A dozen feathered hats, hidden within the fashion archives of the Victorian and Albert Museum, London, were my first introduction to Edwardian fashion addict Heather Firbank. Having viewed the hats – seductive, stylish, the last word in couture millinery – I was intrigued to know more about their wearer. And so I made an appointment to visit the V&A archive library. Here, I was handed various folders of letters, fashion magazine cuttings and bills, together with a large envelope marked with the following in pencil: ‘In the event of my death, I request that these envelopes (4) containing letters may be unopened and burnt by my Brother, Arthur Ronald Firbank. Heather Firbank.’
But they had not been burnt. I was able to read their blushingly private contents, putting me on an unnervingly intimate footing with Miss Heather Firbank.
In the autumn of 1910, when Heather was 22, an invitation was hand-delivered to the family house in Curzon Street, Mayfair.
‘Miss Firbank. Ask for answer’ read the envelope. ‘Pitshill House, Petworth, Sussex.
My dear Miss Firbank
Could we persuade you to come here today and stay still Monday we are short of a lady & have a cheery party coming so I think you wd. enjoy it. Bring your maid & do come! Arrive about 4 so as to settle down before tea!
A last minute invitation to a single woman, hoping she would make up numbers for people who had nothing better to do than socialize. This was Heather’s common round. It was almost her duty. Taking her maid, she went. Miss Firbank was ‘out’ and, by the conventions of her class, actively looking for a husband. But what she did, that weekend, was awaken the raging desire of her middle-aged host: Cicely’s husband, Colonel William Mitford. This was emphatically not how it was expected to go for a girl like Heather.
‘I longed to tell you all I thought about you, & how much I wanted you for my own “pal”,’ wrote the 53-year-old Colonel – ADC for Yeomanry to King Edward VII – in fluent black ink. The letter was sent discreetly to Heather at the Ladies’ Imperial Club, three streets away from her London family home. ‘But I felt I couldn’t say everything to you that I had in my mind. I thought so much of you last night when you had gone to bed, and wondered if you were sleeping, or thinking too? I shall always remember these last two days; and you must always be my darling, won’t you? Now, you must let me see you, dear, whenever it is possible… Letters will be quite safe. If you like better, write to Arthur’s Club, St James’s Street SW. Don’t write to me “Colonel Mitford”, it’s too absurd!!!’
If you were male and upper class, affairs (but only with married women) were almost de rigeur. But it was written in stone that no decent man had an affair with an unmarried girl. The fear of pregnancy alone was enough to deter anyone. But slowly, surely, the Colonel turned up the heat on the impressionable Heather. ‘Come to me, my darling, and let us love one another as we want to… I wonder if you know what a man’s love and passion is like?’
Her father Sir Thomas had died that year; the family fortunes had collapsed, the country estate sold, and she was living with her mother in reduced circumstances with only four servants. She was ripe for the plucking. ‘I don’t know when I can be photographed for you,’ he wrote after the house party, in October 1910, ‘but I shan’t forget to send you the first I get done… Dear sweetheart; all my fondest thoughts and love are for you. I long to kiss your darling lips and neck, dear. Your own Will.’
The affair was at its most fervent on William’s headed notepaper. ‘I want you all to myself, if only it could be, to love & kiss every inch of your dear body, & I would make you so happy.’ They plotted and connived at arranging the briefest of trysts in town, but all too often the Colonel was waylaid by Cicely, his wife, and the inexorable social round in rural Sussex (hunting, hunt balls, ‘functions’). ‘The fates’, he complained, were not ‘kind’. But did he take Heather to bed?
It is fascinating to track her shopping for this period, as the bundle of her bills in the archive allowed me to do. Matching these to her dress collection held by the V&A revealed a young woman beginning to revel, confidently, in her sexuality. Silk satin tea coat… gold and silver shoes . . . cream and pink silk corset, with elasticated suspenders and metal boning. . . In 1910 Heather starts to shop at Lucile, that most sensual of court dressmakers, whose gowns are sold with knowingly provocative names – ‘Give Me Your Heart’, ‘The Sighing Sound of Lips Unsatisfied’. Here at Lucile’s Heather is pinned into an elaborate afternoon dress of ivory satin and silk tulle, trimmed with soft black skunk fur and finished with a wide sash that ties at the back of her slender waist in an enormous butterfly bow.
In mourning for her father, as well as for King Edward VII who had died in May 1910, she buys a black silk crepe dinner gown with ivory piping (above): sophisticated, slinky, with a low-cut neckline, the fabric draped clingingly over one hip. From Woolland Brothers she buys a black hat, swathed in rolls of flesh-coloured silk satin, trimmed with a large black bird wing: a thing almost animal in its sensory appeal. She was dressing for a man who could not contain his desire. A man who – by English public schoolboy standards – was vividly in touch with his emotions. ‘My darling I cannot write much now as I am in bed & am afraid anyone might come in at any moment,’ he wrote in January 2011. ‘How passionately I love you & want you, Heather… I have been thinking of you all day, & longing for you in my arms, dear sweetheart…’
Yet Heather fought his physical advances. ‘I must & will be “good” the next time we meet,’ wrote a frustrated William in April 2011, ‘but it does seem hard!!’ All that silk, all those feathers and skunk fur, and the pale pink laced corset underneath – it was all ‘too “tantalising”.’ ‘I long to see you again and to hold you in my arms, & just to show you how I can love you, darling,’ he wrote again in frustration. ‘I know you think it would not be ‘fair’, as you say in your letter, but if you know more of my life here, you would perhaps think differently.’ In May the Colonel wrote urgently to Heather at her club. He would be alone for a night at the Grosvenor Hotel, before Cicely joined him the following day. ‘Why don’t you come to me, dearie?… I would take such care of you dear one… I would be so “careful” of you.’
Any tale of seduction ought to look at the consequences. Promoting birth control or distributing literature was illegal, but contraception was available – if you knew where to look. A girl of Heather’s background would have found this impossibly difficult and embarrassing. She might have sent her maid, Adelaide Hallett, on a secret mission to the doctor to procure a ‘vulcanised rubber cap’ with an ‘integral circular watchspring’. Or she might have been woefully ignorant about human reproduction, as so many girls of her class were.
Did Heather come to him? Her secrets were known only to Hallett. This was the woman who eventually brought Miss Firbank’s trunks of couture clothing to the V&A Museum in 1957 after her mistress’s death three years previously, aged 67. She was at a loss as to how to dispose of them. Hallett is part of Heather’s back story, and there is always a back story: the maid who packs the hat boxes for the country house party; the seamstress who sews on the lace and skunk trimmings, the fur-pullers in a filthy workshop in London’s East End. The feather workers are part of Heather’s story too, their worn fingers invisible in the ‘willow plume’ ostrich feather drooping over the brim of a new hat.
In June 1911, five days before the coronation of King George V, the Colonel wrote late at night, in ragged script, to call the whole thing off. ‘I cannot go on deceiving Cis like this any longer, & have felt so for some time.’ The affair had lasted some nine months. ‘I don’t mean to be cruel to you; & I know it is far less cruel to stop this at once now … If I meet you again my resolutions would vanish, & that must not be. Let us be friends as before, & forget this brief madness, as it truly is … I am miserable writing this to you, as I know it appears unkind & heartless.’
Heather never married. The rest of her private correspondence shows a slow settling and developing sadness at the core of her life. Here was an elegant woman beached on a high tide, bred to be decorous and useless, parasitical and financially helpless. She harboured desires whose only outlet, ultimately, was through her careful and extravagant dress. As a spinster of dwindling means, it was all she had left.
Preceding post: Heather Firbank’s Feathered Hats
Read about the Victorian women who campaigned to save the birds from the insatiable fashion for plumage: Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism – Women’s Fight for Change . ‘Brilliantly conceived’ – The Daily Telegraph
For context on Heather’s world and her shopping habit: London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank by Cassie Davies-Strodder, Jenny Lister and Lou Taylor (V&A Publishing 2015).
Images of Heather Firbank and her clothes, copyright V&A Heather Firbank Archive.