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Evening dress - West African

West African

  • Object:

    Evening dress

  • Place of origin:

    London (made)
    Manchester (fabric, made)

  • Date:

    1948 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Etches, Matilda (designer)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Printed cotton

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Mrs Matilda Etches-Homan

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This evening dress is an haute-couture interpretation of the wrapped garments traditionally worn by West African women. The drapery and folds of the dress are mounted on a rigid boned waistband. The crisp cotton fabric, printed in Manchester, was intended for export to Africa. The fabric design imitates Indonesian batik, and the borders feature the letter 'V' and '...-', its morse code signal. V-for-Victory was a popular subject for export cotton prints after the end of the Second World War. By using this fabric for a fashionable Western evening dress, the designer has created a sophisticated garment incorporating several cultures and traditions.

Matilda Etches is now almost entirely forgotten except as a theatre, ballet and opera costume-maker. However, she was an extremely talented couturier, whose fashionable clothes were innovative and very carefully made. When she donated a selection of her work to the Museum in 1969, this dress and a 'Butterfly' cape (see T.185-1969) were shown to senior Museum officials as key acquisitions. They were the first modern fashion items to be accorded this honour.

Physical description

Full length evening dress made of claret and brown batik-printed cotton. With wrap-like details. Held together by a waist stay, and bodice unlined with a diagonal seam across the front. Elaborate and complex construction. Fastens up the back and down the bodice side up to armhole with hooks and eyes. the bodice has two armholes, and would be boat-necked but for the cutaway asymmetrical yoke in the front. Sheath skirt with stiffened drape at the side, designed to be hooked across the front hip and then train down the side of the skirt. The makers name tape is stitched inside the skirt.

Place of Origin

London (made)
Manchester (fabric, made)


1948 (made)


Etches, Matilda (designer)

Materials and Techniques

Printed cotton


Circumference: 61 cm waist, Length: 102 cm waist to hem, Length: 41 cm bodice length to waist, Circumference: 91 cm bust

Object history note

This dress is featured in Vogue, April 1948, on page 71 in a photograph by John Deakin.

From correspondence of Madeleine Ginsburg to Matilda Etches-Homan, letter written 9 June 1969, following acceptance of the Etches collection & dossier

"The image of our 20th century costume collection has received a great boost through you! For the first time clothes from this century have been chosen to show the meeting of our advisory committee - a honour usually reserved only for medieval embroideries. They are to see the Butterfly cape and the West African cotton dress."

From correspondence of Matilda Etches-Homan, letter written November 5th 1968 from her Washington hotel to Madeleine Ginsburg: (regarding pieces left for collection at her Brighton home)

"I left the West African Dress on the Charles James Dress stand. It looked so well - I just wrapped it up in muslin."

Historical significance: This was the first 20th century V&A fashion donation to be shown to the advisory committee, along with the red/maroon Butterfly cape.

Descriptive line

Full-length evening dress 'West African' made of batik-printed cotton, designed by Matilda Etches, London, 1948

Labels and date

This ultra-sophisticated evening dress is not made in rustling silk as one would expect, but in an equally effective printed cotton made in Manchester for export. The pattern replicates East Indian batik and touches are taken from ethnic dress and married to prevailing high-fashion trends. Patriotic borders are printed with the World War II's 'V' for Victory sign, followed by its morse code signal '... -'. [1997]





Subjects depicted

Phoenix; Morse code; Batik


Fashion; Evening wear; Formal wear; Women's clothes; Textiles; African Diaspora

Production Type

Haute couture


Textiles and Fashion Collection

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