Finding Jo Mattli: the forgotten couturier

Published on: Author: sarahfoskett 13 Comments

By Dr Caroline Ness, PhD graduate

Thesis title: Famous, Forgotten. Found: rediscovering the career of London couture fashion designer Giuseppe (Jo) Mattli, 1934-1980

Researching my PhD thesis has been an amazing experience. I arrived in Glasgow in October 2010 just as the Centre for Textile Conservation (CTC) opened at the University. Having completed my Masters at the Textile Conservation Centre in Winchester, where I began my research into Mattli, I was very excited to follow the centre to its new home where I had the opportunity to begin my doctoral research.

It has been a fascinating, intriguing, fulfilling journey of discovery, and sometimes a steep learning curve. This level of research has required determination, tenacity, patience, attention to detail and a sense of humour. The high level of support from my supervisors, Frances Lennard and Mary M. Brooks, has enabled me to produce a research thesis that I hope is worthy to be the first PhD for the CTC in Glasgow.

My thesis interrogates dress history methodology using the career of Giuseppe Mattli as a form of case study. During the 1950s and 1960s Mattli was a famous London couturier but he had been almost forgotten until I began my research. A collection of garments, press books and design drawings recently rediscovered at the Fashion Museum in Bath formed the basis of my research. Using primary evidence to explore the production and consumption of Mattli designs I tested methodologies including object-based material culture research, oral history, socio-cultural, socio-economic, and structuralist approaches. I found that object-based research supported by an inter-disciplinary methodology worked very well for this period of dress history. If the objects exist I firmly believed they should be examined carefully as they often tell you things that cannot be found in other sources of evidence. Oral testimonies were highly valuable in contributing different perspectives, explaining the primary evidence, supporting and at times challenging traditional theoretical models.

Drawing, pencil and ink, Mattli, 1960s, BATMC 94.647 K, © Fashion Museum, Bath/N.E. Somerset Council
Drawing, pencil and ink, Mattli, 1960s, BATMC 94.647 K, © Fashion Museum, Bath/N.E. Somerset Council


Example of a press book page, 1953, BATMC 2008.33.3, 4, © Fashion Museum, Bath/N.E. Somerset Council
Example of a press book page, 1953, BATMC 2008.33.3, 4, © Fashion Museum, Bath/N.E. Somerset Council

The business history of twentieth century couture designers has been under-researched, making my thesis unusual in this respect. I gathered evidence from a number of sources including Companies House and the National Archives that has begun to shed light on this area.

Research often leads to the unexpected. I was fortunate to be able to take advantage of the facilities and expertise at the CTC when I began to question the recorded fibre content of some of the garment fabrics. Dr Anita Quye tested a small sample of fibres from three garments using Attenuated Total Reflectance Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy. The results, though limited in number, lead to broader questions and challenge the assumed perception of luxury as applied to couture fabrics mid-twentieth century. I intend to take this aspect through to post-doctoral research and hope to secure funding to do so.

The Fashion Museum in Bath supported my research by allowing me open access to their collection, offering advice and encouragement and many cups of tea! I am enormously grateful to Rosemary Harden and all her staff as well as of course the numerous curators, archivists and collections assistants at the very many institutions in Great Britain and internationally who provided me with information and access to their collections.

Black wool crepe two-piece tunic dress, Mattli, 1966, BATMC I.09.8263, © Fashion Museum, Bath/N.E. Somerset Council
Black wool crepe two-piece tunic dress, Mattli, 1966, BATMC I.09.8263, © Fashion Museum, Bath/N.E. Somerset Council

After a great deal of proof reading and a week of printing I submitted my thesis in October 2013 and passed the viva this January. As with all research the journey is ongoing. Since beginning my research and submitting my thesis several newly discovered Mattli garments have appeared at auction and on Ebay that require examination and investigation. Curators, collectors, auctioneers and vintage dealers are beginning to recognise the name Mattli as one of the foremost designers in London mid-twentieth century, making his designs collectable and increasingly valuable. Thank you for the opportunity and encouragement Glasgow – Mattli was famous, he was forgotten but he has now been found once again.

13 Responses to Finding Jo Mattli: the forgotten couturier Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. Very interested in your thesis on Mattli. My Grandfather, a Czech tailor who settled in London, worked for Mattli for many years c.1940s, before he retired. Not much information, except I have a photo of him fitting Moira Shearer in her ‘new look’ coat c.1948. Do you know the address of Mattli in London, please? Thanks in advance. Regards, Pauline.

  2. I have recently purchased a job lot of vintage clothes. In it is a stunning Mattli dress which I absolutely love, the workmanship is exquisite.

  3. Dr Ness
    Thank you for this blog.
    I’m doing research on Moira Shearer, the British ballerina whose clothes that she wore in the 1948 film The Red Shoes were by Jacques Fath but apparently supplied through Mattli. Actually I have yet to find documentation on the Fath-Mattli relationship.
    Pauline, I would be very interested in seeing a scan of the photo of your grandfather with Moira Shearer. When the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company went on its North American tour in the autumn of 1949 the prima ballerina were fitted with designer clothes by the top London houses. The photo you have may be connected.

  4. Hello
    I found your blog on a Google search for Jo Mattli who made my wedding dress in 1956

    I have photographs showing the detail of the piece, including the appliqué of the waistline meaning the waistline is invisible. It is mid calf in length and has a boat neckline and half sleeves

    At this time I was a model for the Jean Bell agency and I modelled designs by Joe Mattli. Victor Stiebel, Hardy Aimes and Norman Hartnell, to name but a few

    Would this be of interest for your research and thesis? Could you tell me how I would obtain a valuation for this dress? do you have an email address where i can send you photos?
    Many thanks, Lorette

  5. I have the most beautiful skirt that my mother told me was a Mattli – I thought from just before the war. I have hung on to it through the years. Black taffeta full length in several tiers and the fabric is pleated.

    I would be interested in showing it/donating it? researching it. What should I do?
    Thanks Caro

  6. Dear Caroline,
    I am a fashion curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne and was fascinated to find a link to your research project online as I have built an exhibition around some of the mysterious objects in our collection.
    It transpires that one of these objects, an unlabeled wedding dress, is a Mattli. I would be interested to read your thesis if you are willing to share it, or if you can point me in the direction of some decent biographical sources that would add to our knowledge, I would greatly appreciate it. Best

  7. Dear Danielle,
    Thanks very much for your comment – it is amazing how many Mattli’s are coming out of the, now global, woodwork! Your exhibition sounds fantastic and a great opportunity to uncover some fascinating information. I’m sure it must have been very popular. I will pass your details directly to Caroline so she can reply about your thesis enquiry.
    Sarah Foskett (blog administrator)

  8. Dear Dr Caroline

    Mister Jo Mattli was the brother of my grandmother G. Mattli.
    I see that you have a lot of information about Jo Mattli. I know that he had a daughter with his first wife Olga.
    i try to find her daughter, can you give me any clue to find her?
    Sorry my english is terrible!

    Thanks Ueli

  9. Jo-jo and Claude were great friends of my parents, and Jo-jo made my mother’s wedding dress, later altered for my sister then for me. We knew them well. Really sweet people.

  10. I have a Mattli Dress and matching Coat , green with white dots , where would be the best place to sell it.

  11. Hi. I would love to know if you had any material on Rose Vernier Hats while doing research.
    Many thanks Penny

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