Emily Clapham – from local seamstress to royal dressmaker

Published: Monday 6th February 2017 by Courtney Farrow

Comments (0)

In 1887, Mrs Emily Clapham decided to invest her and her husband’s savings into opening a dressmaking salon in Hull.

Although this may seem quite a risky move for any Victorian woman, her determination would serve her very well. The shop would survive 80 years, through two world wars, and even outlive Madame Clapham herself.

With the help of Hull Museums, we look at the fascinating life of this inspiring woman, complementing the Made In Hull season of Hull UK City of Culture 2017.

Born in Cheltenham, Emily left school at an early age in order to begin a dressmaking apprenticeship in Scarborough. What started out as picking up needles dropped by other workers ended with her being one of the most celebrated dressmakers of her time.

In the late 1880s, Emily purchased No.1 Kingston Square in Hull with her husband, Haigh Clapham. Her reputation as a dressmaker reached its height in 1890. Women at the Royal Court would order made-to-measure pieces for their “coming out” season.

At the time, it was a rarity for a local businesswoman to be so successful, especially with no premises outside of Hull. Thanks to her passion and ingenuity, Emily was able to maintain her high-profile clientele into the 1900s.

Madame Clapham even competed with huge London fashion houses. The dressmaker attracted worldwide patronage for the quality and style that she produced.

Emily was a remarkable woman. According to descriptions of her, she was always dressed immaculately in black or navy. Meanwhile, a scent of lavender would follow her around as she went about her daily business.

In 1891, Clapham expanded into No.2 Kingston Square, and later she would purchase No.3.

Despite the odds, the salon even survived both the First World War and Second World War. This is surprising, because the outbreak of WWI changed the art of dressmaking. It was an era of strict dress codes, which didn’t have time for extravagant frocks.

During the decade that followed, women gained greater freedom in what they wore. Dresses began to get shorter, and it was more socially acceptable for females to wear trousers.

Madame Clapham tackled this social change with her business head. She adapted her work and expanded into corseted undergarments that had become very popular. In the meantime, her evening gowns were still in great demand.

The Second World War had a more serious impact on the salon. Due to rationing, fabric became expensive. Many of Emily’s loyal employees had to be laid off, whilst others chose to serve in the war effort.

She managed to increase trade in the 1950s, but demand for tailored, bespoke pieces slowly declined. Sadly, the talented dressmaker passed away a few years after the end of the war. However, Emily’s niece kept the salon running into the exciting new age of the swinging sixties.

Today, we remember Emily Clapham as a well-respected seamstress for European royalty. You can view a beautiful collection of her work at the Hands On History Museum on Thursday 9 February.

Susan Capes, Assistant Curator, says she’s been delighted by the response to the upcoming event:

“People are always fascinated by the fact that a local businesswoman set Hull firmly on the global fashion map.”

“Her story is wrapped up with the lives of the many local women and girls who worked for her. The collections we now hold at the museums remind us collectively of their achievements.”

To find out more about this event, please visit hull2017.co.uk.

Read more localnational and international news on HEY Today

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter  

Published: Monday 6th February 2017 by Courtney Farrow

Comments (0)

Local business search