Sixty years ago, it was the talk of the country: a catwalk so lavish and starry, it would give today’s London Fashion Week a run for its money. And the British Red Cross had a front-row seat.
Sixteen models strut through the corridors of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire – past the marble statues, tapestries and keen faces of British royalty.
Move over Harry Styles and Alexa Chung – sitting on the front row of this fashion show were the lofty likes of Princess Margaret and socialite Lady Astor.
In fact, it was a moment that prompted The Telegraph to gush: “Paris came to Blenheim by air and rail…in a cloud of Dior perfume.”
So why did it cause such a stir?
A ‘New look’ for Britain
When Christian Dior was invited to the UK (by royalty, no less) to reveal his new winter collection, the country fell about in raptures.
The average British woman would not have worn anything like a Dior dress – which had been dubbed the ‘New look’ a few years earlier.
The Blenheim Palace show offered a chance to see the new ‘H-line’ frocks that filled many magazine columns. These had a nipped-in waist, flattened chest, emphasis on the hips, and usually a very full skirt.
Years of food rationing and clothing coupons had recently ended – but it still must have been a shock to see so much fabric stitched into just one garment.
These clothes catapulted the country into fantasy and escapism, after years of war and austerity. No wonder everyone was hooked.
Red Cross turns chic
Anyone could pay to attend the Dior fashion show – and every guinea went to the British Red Cross.
This was all thanks to Mary, Duchess of Marlborough.
Blenheim Palace was then the home of her daughter. After chatting it over, the Duchess travelled to Paris with the specific intention of persuading Dior to bring over his collection to raise money for charity.
For her date with Dior, the Duchess dressed in a Red Cross uniform. According to the designer, this outfit suited “the chic of her tall figure”.
When word got back that the show was happening, the Red Cross wrote excitedly: “Blenheim Palace has entertained the most illustrious men and women, and the greatest artists and master designers of the last two centuries.”
World’s biggest controversy
On the day itself, the catwalk ran through a large library, two lounges and three state rooms.
Apparently, the models walked three miles through the palace. We hope they wore sensible shoes.
People packed into the rooms – including lines of Red Cross nurses – to glimpse the ‘H-line’. As the narrator in the video above states (with some lovely overstatement): “H for horrid or heavenly? It’s the world’s biggest controversy.”
However, the dazzling spectacle soon distracted the crowd. One standout moment came with a creation called Peru: “a yellow satin coat lined with fur, over a jewel dress that took 600 hours to embroider.”
The catwalk raised £8,000: around £190,000 in today’s money.
Dressing the Queen
Maybe the Dior show inspired us to review our Red Cross outfits.
That same year, leading fashion designer Norman Hartnell gave our uniform a bit of a makeover.
Hartnell was known for his work with the royal family and aristocracy. Two of his biggest moments were dressing the Queen for her coronation and wedding.
The Red Cross uniform had to be easily and quickly made, en masse – so it didn’t quite have the same level of detail or frills. But it was certainly stylish, as well as practical – and it stayed in vogue until 1966.
Today, the Red Cross still has big links with the fashion world, which often helps us raise money – from pop-up shops to Victoria Beckham handing over her glad rags. It’s good to see that fundraising hasn’t gone out of fashion.
Still, it’s unlikely you’ll see any Red Cross-inspired clothes on the London catwalk this weekend.
These days, we’re more about fleece and waterproofs.