Portraits: Women Designers



In many of the portraits included in this display, we can learn as much about the professional identity of the designer from the background as from the foreground of the picture. We can usually tell that they are ‘professional’ rather than ‘personal’ portraits, because the women are pictured ‘at work’ or with some of their designs.

In the boardroom:

Sylvia Crowe is pictured at the boardroom table of a meeting of the Council of Industrial Design Road Signs Committee. The selection of this context is reflective of Crowe’s regular presence on boards and councils as President of the Landscape Institute and later, Forestry Commission. Although it would be fair to say that most design committees were still male environments, the image of the woman designer at board-table level was certainly becoming less of a novelty. In particular, the textiles and fashion groups of Society of Industrial Artists were dominated by women (Lucienne Day, Marianne Mahler, Barbara Jones) and and many women were selected regularly for the judging panels of the CoID design awards (eg. Gaby SchreiberShirley CravenLucienne Day) in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

At home:

One of the most striking images of the environments in which the women are photographed, is the presentation of the home as the workplace for the woman designer. This is the case for Lucienne Day and Barbara Jones.

If we look closely in the background of Day’s portrait, we can see that the setting has been purposefully made to present her as both a domestic goddess and a working designer. A catalogue of ‘business’ folders dominate the top left hand corner of the portrait, whilst the tea-cup and jug dominate the foreground. Day has been described as ‘free-thinking’ and ‘bold’ in her attitude (Jackson, 2007), but in this photograph she looks uneasy; conflicted between her identities as a ‘domestic’ and ‘professional’ woman. Day later spoke of the conservative culture in Britain. She said in 1957, ‘A great deal of worry went into those early post-war designs, created by designers who knew that they were offering the public something difficult to accept at first’, (Harris, 1983). It could be argued that the photograph aims to appease this conservative public by presenting Day as a woman who works from the kitchen table.

Barbara Jones, who is pictured ‘working’ on the illustrations of ‘This and That’, is similarly situated in a home-studio. The composition of the picture is quite domestic. At the same time, the image of the papers apparently ‘chaotically’ thrown at her feet presents the most stereotypical image of the ‘artist’ or ‘creative’ at work. This is in fitting with Jones’ practice as an artist/illustrator.

At work:

As the only craftsperson included in this display, Ethel Mairet’s environment stands out from the others. She is situated here at her loom in Ditchling; a fitting portrayal of a woman dedicated to her work. The setting here has a sense of ‘authenticity’, and most clearly communicates Mairet’s design practice. Marianne Straub later said that Ethel Mairet had returned from India ‘determined to make craft her profession’ (RSA Journal, 1954). The presentation of Mairet in the workshop therefore reflects this aspect of her professional identity.

Gaby Schreiber is the only woman portrayed in what appears to be an office environment. It could very well have been taken in her ‘elegant Belgravian studio’, (Punch, 18 June 1958) or the ‘immense top floor drawing room (which she designed herself) of her Eaton Square home’, (Tatler, September, 1958). Nevertheless, there is no blatant reference to the domestic in the portrait. By placing her technical tools on display,  as was often the case in male designer’s photographs from this period, Schreiber’s technical skills are emphasised.

The backdrop to Shirley Craven’s photograph tells us a lot about her reputation in the British post-war design scene. Craven is photographed against one of her own designs, in which her hair and make-up reflect her design.  A link is established between Craven’s image and her designs- her identity and textiles designs are presented as one.

It is also interesting to consider those portraits in which the context and background are not in focus. For example, Jacqueline Groag dominates the photograph completely and the background environment is not important, making her portrait perhaps the most assertive and engaging on display. Barbara Brown’s portrait, taken at the Stuttgart exhibition in 1973, communicates very little about her design practice. Brown’s image is however the most recent of the portraits on display.


Dress is understood to be a potent means of communicating and enacting identities. While a great deal of work has focused on dress as an expression of personal identity, there is still much to be understood about the role of dress as an expression of professional identity.


Jill Seddon and Suzette Worden have discussed men’s hats as a mechanism used by women designers to gain entry into masculine-dominated work environments (Seddon and Worden, 1994). In the book,‘Women Designing: Redefining Design in Britain Between the Wars’, they argue that American designer, Margaret Partridge wore a ‘hybrid’ hat, ‘purposely concocted from her father’s top hat, swathed in a red scarf and garnished with a tassel, as a device to assert her presence in the masculine field of engineering’. We might similarly interpret Sylvia Crowe’s appearance, with her men’s ‘pork-pie’ style hat (to assert her presence on a council table dominated by men), counterbalanced by a feminine silk scarf.

Dressing for work

Gaby Schreiber and Sylvia Crowe are the only two women wearing suits, which is particularly interesting given their status as women designers in predominantly male fields- landscape and industrial design. As McQuiston puts it, Schreiber ‘projects the qualities of sophistication and professionalism’ that made the press refer to her as a ‘tycoon’ in her heyday, (McQuiston, 1988). This ‘sophisticated professionalism’ made Schreiber a popular figure in women’s fashion and lifestyle magazines, such as Harpers Bazaar, Vogue, House and Garden and Tatler in the 1950s. The writers in these magazines marvelled at her ability to combine glamour and business.

Dressing for Comfort

Marianne StraubBarbara JonesEthel Mairet and Jacqueline Groag look dressed for comfort and practicality. Whilst Jones’ sleeves are rolled up to make it clear that she is ‘at work’, Groag’s casually upturned sleeves suggest that she is confident and comfortable with her appearance.  Straub’s gentle folds and stripy patterns on her clothing appear to have been carefully chosen to communicate her own design aesthetic. Lucienne Day’s neat cricket sweater and white blouse presents a country-casuals brand of femininity and it could again be argued that Day is appealing directly to her consumer through this dress-choice.

‘Designers love black’

Pat Albeck and Barbara Brown both wear dark polo-necks, a garment that is today regarded as an emblem of the contemporary designer’s dress code. These more recent presentations of a woman designer make no obvious issue of gender and it could be argued that the black polo-neck puts the woman designer within an ‘androgynous frame’ (Attfield, 2004). The subject of the designer’s relationship with the colour black has been a subject of debate on some blogs, such as this one.

Body language

We can read body language as a non-verbal means of communication. Whilst some of the photographs have been carefully staged and may have been managed and directed by the photographer, some look more relaxed and spontaneous.

Body positioning

As has previously been stated, Shirley Craven’s side-on model-like pose, presents Craven, the designer, as an extension of her own design against which she is photographed. Marianne Straub’s titled head and relaxed body presents an image of a woman who might have been a good listener and a supportive friend. This is certainly born out in the archive material relating to Straub, who maintained close friendships with many designers and ‘curated’ many of the RDI boxes for designers held in the archives of the RSA, although never submitted one for herself.  Jacqueline Groag’s portrait is perhaps the most engaging of all, because she leans towards the camera.

Eye Contact

Jacqueline GroagBarbara Brown and Lucienne Day are the only women in the display who make eye contact with the camera. In contrast, Gaby Schreiber and Shirley Craven’s lack of eye contact fits with the conventions of fashion photography, in which the female models rarely hold eye contact with the viewer. It should be said that male designers of the same period in the archive of Designer Portraits, more commonly maintain eye contact with the camera. Although it has not been possible to explore the contrasts between male and female presentations in this display, this is a theme I hope to cover in my PhD thesis.

Smiles and other facial expressions

Ethel Mairet’s face is as textured as her weaves and full of the character, experience and wisdom that resonates through her writing. Her stance, which is leaning into the loom, reflects a deep emotional as well as professional attachment to her craft. She said, ‘You got your inspiration from the loom…You did what the spirit moved you to do’, (Coatts, 1982).

Sylvia Crowe’s stern and serious facial expression suggests that she might have been a formidable character to work with. Crowe may have consciously constructed this ‘serious’ professional image as a means of asserting her presence in her field of architecture and landscape design, or it may have been a more unconscious response to working in a male dominated environment.

Jacqueline Groag and Lucienne Day both have their mouths open as if in conversation with the photographer. By visually giving the women a ‘voice’, these portraits engage the viewer and communicate a strength and confidence. This is bolstered by the fact that both women also make eye contact with the viewer.


The portraits in this display give an intimate insight into the presentation of women behind some of the designs celebrated at the Fashion and Textiles Museum this spring. By looking at the women themselves and interpreting their image through dress, body language and environment, we can see that this was far from a ‘fearless generation’ of women designers, (Jackson, 2007). On the contrary, women continued to be limited by the gender values of post-war Britain. As Whitworth and Darling have argued, it was in actual fact a more constricting period for women designers than had been the case between the wars (Whitworth and Darling, 2007).

It is hoped that this display has emphasised the range of ways in which the post-war period was experienced by British female designers. Rather than speaking of women designers in general terms, each woman has an individual story to tell and designer portraits can be a useful entry point into these histories.

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Sirpa Kutilainen • November 10, 2015

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