Tailor's Tale: Fashion's forgotten man, Digby Morton
Who is the greatest Irish fashion export? Philip Treacy, John Rocha, JW Anderson? Possibly, says Maggie Armstrong, but before them came couture's forgotten man Digby Morton
Ask anyone for Irish fashion luminaries of the past, and you'll get names like Sybil Connolly, doyenne of tweed and linen, and Carmel Snow, pioneering editor of 'Harper's Bazaar'.
Almost nobody mentions Digby Morton, who is undoubtedly the counrty's most influential fashion export (until Philip Treacy, Lainey Keogh and the current crop came along).
For three decades – 1930s to 1960s – he was among the top 10 designers in London, where his architectural approach helped change the shape of fashion. Women who like sharp suits and clean tailoring owe him a debt of gratitude.
Morton was a Dubliner, the son and grandson of accountants with Guinness, but after graduating from the Dublin School of Art in 1923, he moved to London. He made his career in Britain and America, which is maybe why he's largely forgotten here.
Having worked in Selfridges and Liberty, he became a sketch artist at Jay's fashion store, sketching Paris designs for clients. In 1928, he was recruited as a designer to a new London couture house, Gray Paulette & Shingleton. He came in on his own terms, using his own staff and designs, and suggested the rebranded name Lachasse, as it sounded chic.
His debut collection was suitably Irish, but with a twist – Ardara tweeds in unusual colour combinations, like pale lime green and duck egg blue with dark brown. Under his expert cutting and tailoring – he reduced decoration to a minimum to allow the cut speak for itself – hitherto stuffy country tweeds became fashionable town wear. His preference for uncluttered design was also reflected in his dislike of evening-wear, which he referred to as "debutante clothes".
In 1934 he set up his own design house under his name in Kensington. It became one of the leading brands for tailored sportswear, which was coming into vogue.
In 1936 he married Phyllis Painting. As 'Anne Seymour', she was editor of 'Woman & Beauty'. During the war, he helped design the uniform for the WRVS. He re-opened his couture house after the war and grudgingly began to introduce evening-wear – but strictly tailored, no meringues.
He was quick to see that couture's days were numbered; the future lay in ready-to-wear. Not all designers could make the transition but Morton had great success. He always said that he felt constrained by couture, and that his real design career began when he started designing clothes for the average woman.
His first success in America came in 1953 when the Hathaway company, manufacturers of top quality men's shirts, asked him to design a women's collection. By copying the cut of men's shirts, with slight adjustments for the female form, Morton created the collection in brilliant colours and patterns, with contrasting bowties. The success of this venture earned him the title of 'Daring Digby' by 'Time' magazine.
In 1957 he closed his London couture house and set up the company Reldan-Digby Morton with Nadler, a large fashion producer, owned by Cyril Kern.
Morton's ready-to-wear designs for Reldan-Digby Morton introduced ready-made garments with a couture image to the British public and were equally successful in America. The more adventurous designs – bright yellow-and-black striped suits and jet black beach coats – appealed to a market of playboys and dandies.
Unsurprisingly given his reaction to overt decoration and frills, menswear always appealed to Morton, and in 1963 he designed his first menswear collection in Trevira cloth for the Cologne Fair.
One of his most widely publicised garments was the Mesh-Over-Flesh Vestshirt, which featured string vest fabric with formal shirting. Other designs played on the traditional male suit, with unusual features such as curved side slits on formal trousers.
For the next 10 years, until his retirement in 1973, Morton concentrated on menswear, but it's as a designer of cool, tailored, uncluttered womenswear that he's celebrated.