John Redfern/Redfern & Sons/Redfern Ltd.

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John Redfern (1820 – 1895)

One of the lesser-known designers of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries was John Redfern (1820 – 1895). Not a lot of information is out there but here’s what I managed to find out. Redfern was originally trained as a tailor and in 1850 opened a draper’s establishment in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. In 1871, he expanded his business to sell silk and mourning garments. Later, Redfern expanded in offering yachting outfits and other clothing for women, capitalizing on the Isle of Wight being a center for yachting activity. Redfern is credited for being one of the first designers to make tailored clothing respectable for women.

In contrast to Worth who insisted on having his clients travel to him, Redfern established a number of locations close to his wealthy clientele. With the aid of his son Ernest Redfern and an employee Charles Poynter (who later added the surname Redfern to his name), Redfern opened tailoring houses in London and Paris in 1881, followed by two shops in New York in 1884-85, one for tailoring, the other for furs. By 1882 Redfern was successful in becoming Tailors by Appointment for the Princess of Wales and by 1885 had become Tailors by Appointment for Queen Victoria and Queen Emma of the Netherlands, among others. The advertisements below attest to this and in others, Redfern was marketing his firm as being a “Ladies Tailor”.

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Advertisement from Vol. V, No. 105 (January 1, 1885) issue of Life.

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1885 Advertisement

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Advertisement from Harper’s Bazar, November 26, 1887.

Redfern’s forte was tailored garments as can be seen from the September 17, 1887 issue of Harper’s Bazar:

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Harper’s Bazar, September 17, 1887.

The three figures in the middle are dressed in the tailored suit style for women that often involved waistcoats, faux and functioning. Redfern helped to popularize this look along with the later “tailormade” style that was to develop in the 1890s. of which the following is just one example:

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Bodice Jacket, Redfern, 1892; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (D187.a-c-1974)

The theme of the tailored women’s suit is taken further with this ensemble that Redfern made circa 1887 – 1889. It features two different bodices and an additional front skirt panel. The heavy use of looping braid and buttons takes on a military look, making for a structured look.

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Day Dress Ensemble, Redfern, c. 1887 – 1889; Metropolitan Museum of Art ( 49.3.32a–e).

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Close-Up of Skirt

And now for the second style. The above bodice could be replaced with a similar one trimmed in a long row of buttons running along each side of the opening. Inset is a one large row of looped braid running down the front.

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The second look is interesting in that the bodice has a tail attached to it that spread out to cover the skirt as can be seen below:

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The above ensemble is a good example of the tailormade look that was beginning to take hold in the late 1880s. One can see that the bustle is fairly minimal and it’s likely that there was only a bustle pad used underneath.

In the next installment, we will look at a few more examples of Redfern’s work during the late 19th Century. It is interesting that as the 1890s progressed, Redfern would begin to diversify more, creating softer designs that got away from his signature “tailormade” style.

To Be Continued….

As previously mentioned, Redfern came at women’s fashion from the perspective of a tailor and it was event in his work. One of the Redfern’s specialties was what could be called “sportswear Victorian style” and this was evident in his riding habits. From a style perspective, riding habits were relatively conservative and had a minimum of embellishments because of their function as clothes for riding a horse.  Below are some examples:

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Riding Habit, Redfern, 1885 – 1886; Wool flannel trimmed in Mohair braid, sateen lining; Victorian & Albert Museum (T.430-1990)

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Front profile view. It must be noted that the lighting must have been vastly different because the color is completely different from the other pictures.

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9cbd3df36c8f3eb50119c2fcaceaa4bcThe above riding habit is interesting for several reasons. First, it’s a two-tone, something not often seen in riding habits of the 1880s, with a black skirt and a royal blue bodice. Also, one can see distinct military influences with the Mohair braid patterns on both cuffs and the use of Brandenburgs on the front in a style reminiscent of Hussar-style uniforms. The braid patterns on the back skirt also take this idea further. Finally, the most striking aspect is that the coat is asymmetrical, the right flap overlapping the right and then flaring out wider towards the top, creating an almost double-breasted effect. The overall effect is a stylish look yet it keeps to the conservative style convention characteristic of riding habits. Finally, it must be noted that with little exception (at least outside of frontier places like the American West or South Africa, women rode side-saddle during this era and skits tended to be over-sized.

Here’s a little more information on the provenance of the above garment:

The tailoring firm Redfern and Co., made this riding jacket for May Primrose Littledale…During the mid-1880s Redfern incorporated braiding into many of their designs for walking outfits and outdoor jackets. The Queen magazine of 10 May 1884 commented on some particularly striking examples including, ‘The “Hungarian” … lavishly adorned with finest mohair braid, and finished with knotted cords; and the “Polish”, of royal blue “faced” cloth … handsomely braided across the front.’ Unfortunately May did not have long to enjoy wearing this jacket as she died soon after it was made.

Redfern’s military style is also evident in this jacket:

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Jacket, Redfern, c. 1880 – 1910; Black and white wool tweed trimmed in red piping; Goldstein Museum of Design (1977.005.009)

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Like the riding habit above, The above jacket displays distinct military styling and especially in the use of the buttons and piping trim. In the front, we see the same flared double-breasted style flap although this time it’s only the buttons that provide the decorative embellishments. Unfortunately, the Goldstein Museum of Design, where the jacket resides, provides little in the way of background information but based on the style and the similarity to the riding habit, the late 1880s or early 1890s is mostly likely not too far off. It would have been nice to have known what the original skirt looked like that went with this.

In the above examples we see Redfern’s tailoring at work, creating structured garments that are almost severe- only the fabrics and trim soften things a bit.  In the next installment, we’ll look at some more of Redfern’s work and see that he didn’t just make tailored garments.

Although he was know for his tailored styles, there was also a softer side:

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Day Dress, Redfern, 1892; Metropolitan Museum of Art (1981.515.1a, b)

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The label to go along with the dress.

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This is an excellent example of a “transitional” dress, moving from the late 1880s to the early 1890s. The basic fabric is a striped silk that is understated- if you look carefully at the stripes, you can see a series of curved lines (it’s unclear what exactly is creating this effect since there are no close-up pictures available). In contrast to the earlier late 1880s style, the bodice ends at the waist. Also, in continuation of earlier style trends, the bodice has been constructed so that it gives the appearance of being a jacket with a separate shirtwaist underneath (what could be termed the “faux waistcoat/shirtwaist effect”).

The trim on the skirt is relatively restrained and one can see that there is no bustle present (or perhaps a vestigial one in the form of a small pad set in the rear). With the high collar, minimal trim, and muted fabrics, it creates a style that reads “rich and conservative.” This is an elegant but by means daring dress design.

Walking suits made up a large part of Redfern’s market and in here is just one example that was at a recent auction:

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From the above, one can see the detailed soutache trim that was characteristic of many of Redfern’s designs.

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Matching hat by Louise & Company, Regent Street

According the auction website, this dress dates from circa 1889 and I tend to agree. One can see a definite bustle effect; it is not as extreme as those characteristic of the mid 1880s but it is still there. Also, the sleeves are form-fitting with no excess gathering or “kickout” at the sleeve caps. The dress itself is constructed from a wool fabric and the bodice is boned and trimmed in fur along the bottom. The bodice stops at the waist and has a slight basque-like curve in the front and tails in the rear to accommodate the fullness of the bustle. The skirt itself is side-buttoning.

Unfortunately, there are no details as to the provenance of the dress so all we can go on is the auction description and what can be seen in the photographs. Overall, this fits nicely in the continuum of Redfern’s designs during the late 1880s and early 1890s.

Now, we’ll take a look at the early 20th Century. In 1892, Redfern’s sons took over the business, renaming it Redfern Ltd. While tailored women’s garments remained a mainstay of their business, they also branched out in more general fashions and transforming their Paris location into a full-on couture house (only the Paris location operated as a couture house, the other locations sold couture dresses brought in from Paris and did local tailoring).

Below is a continuation of Redfern’s tailored style:

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Coat and skirt ensemble, Redfern, c. 1908; Victoria & Albert Museum (CIRC.646&A-1964). This outfit was made for Miss Heather Firbank (1888-1954).

2013GN8678_jpg_l 2013GN8679_jpg_lThe coat and skirt ensemble is from circa 1908 and consists of a coat and skirt made of navy blue wool serge trimmed in black soutache. The lines are clean and the black soutache adds a subtle decoration that harmonizes with the navy blue serge. Also, as with Redfern’s earlier work, one can see a military influence with the soutache patterns.

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Here are some pictures of the skirt:

2013GN8673_jpg_l 2013GN8674_jpg_l 2013GN8675_jpg_lThe black soutache is also present on the skirt and the pattern is quite elaborate. It is difficult to completely appreciate from the dark lighting of the photos but it’s definitely there.

Here are some more examples of the coat and skirt ensemble:

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Coat and Skirt Set, 1905

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Coat and Skirt, Redfern, gray wool tweed, c. 1911; Victoria & Albert Museum (T.28&A-1960)

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Below are some varied offerings from Redfern:

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Afternoon Dress, 1903

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Robe de Ville, 1904

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Afternoon Dress, 1905

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Tailored Coat and Skirt, 1905

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Ball Gown, 1902

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Dinner Dress, c. 1904

Finally, Redfern even made evening gowns and like many of the Couture Houses of Paris, they used actresses to market their designs. The evening dres pictured below was made for the actress Jane Hading in 1904, thereabouts:

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Evening Gown, Redfern, c. 1904; Bard Graduate Center Gallery (41.339.15)

While Redfern was producing a wide variety of designs by the Teens, the firm’s greatest strengths were with tailored garments and especially with his Coat and Skit sets (which we today would call “suits”). The tailoring is exquisite and the use of trim was, for the most part, understated. Redfern’s contributions to couture are largely unknown today (and not helped by a lack of documentation) and unappreciated.

When it comes to fashion of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the name Worth, and to a lesser extent Poiret tends to overshadow everyone else and it is our sincere hope that through this blog that we can bring some attention to many other deserving couturiers.

9 thoughts on “John Redfern/Redfern & Sons/Redfern Ltd.

  1. Pingback: The Cycling Dress & The New Woman | Lily Absinthe

  2. Please, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that most of the ladies of these photos was a little “photoshoped” 🙂 I mean that some of them have way too narrow waist and it look just quite unnaturally for me. Of course I well know these women are wearing corsets and other bumpads, but it’s just impossible to look (for example) like a lady on the first photo. It looks as though someone had used black paint or ink to make the model’s waist more narrow. It’s funny and very true: that’s nearly exactly what we are doing today with photos of the modern models and celebrities 🙂 Any way, I think that Redfern was very talented designer and maybe one day I’ll try to sew something inspired by his riding habit. It’s just stunning 😀 Thank you for sharing this article!

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    • It’s always possible but there were models of the period who could achieve this look without any artificial enhancements; the silhouette was very achievable even by a less-than ideal model. At the same, it was more about the overall style and as with fashions today, there are ways to achieve a look even when the body is not optimal. Fashion illustrations was meant to inspire as much as be imitated.

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    • Unfortunately, there is not a lot in print about Redfern and not much in the way of documentation of his early work. I tried to track down the dress for Lily Langtry that he was supposed to have made out of Jersey (which was supposedly named after where Lily Langtry came from). The search continues… 🙂

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  3. Pingback: John Redfern - the Ladies' Tailor - Recollections Blog

  4. I am doing a research project based on Redfern and Sons. I was wondering if you could share some of your sources, especially for the photographs with the models as I have not been able to come across these photos in my own research.

    I am a graduate student at Penn State. I really appreciate your help with a shared interest.

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    • As you’ve no doubt discovered, there’s not a lot out there on Redfern. One of the best sources is the article John Redfern and Sons, 1847 to 1892 by Susan North that was published in Costume, Vol. 42, 2008.

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  5. Pingback: John Redfern & Sons – refashioning history

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