Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, News | June 30, 2017
Vivien Leigh in Devon
Rural Devon is not where you would expect to find dresses belonging to the two-time Oscar winning actress and star of Gone with the Wind Vivien Leigh. Yet in the collections of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter you will find three! I was able to fulfill a dream of mine to get up close to garments worn by such a famous actress and style icon while researching the dresses at RAMM with the help of the costume curator Shelley Tobin.
Vivien Leigh’s (1913-1967) links to Devon began when she married her first husband Leigh Holman in 1932. Holman’s sister, Dorothy, owned a home on the Strand in Topsham that played host to Vivien and her daughter Suzanne Farrington. Vivien was known to have visited and stayed in touch with her sister-in-law even after Vivien and Leigh’s marriage ended in divorce in 1940, after the actress had an affair with her future husband Laurence Olivier.
The three dresses that I researched were given to Vivien’s sister-in-law, Dorothy Holman, by Suzanne after the star’s death from tuberculosis in 1967. Miss Holman had established the Topsham Museum in the sail-loft of her home in 1963, which now houses local artefacts as well as Vivien Leigh memorabilia that Suzanne sent for her aunt to display. Among the exhibits in the Museum is the nightgown worn by the actress in Gone with the Wind that now attracts visitors from around the world. It was Miss Holman who later donated some of the dresses gifted to her by Suzanne to the care of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum.
My favourite piece viewed at RAMM that I feel really sums up the movie star glamour of the period has to be a black broadtail knee-length dress with an exaggerated collar. This dress clearly shows off the petite figure that Vivien was famous for, standing at only 5' 3" with a 23 inch waist. In a letter from Suzanne to Dorothy, dated 14th February 1976, Suzanne remembers ‘mummy wearing it but not theatrically’(1) with ‘a beautiful Georgian diamond rose brooch pinned on the stole to keep the collar part up to form a curve behind the head’.(2)
Another dress in the collection is a pink twilled synthetic evening dress decorated with machine made net, gauze and silver thread. It is a beautiful example of the cocktail wear that was popular in the 1950s and 1960s. The one piece is full length and unfitted, widening slightly towards the hem and embellished with a pink fabric bow at centre front of the dress.
The final dress that I studied has to be the most interesting. Made in Mayfair, London, circa 1950, it is an evening dress of heavy duchesse satin with an experimental silhouette that curves at the hip with a stiff flyaway pleat at the back. It has a chiffon bodice covered in blue and green glass and metal beads. The dress was custom made for Vivien by the painter and designer Harald Mahrenholz (1904-1994). Harald opened his fashion house at 39a Curzon Street in 1936 and numbered Vivien, Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and HRH the Princess Margaret as clients. Harald seems to be somewhat of an enigma as a haute couture designer, even though he had links to Christian Dior (who was an art dealer before turning to fashion design), and to Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, the gown that he designed for Vivien is a rare survival of his work. In a letter to her aunt, Suzanne admitted that she had let out the gown to wear herself but wanted Miss Holman to have them as ‘they are very glamorous and after all most people enjoy unobtainable glamour’.(3) I can definitely agree with that!
Costume Society Ambassador Victoria Haddock
 Farrington, S. 1976. [Letter to her aunt Dorothy Holman] (personal communication, 14 February).
 Farrington, S. 1976 [Letter to her aunt Dorothy Holman] (personal communication, 13 March).
 Farrington, S. [Letter to her aunt Dorothy Holman] (personal communication).
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bean, K. (2013). Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Running Press.
Ronchetti, L. (2008), Vivien Leigh: The Topsham Connection. Topsham Museum Society.
- 1. Vivien Leigh Harald evening dress, Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery and Exeter City Council
- 2. Vivien Leigh pink evening dress, Victoria Haddock
- 3. Vivien Leigh pink evening dress bow detail, Victoria Haddock
- 4. Vivien Leigh black broadtail dress, Victoria Haddock
- 5. Vivien Leigh black broadtail dress detail, Victoria Haddock
- 6. Letter from Suzanne Farrington to Dorothy Holman, Victoria Haddock