident. The family were living at the time at 80 Effingham Road, Lewisham and Arthur was admitted to Hither Green School on 24th September 1900. By 1911 he was living at 56 Mt. Pleasant Road in Lewisham (with his mother and three siblings) and working as a clerk for a shipping company.
He later claimed that while at school he was illustrating school stories and then in his early teens went on the stage. He had also developed a keen interest in dress designing and at the age of 15 (in 1905) decided what his career should be. He had never had a drawing lesson in his life but began designing dresses with such skill and an attractive and original a style that he had no difficulty in getting his drawings published in well-known papers and magazines. To further his experience he decided to visit Paris to study cutting and draping with a well-known French expert, before returning home. When and why he adopted the nom de plume of Val St Cyr is not known, but it was in evidence at an early date and certainly before 1918.
Much later, when his work began attracting interest, he decided to take up fashion designing as his sole profession. He was secured by Madame Elizabeth Handley-Seymour, one of the major society dressmakers in London and began working as one her fashion designers. There are a series of designs by Val St Cyr now in the V&A Archive and attributed to the period 1915-1918. His designs were neat, colourful and expressive, but clearly followed the prevailing modes of the period of the First World War with some direct copies of the Parisian couturier Paul Poiret. Interestingly, there are no accounts of why St Cyr was not drafted into the war effort since he would have been 24 when war broke out in 1914.
Several costume designs by Val St Cyr for handbags were sold at Sothebys and may attest to a contribution to one of the major Parisian Music halls at about this time, although no confirmed credit can be found in any programmes or archival documents.
By 1918 some of his activities were being recorded and in March 1918 he won a prize at a charity fancy dress ball in Reading town hall. After the Great War, St Cyr had a studio in Woodstock Street, Mayfair, London not far from Bond Street and in January 1919 he gave a party at home. He was described as a ‘young designer of beautiful costumes’ and his taste for colour was revealed by some of the draperies of his female figures but also in his charming interior décor. He was clearly a man about town and fond of the nocturnal delights of London and it was noticed that at various dance functions he had shown that men could have clothes that were ‘becoming though fanciful.’
In August 1919 Val St Cyr became house designer for a newly formed private company created to become a provider of theatrical dresses, costumes and scenery. Based at 60 Chandos Street, it was formed by the actress Gwladys Violet Gibbons and the theatrical producer Edmund Lewis Waller with a capital of £10,000. According to the Tatler, the world and his wife were visiting the establishment to admire St Cyr’s work. We are told that ‘although the pannier and crinoline were artistically represented’ St Cyr preferred the modes with the Directoire and Grecian influence. He advocated that ‘nothing is more becoming than long graceful lines with perhaps the merest soupcon of the Empire ‘mouvement’.’
One model inspired by a portrait by Velasquez created considerable attention. It was an evening dress with an adorable bodice and a bon-bon pink taffeta skirt mounted on a crinoline and arranged to reveal a silver lace petticoat. In striking contrast was a little frock of the Quaker persuasion carried out in dove-grey taffeta, the corsage supplemented with a fichu of Madeira embroidery.
Another chef d’oeuvre was a study in black and gold with the fourreau (sheath dress) of black charmeuse, while the crinoline overdress was of net strewn with beads and sequins, enriched with a trail of gold ivy leaves. A smallish bodice was of charmeuse piped with gold and a handsome diamond ornament drew attention to the nothingness of the back. There was also a bright orange plisse Georgette and white and gold ribbon strewn with Victorian poses formed the panniers and train with the shoulder straps of cut amber.
By early 1920, Gwladys Gibbons left the company and Lewis Waller’s wife – the actress Marie Blanche – took over and renamed the business in her name. It was under the personal supervision of the manageress Madame Alexander and they were vigorous in their advertising and made it clear that Val St Cyr not only created exclusive designs for day and evening gowns but also dressed stage and film productions.
One major assignment was that Val St Cyr designed all the gowns for Maurice Elvey’s film At the Villa Rose released by Stoll in 1920 and executed by Marie Blanche. Elvey discussed the rationale of the costuming and said that a lot of money was spent on appropriate film costuming but if modern clothes were needed they were often out of date when the film was released. Elvey discussed this problem with Marie Blanche and Val St Cyr and they decided to create dresses of a type so uncommon and unique that they would not date themselves when the film was released.
At the Villa Rose was crime melodrama set on the Riviera and the female cast were dressed with the emphasis on costuming to reflect character. Eva Westlake (Mdme Dauvray) a rich, large and very wealthy lady was dressed in over-the-top gaudy, yet expensive looking attire, almost reminiscent of a later Margaret Dumont. One flamboyant gown had vertical light and dark stripes that was extremely fetching. Joan Beverley (Adele) the sinister kidnapper and thief was shown in an array of glamorous yet slightly sinister vampish outfits. One had an upright fur collar, cuffs and large fur edged pockets. A very elegant, almost menacing black gown for the casino scene had straps and was backless with a flower at the cleavage. Her last outfit had an incredible pleated collar, slit dress at the side with long train at the back. The innocent love interest Manora Thew (Celia) was favourably attired in a range of light feminine outfits that reflected her innocence and frailty.
Elvey clearly practiced what he preached by ensuring that the costumes fitted the drama and enhanced the character of his players. The Daily Graphic said the film looked ‘a mostly costly production with lots of Monte Carlo ultra-fashionable frocks.’
Four designs from the film were used to illustrate the wonderfully fantastic ideas of St Cyr that illustrated the present day and probably the future ideas of women’s dress.
Captions for above image : from left to right
A walking costume of parma violet and grey fur. The quaint little straight bodice with the big buttons at the side and the upstanding collar is charming. The white crepe underdress threaded from the bodice line with a loose hanging ribbon of vivid green with purple ornaments.
A wonderful black gown with front and back apron piece coming high to the neck of black net, hung with jet paillettes. There is a dress with a bodice comprised of a widened belt, yet the jet apron added to this makes a wonderfully striking effect. The glace flounces of the skirt are wired at the edge to give an effect of width and to make more striking the straightness of the stole and the under skirt of black satin has a curious fish tail piece edged with sulphur yellow – this being the only touch of colour in the white scheme.
A little day frock of soft heliotrope charmeuse with hems of apple green and fringes of black fur. The only break in the design is a coral ornament pendant from the green bodice ribbon. Worn by Celia played by Manora Thew
Evening dress worn by Adele of magenta and deep purple with the frills of the skirt carried out right up the front of the corsage and around the throat. The effect is enormously striking as there is no back or sides to the bodice and the magenta belt which slopes down from under the frill and fastens at the back is finished with a large diamond and emerald ornament. In colouring and design it is wonderfully in character with that adventuress.
One wonders if other British silent films made at the same time also had the dresses designed by Val St. Cyr.
One of the first stage shows he did get credit for was costuming Pygmalion at the Aldwych theatre (February 1920) with the costumes executed by Handley Seymour and Marie Blanche. At the time it was revealed that Lewis Waller (Marie Blanche’s husband) had several touring companies in the pipeline with Afgar, Sacred and Profane Love and the pantomime Cinderella. It is perhaps not a foregone conclusion to believe that Val St Cyr and Marie Blanche’s dressmaking establishment was utilized for these and other productions.
St Cyr was indeed credited with costuming the regional tour of C.B. Cochran’s Afgar that started in early 1920, with the dresses being made by Marie Blanche. He was described as being ‘daring but never in-artistic’ and that his dresses for the chorus ladies had wonderful splashes of colour. Miss Thorne (playing Delysia’s part on the tour) was clothed in cloth-of-gold with long apron panels of gold lace, shoulder straps of aquamarine and an apple-green sash and turban.
In September 1920 Val St Cyr designed the sets and colour scheme for The Test Kiss at the Coliseum Theatre with Violet Vanbrugh, an actress he admired. Once again he was described as ‘original and daring’ and his sets were in autumn shades from yellow to burning bronze.
In later press interviews he claimed that he designed several theatrical productions for the continent, the provinces and London. He added that his drawings for the Scala, Copenhagen created a great sensation by their originality. This may have been the production of A Southern Maid that he was definately working on in January 1921 and to be presented in Denmark.
From 1921 until at least 1934 Val St Cyr lived in a flat at 53 New Cavendish Street (Chandos House). In late 1921, Val St Cyr made a bold decision and left Marie Blanche to set up his own business called the House of Baroque with a friend, Ernest Pacey Sands. The company was registered on 19thDecember at 97 New Bond Street and had clearly been the result of months of planning.
Ernest Pacey Sands was born in Rippingale, Lincolnshire in 1890 and made his way to London and by 1911 was a draper’s assistant at Marshall and Snelgrove department store, Oxford Street. He learned every branch of his work and then moved to Peter Robinson and Gorringe’s to become under buyer. On the outbreak of war in 1914 he volunteered and was in the Royal Naval Air Service from October 1915. Sands was a born organizer and a good showman.
St Cyr and Sands had met after the war and both decided to start an artistic and practical wholesale house together since each had complementary experience. One would supply the decorative and imaginative side while the other would contribute sound technical knowledge and business aptitude. They began modestly in two rooms with two helpers but eventually occupied the entire building at 97 New Bond Street. A French woman, Marie Bourgain was initially head fitter at Baroque and when she married and left, her sister Isabelle Bourgain took her place.
In an undated Baroque promotional brochure, Val St Cyr was puffed up to be ‘at once original, daring and artistic,’ which was certainly true. But it was also claimed that he owed ‘nothing to any tradition, either drawing or designing.’ This kind of comment was to be expected but it was not true because like any designer, throughout his career he was not blind to what was going on around him and he was certainly influenced by a host of artistic traditions, fashion styles and trends all of which he utilised. We are also told that his sense of fantasy was ‘remarkable but it has never blinded him to practical considerations.’ His Robes de Fantaisie and Robes de Style became a feature of Baroque where fancy was allied with delicacy and untrammelled imagination. It was made clear that the firm recognized the rapidly increasing menace of standardization and its alarming tendency toward elimination of all individuality and so they consciously decided to make every effort to avoid this.
Val St Cyr claimed that when Albert de Courville produced his show Pins and Needles in New York at the Shubert Theatre in early 1922 (which was a disaster and only ran for a short period of time), he designed the dresses. Sadly no designing credit is given in the show programme but it was stated that the costumes were from a range of costume houses including Max Weldy (in Paris) Mahieu (in New York) and Clarkson (in London). Although no references can be found in the press to attest to St Cyr’s claims is not inconceivable that he was the designer.
In August 1922, Val St Cyr designed a memorable outfit for Violet Vanbrugh at the Coliseum. A wonderful cloak made of some new supple silver material had a crystal-like thread in it and a ruffled collar over an ivory gown whose simplicity was relieved by narrow panels of crystal jet and diamente embroidery from one shoulder.
For a collection in the autumn of 1923 it was revealed that floating panels were to be one of the main features along with the re-emergence of the bustle, described as Du Maurier frock with 4-5 flounces set low on frock train. He had also designed a range of frocks for a wholesale firm.
By 1926, he was rapidly establishing a name in London fashion circles but he did say it had been a struggle because there had been a good deal of opposition. Baroque began exhibiting at the annual Fashion Exhibition held in late 1926 at Holland Park. Their success at the exhibitions was partly attributed to Sands skillful stage management and it was also noted that their annual shows at Gunter’s tearooms were becoming very fashionable.
At the Fashion exhibition in 1926, Val St Cyr’s models had the length of skirts short with the exception of an uneven hem that was allowed to drop at the back. The waistline was regarded as a matter of individual taste and he showed seventeen different waistlines – but all of them were uneven. A novel innovation was an evening gown that Val St Cyr designed inspired by his own dress coat complete with tails. St Cyr said that Paris started the vogue for dinner pajamas and that he merely carried the idea to its logical conclusion with his new dinner dress consisting of a swallowtail coat plus white satin pajamas. The striking dress coat made of black broadcloth was a replica of the swallowtail except that it dropped to the ankles. A vest of white satin was worn with a daring décolleté. It had pockets and a strap and buckle at the back. The trousers were of heavy white satin pajamas, extremely wide at the hem, which gave them the effect of being a dress. They had side pockets and it was belted under the waistband. The ensemble was made to be as graceful and feminine as possible.
At the time he made it clear that he preferred to design a dress to emphasise the individuality of the wearer than to apply the principle of standardization which he felt was the prevailing idea among modistes. The magazine the Sphere claimed that ‘his creations are now worn by well-dressed women in all the four quarters of the globe.’
One significant contribution to the London stage was his dress-designs for the Lew Leslie extravaganza show Whitebirds at His Majesty’s theatre in the summer of 1927. The show was seen as a disaster, with The Stage newspaper saying that it ‘was ‘ornate but stupendously dull and overloaded’ but some of the critics spoke of Val St Cyr’s work as being the only redeeming feature. Although Lady Duff Gordon famous as Lucile, presented a spectacular fashion parade described as ‘brilliant’, St Cyr must have been responsible for many of the other scenes including the lavish In Rose Land, Red Indian costumes in Tomawama Land, Charles Dickens finale to the second half and a Montmartre ballet.
At another Fashion exhibition at Olympia in late 1929 he was described as ‘one of the leading dress designers of the wholesale trade’ and rather provocatively claimed that English designers were a long way behind the Parisians and thought there was little originality. In terms of trends and styles Val St Cyr advocated a definite return to the Princess style of dress and many of his new dresses had the blouse top effect and tightening at the waist to achieve the definite figure line. He said that the previous year in 1928 he tried to introduce the natural figure style by showing princess styles but the figures for women were not suitable at the time. But now women had been adapting to achieve the style. He was also showing evening gowns that actually touch the floor
Through 1929 and 1930 he designed costumes on three London shows: The Middle Watch (Shaftesbury theatre, 1929 executed by Dora Ltd, Laure et Cie), Leave it to Psmith (Shaftesbury theatre, 1930 executed by Dora Ltd) and shared a credit with Norman Hartnell on Lucky Dip (Comedy Theatre, 1930).
In the spring of 1930 St Cyr announced that the vogue of the flapper was long gone and the 1930 Gibson Girl had taken her place. He said that the latest trend was originality and the new styles were ‘everywoman’s’. He added that individuality was the keynote‘it should be possible for a woman to be a mode unto herself this spring. Her clothes should unfailingly reflect her talents, her taste and her type.’He also was quoted as saying that it was chic to be 40 and look 25.
At the London Fashion show at Olympia in late 1930 Val St Cyr predicted that jewelled colourings will flash and gleam through the Autumn and winter seasons – sapphire, ruby, jade, emerald, topaz, both pink and yellow, turquoise and amethyst will vie with one another for popular favour. Some of his new striking designs included sprigged taffeta dresses made in Victoria fashion with puff sleeves and flounced skirts.
At a cocktail party given by Val St Cyr in advance of the London Fashion Exhibition he gave a glimpse of some of his autumn models that included cocktail pyjamas with pink georgette trousers, a brocaded pink and gold lame coat edged with blue and another pyjama suit in heavy black crepe-de-chine with cavalier trousers edge with lace.
He was hailed by The People newspaper as ‘the most successful English dress designer now living’. Described as ‘modest, shy, unassuming and quiet’ his modes in ladies gowns were thought to be ‘voluptuous.’ He was now employing nearly 100 in his Bond Street business and it was stressed that he was English to the backbone in spite of his foreign sounding name. Besides his designing career he revealed that he had just finished a novel and two distinguished literary critics pronounced it to be ‘remarkable’ and he was waiting for it to be. He was also planning to follow up the novel with a play and said that negotiations were underway for this to be staged in the West End. Neither book nor play materialized.
More costume design credits surfaced for Val St Cyr for the London stage in 1931 with The Midshipmaid (Shaftesbury theatre), Make Up Your Mind (Criterion theatre) and Mr Faint Heart (Shaftesbury theatre) with the costumes executed by Dora Ltd.
For the spring of 1931, Val St Cyr announced that his collection would show the distinct influence of the exhibition of Persian art with exquisite colouring and embroidering effects that were subtle rather than blatant in conception, along with the use of the Persian bolero and turban hats. He advocated that soft greens, blues and reds that were so typical of Persian art would become the prevailing tones for spring and summer fabrics. At his midnight dress parade in Bond Street he had a Persian mannequin modeling his Persian range that included a Persian evening gown in old rose and gold brocade. As part of the show, he introduced dresses named after characteristics and attributes of woman. Andrea Mijinska, the famous mannequin with the perfect figure, illustrated in the gowns she wore the numerous characteristics of women – for example charm will be a lace gown and beauty a satin one. Val St Cyr said that ‘ the slim silhouette with a knee flounce has gone and the new line is the pagoda fashion with a hip and ankle flounce. Mostly in stiff silks and waxed laces on net. Patterned material and embroidery will be 1931 fashions.’
One section was called ‘Her infinite Variety,’ which showed the advance of fashion in the past 100 years, 1931 being represented by a mannequin wearing a dinner suit essentially feminine of a broadcloth coat and white waistcoat cut exactly like a man’s dress suit and wide trousers of heavy white satin and a revival of the same concept from 1926. He also revived the feather boa which when wired could be twined around the wrist to form a muff.
1932 Spring fashions were launched at Baroque at a dance parade with mannequins presented to special music. Lauri Devine danced as ‘Eternal Eve’ in a decorative cloak with a high fur collar and embroidery depicting the tree of life with the tree in silver and the foliage in green sequins. Another costume represented a huge palette opening out like wings and showing every colour used in the collection. Novelties included spiral fur trimmings on sleeves, high necked evening dresses and off the shoulder classical frocks that made their wearers look like graceful statues of old.
Some striking examples of Val St Cyr’s autumn 1932 collection.
On the left is a black velvet evening gown with flesh pink satin scarf
Centre is a pannier picture frock in ruby red taffeta
Right is a new Greek dance frock in satin with edging of rose buds
For autumn 1932, Val St Cyr believed that reds will become the new colour and that the most flaming shades of red will be seen for evening wear. He said ‘any woman young or old, fair or dark, can wear some shade of red as long as she has personality and bright eyes.’ His new collection had over 20 shades from ruby, lacquer, Devon red, geranium, coral, cyclamen plum-juice, pansy Victorian magenta. He replaced satin with crushed velvets and ‘crinkled spongy angel skins’ like crinkly crepe. Evening dresses were fur trimmed and colourful and fur evening capes and fur winter coats were prominent often with detachable collars.
In mid-1933, Val St Cyr revealed that there were three types of woman who were responsible for his success in fashion creation. The first was very tall and incredibly slim, with an arresting personality, exemplified by Violet Vanbrugh, who wore clothes in which she was a joy to watch. The long slightly angular lines of her figure were ideally suited to a variety of designs ranging from the classical to the bizarre that could be both dramatic and individual. Her form encouraged daring and the development of experimental fashions shifting the waist-line and changing the silhouette.
The second, was what St Cyr called ‘My Pocket Venus’ – women under 5 feet tall whose diminutive figure was made up for in personality. Often relegated to quaint, demure and dainty fashions she can express both distinction and dignity. Off the shoulder effects with tight fitting bodices, slim or full skirts and Panniers could be striking and effective. St Cyr claimed he had created a vogue for Panniers in the 1920s by using whalebone and steel cages in a series of evening frocks of taffeta and velvet designed for a petite friend.
His third influence was what he called ‘Follow-my-leader’ – the woman who can be depended upon to reflect fashions every whim. This type of woman will follow the latest film star or wear anything so long as everybody favours it. She does not want to express her personality via her attire referring to conform to a mass-production type. She had no desire to be a pioneer.
In August 1933 St Cyr announced that London dress designers were building up a tradition of their own. He said that contrary to the general belief London fashions were not merely slavish copies of the dictates of the Paris couturiere. Although the sartorial strength of Paris was steeped in tradition, which was foolish to disregard, London designers were making fashion history and building up a tradition of their own. He was also somewhat scathing of Hollywood ‘owing to cinema influence and the doubtful taste of certain screen stars and Hollywood designers, there is a danger of over–elaboration in both London and Paris fashions.’
Just before the Baroque Spring Fashion show it was made clear that Val St Cyr was a great psychologist because he was able to anticipate all the varying moods of the modern woman. At a show given at Bobby’s store in Folkestone, Andrea Mijinska was one of the key mannequins, and she wore an outstanding model inspired by the style of dress affected by Lord Byron. Her hostess gown was a magnificent creation in heavy blue satin with a unique white cravat and collar. Miss Bobby the hostess, wore an artistically perfect gown and coatee. The coat was a ¾ cut in a new blue cloth has sleeves over-run with Chinese figurings, whilst the gown in the same material has a bodice of silver brocade
By Spring 1935, St Cyr declared that ‘clothes should be artistically built on classic lines with a dash of romanticism here and there.’ At his dress show he used taffetas, faille and moire in black, navy and dark brown for ensembles consisting of a little jacket or long coat with a skirt of frock of the same material. One of the loveliest evening dresses was of heavy white cloque crepe seamed down the centre front. The wide seams and seams at either side of the short inset train had the merest strip of silver embossed on them. The whole molded the figure to the knees and then swept gracefully into folds at the feet. The neckline was V cut in front and low cut at the back.
One of St Cyr’s signature models in the Spring of 1936 was an exquisite Wedding gown called Heart of a Pearl and had been specially created for the British industries fashion parades at Handley’s in Southsea.
At the Baroque collection in Autumn 1937 there were a dozen kind of skirt but the peacock silhouette with a front dip was the most prominent. Olive and mandarin green, pansy violet and dark dahlia tones predominate. Many Chinese patterns were embroidered on black taffetas or velvet in silver and silks in Oriental colours. A cloque pique dress in white had a delicate floral background in pink, red and gold. Chinese white dresses in heavy pique damask (with a very Victorian feel) had vivid mandarin green velvet sashes. An evening coat in this material had the neck and shoulders smothered in gardenias. There was one dress made of 15 yards of heavy ivory taffetas with trimmings of narrow brown fur. It had a sweeping dip-up line in front showing an accordion pleated petticoat in white chiffon and it flowed into an oval train.
Baroque continued through World War 2 but by 1944 had relocated to 37-38 Margaret Street, Cavendish Square. Perhaps at the same time Val St Cyr moved to 168 Cromwell Road, SW5. In an advert in 1945 the motif of a Baroque Bridal gown was described as glamour and they could be purchased at leading shops and high-class stores.
The House of Baroque continued to provide design services into the early part of the 1960s before its owners sold up and retired. Val St Cyr died 1 November 1967 and left £7,677 in his will. Ernest Pacey Sands died 21 July 1971.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent (two exceptions for images detailed in the text)
The V&A have a collection of designs by Val St Cyr from his early days with Mrs Handley Seymour and dated 1915-18 – click here to view
If anyone has anymore images of Val St Cyr’s work I would be pleased to add them here.
Programmes for Jigsaw, Whitebirds and Pins and Needles (Shubert Archive, New York)
NFT notes for At the Villa Rose
Ancestry, British Newspaper Archive, Baroque brochure (undated)