The Reading List: Celia Birtwell

Celia Birtwell isn’t a relevatory memoir, nor is it a rollicking trip through one of the most dynamic periods in British design.  And thank God for that.

Instead, Celia Birtwell and fashion writer Dominic Lutyens have compiled a thoughtful, beautifully illustrated overview of one exceptionally talented woman’s life in design.

Celia Birtwell has always been one of those shadowy, enigmatic figures in fashion. Overshadowed in terms of scandal by her flamboyant husband and partner in design Ossie Clark and seen through the prism of David Hockney’s view in his many paintings and drawings of her, we have never had a real chance to see Birtwell as she would like to be seen. It’s a rare opportunity to read a book that has for it’s subject a person who is both creator and muse.

As a retrospective, this is long overdue.  Birtwell’s career has spanned decades, from couture to homewares to a much lauded collection for Topshop, she’s been there, done that and designed the t-shirt (or crepe de chine blouse, more likely).

It’s sumptuously illustrated – with the perfect mix of sketches, personal photos, artworks and fashion photography.  And from the centre of each page, Birtwell shines out, either in her designs or as a twinkly-eyed, Pre-Raphaelite maiden.

The book is meticulously referenced; every person, place or thing that makes an appearance in the book is given pride of place.  Every print has a name and a history.  Every influence is of equal importance.

If you’re looking for scandal and intrigue, you’ve picked up the wrong book.  While never giving the reader the impression that she’s holding anything back, the heartbreak and difficulties that she had to go through are never dealt with in any deep, personal way.  However, we get the impression that this isn’t becuase Birtwell is knowingly concealing facts, but rather because her personality spurs her to take everything on the chin and keep looking towards the future. An admirable (and unusually rare) trait. One of my favourite books this year.


Celia Birtwell is published by Quadrille and is out now.

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