The brief story of Bianca Mosca epitomises the symbiotic relationship that the UK has long had with its continental neighbours in the world of fashion. It’s a symbiotic relationship that so often gets overlooked, though. To put it simply, Paris and London have been mutually influencing each other’s wearing apparel for hundreds of years, but the average reasonably informed person knows only that Paris dominated women’s fashion and London dominated men’s fashion for much of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Fashion Tours London very much wants to change that perspective, to show the great impact that British womenswear designers have had on Parisian fashion and, just as importantly, to show how much London has benefited both from the European designers who have set up their main camps or outposts in London, and from the thousands of European immigrants who have come to London over the centuries to make beautiful cloth and clothing.
Italian Parisian on London fashion scene as Paquin designer
Imbued with the flair and chic of continental Europe, designer Bianca Mosca was sent to London to work on behalf of the venerable French House of Paquin, and she chose to stay and start her own business. Her fashion house had a strong reputation for using of diverse, high-quality British fabrics and creating evening dresses that were pieces of art. (See more examples of Bianca Mosca’s designs here.)
Mosca was born in Italy and was a cousin of Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli. She spent eighteen years in Paris working as a salesperson for Schiaparelli, who was, incidentally, Coco Chanel’s closest rival. From 1935, Mosca managed Schiaparelli’s Schap Shop, a trendy Parisian boutique. When she came to London in 1937, Mosca spoke no less than four languages fluently. She briefly served as head designer for the House of Paquin, until the Paquin building was bombed at the start of World War II.
Mosca creates for Jacqmar and IncSoc in wartime London
Mosca then became head designer at Jacqmar in 1939, as the company graciously met her demand to work under her unique label, “Bianca Mosca at Jacqmar”. Fashion historian Amy de la Haye says that Mosca was known at Jacqmar for her bold stylistic choices and her use of fabrics in unusual, innovative ways — particularly Jacqmar fabrics with striking designs by Arnold Lever, the artist behind Jacqmar’s famous propaganda scarves produced during the war.
Representing Jacqmar and Paquin, Mosca was invited to become a member of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (IncSoc) in 1942. For IncSoc and Jacqmar, Mosca designed Utility clothing (a topcoat, dress, skirt and blouse) under the label “Austerity Bianca Mosca”. Such Utility clothing enabled thousands of British women who had never worn designer clothes to feel a little fashionable despite the fact that their clothes were made under firm restrictions on the amount of fabric and buttons employed. That same year, Mosca married Captain Claude Crawford in Westminster.
Mosca’s unique fabric designs and her clothes in films
After the war but while clothes- and cloth-rationing persisted, Mosca worked with other London fashion designers to promote British couture. One of their little projects was the film, Maytime in Mayfair (1949) starring Anna Neagle, in which love and fashion rivalry play themselves out amid gorgeous clothes in London’s premier couture district. Clothes for the film were designed not only by Mosca, but also by the rest of the stable of top London-based designers: Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies, Victor Stiebel, Charles Creed, Mattli, Peter Russell and Edward Molyneux. Mosca was apparently the only female designer considered excellent enough to participate in the costume design for the film. She had already created the form-fitting wedding dress for the 1945 horror film, Dead of Night, worn by actor Peggy Bryan.
In 1945, with the backing of the Earl of Jersey who was married to her niece, Mosca was able to open her own couture house at 22 South Audley Street. She and her husband lived above in a flat with a primrose yellow sitting room that saw many post-theatre and post-concert parties. Below, Mosca made beautiful evening dresses in brocade or organza, or full floor-length skirts with separate sleeveless bodices. In the invaluable book London Couture, Amy de la Haye notes that the black satin label for the Mosca’s clothes had a white fly on it, as “mosca” means “fly” in Italian, and the meaning also connotes “something special, a rarity”. She further describes a Mosca full-length tea gown printed with the image of a single ballet dancer that was designed for export; a dress for Jacqmar incorporating pale blue silk scarves with a Graham Sutherland black abstract print; and a honey-coloured suit with a jacket-blouse that has a deck-of-cards design.
New York and London fashion shows, Celebrity customers
Mosca was able to sell designs for her clothes to the New York department store, B. Altman, in 1948. In 1949 she showed her own collection in New York City and, with Victor Stiebel, she put on a London show of women’s suits made from woolen and worsted fabrics. In her dresses, she used fabrics such as tie silk from West Cumberland Silk Mills and worked with Sekers in Whitehaven to create new synthetic fabrics, making what perhaps was the first couture dress in nylon (held today at the Fashion Museum in Bath). She dressed the Duchess of Kent, and she created for Margot Fonteyn a black brocaded silk evening dress that Fonteyn wore at a 1949 New York reception after her opening performance in Sleeping Beauty. Fonteyn was photographed by Cecil Beaton for British Vogue in the dress, which is regarded as the best dress for 1949 by the Fashion Museum.
Despite her many achievements in the late 1940s, Mosca’s couture house was, along with many British couture houses, in great financial difficulties. On the whole, wealthy Americans were only interested in Parisian couture at this time, and wealthy British were still suffering under the hardships of the wartime rationing and thus not allowed to buy many couture clothes. Mosca herself became terminally ill in the late 1940s, and she died in June 1950 in Paris. Among the mourners at her funeral, De la Haye notes, was the flower lady on South Audley Street.
British Vogue said of Mosca after her death, “She was a creative artist who expressed herself through fashion. She dressed faultlessly, with the utmost simplicity, in clothes of her own design; and her collections were a wider expression of her personal dress sense. Her feeling for colour, texture and design made her an inspiration to fabric houses.” A memorial trust was set up by her friends in her name to help young designers.
Fashion Tours London has more to say about Jacqmar, IncSoc and Bianca Mosca on our Ballgowns to Bumsters tour.