Finding Harry Massey
*Recorded version of this blog post above, just click the 'play' icon*
As part of the research for my upcoming book, I’ve gone back to some research threads I began on in 2013, when I was attempting to trace various wholesale couture manufacturers. In the past eight years it seems that A LOT more records (and by that, I mean things like newspaper articles, census data and things like passenger lists) have become accessible online. Not only does this, understandably, make research a lot easier but it has also seen me revising some of my theories about the men and women I previously researched. At present, i’m not sure how many of their life stories I can weave into the book. Overall, I know I will be illustrating the significance of Jewish immigration for the wholesale couture trade, but how many of the complicated, interesting lives of these fashion professionals I will be able to tell… I am not certain. For this reason, I’m hoping to use this blog as a space to investigate some of these stories of families tied up in the fashion trade, whilst looking to analyse the broader picture in my book.
In some ways, I’ve found myself drowning in material (which, trust me, was not the situation when I was last researching this topic). I’m going to try and keep these blog posts as short and succinct as possible, but if anyone wants more information about the firms discussed here, and in the subsequent blog posts I plan to publish, drop me an email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I decided to start my research back with a key company that was part of the wholesale couture trade; Simon Massey. Now, I know Simon Massey will certainly be one of the firms I look at in the book because it was one of the few (partly thanks to very clever employment of young emergent designers) which managed to remain relevant within the fashion industry right up until 1970. In this blog post I will primarily concentrate on the firm in the period up to c.1960 with a later blog post concentrating on the firm in the 1960s and the work of fashion designer Janice Wainwright for the brand.
So, where to begin? The ‘real’ Simon Massey’s life can be regarded as fairly typical for the wholesale couture trade. Indeed, Simon Massey was not the real name of the man behind the brand. The ‘real’ Simon Massey was a man born as Harry Masoff, who later adopted the name Harry Massey. Massey was born in March 1901 in Odessa. Today this is part of Ukraine, but at the time Massey was born this was part of Russia. His parents Clara and Marks were also from Odessa. The 1911 census suggests that Massey and his older siblings Joseph and Esther were both born in Russia, whilst his younger brother Abram was born in London. There was certainly a pogrom (persecution of Jewish people) in Odessa in 1905, so it would make sense if they had come to Britain around then. At the time of the 1911 census the family were living at 79 Brady St Mansions, Whitechapel, the whole family living in just two rooms. The census indicated that Massey’s father Marks was working as presser in the ladies tailoring trade. Harry Massey was unquestionably one of the most successful fashion manufacturers of the mid twentieth century- as I will go on to discuss later in this blog post, yet as the 1911 census indicates he began his life in London in relative poverty. He is an excellent example of the upwards mobility of many Jewish families who arrived in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th century. Rising, it would appear, quickly from poverty to affluence. (If you would like to read more on this topic Andrew Godley discusses it at length in the excellent Jewish Immigrant Entrepreneurship in New York and London: 1880-1914.)
I would like to consider, briefly, Massey’s name change. In some ways this made tracking him down pretty difficult. However, over the past two months I have slowly but surely ‘re-attached’ these stories of a pioneering fashion manufacturer. In December 1939 Harry Masoff, alongside his two brothers, officially changed his name. All three brothers choose to anglicise their surname from Masoff to Massey, and both of Harry’s brothers also changed their first names. Judas to Joseph (this was an ‘official’ change although he had always used the name Joe or Joseph) and Abram to Alfred. Name changing, particularly Jewish name changing, was not uncommon in this period. However, there has been more research done around this phenomenon in the US than the UK (see A Rosenberg by any other name by Kirsten Fermaglich). Certainly, many fashion manufacturers in London changed their names. Almost all of the first and second generation Jewish immigrant fashion manufacturers I have researched changed their names. Most of these men and women adopted names which were anglicised versions of their more obviously European names. Smaller numbers chose completely new names or adopted their mother’s maiden names, if they were more English sounding.
There were many complex reasons, as Fermaglich highlights, for such name changing, the obvious one being anti-Semitism. When one considers that the Massey family changed their name in 1939, it seems very possible that this was why the family changed their name. For other families though there were many other different complex reasons; supposed ease of pronunciation, career progression, or simply assimilation into new British life could be amongst the reasons. However, as Fermaglich suggests many were not looking to remove themselves from Jewish life and remained active members of the Jewish community, donating to Jewish causes, as Harry Massey did.
I do feel I have to be open and honest here and say I feel I am walking on slightly tricky ground; I am not certain how many of the figures I have researched positioned themselves either as Jews or as immigrants. Ultimately, it’s unclear whether they wanted to cover up or renounce their past altogether. Without them alive it’s a hard and knotty question to deal with, and how best to respect them. Particularly as a non-Jew I want to ensure that any of my discussions about Jewishness, culture, name changing etc are as respectful as possible, so please if you are Jewish and want to comment I would love to hear your thoughts.
I’d now like to turn to consider Harry’s career, because WOW. When I started this research, I considered him to just be the man behind Simon Massey, A successful wholesale couture firm. It turns out he actually had a much more diverse career. If I hadn’t found out he had previously gone by the name Harry Masoff, none of this would have ever come to light. My research suggests that Massey’s career really took off in the early 1930s. An article appearing in Women’s Wear Daily on April 13th 1936 suggested;
N.B. added in square brackets is information from a different part of the article!
Harry Masoff, who would fit an American description of a high-powered go getter, is a sort of financial trust for numerous British dress manufacturing businesses, an organiser of companies and a dynamic salesman. On the sunny side of 35, he figures in the American picture through his ownership of Peggy Page Ltd [dresses at 16s 11d and 25s]. He controls Weingarten’s Ltd [garment range from 12s 11d to 29s 6d], the Paramount Dress co, which imports American dresses to sell for 25 to 63 shillings, owns another manufacturing enterprise called Women’s Wear [prices ‘slightly lower’ than Weingarten], is interested in a coat house, Edward Freeman Ltd, and, if he has not sold it at profit, has an infants’ wear business in Ireland.
Masoff, a dress salesman until he started a small shop and an even smaller workroom on his own account, was once Ornstein’s partner. Together they launched several companies to produce garments in varying price lines. Whether or not Masoff’s idea of standardising prices and methods instead of style failed to harmonise with Ornstein’s theory of higher priced, quality garments is beside the point, but they dissolved the partnership and divided the business they had jointly built up by […] having them impartially appraised and offering to buy or sell each unit to one another. Ornstein continued the Ornstein and Masoff concern and became financially interested in the Liss business.
I fully realise this is A LOT of company names to take in, in one go. But to try and explain- the Ornstein mentioned here is Morris Ornstein, who was one of the leading British ready-to-wear manufacturers. Liss was Jack Liss, an American manufacturer who travelled over to the UK to establish new British ready-to-wear firms on American principles in the late 1920s/early 1930s. Jack Liss, alongside Samuel Krohnberg (who had originally run Peggy Page with Harry Masoff) was in 1933 regarded as manufacturing ‘the bulk’ of British produced American styled dresses sold in Britain.
Harry Massey’s companies, as listed in the Women’s Wear Daily article, are what might be termed as ‘medium’ or ‘mass’ firms. As another 1936 Women’s Wear Daily article suggested they produced ‘dresses made by British labor, trained to American systems, at prices to which Britain was unaccustomed for garments of their style and character.’ What this, and other articles from the mid 1930s make extremely clear is how important American manufacturers and methods were for the British ‘popular price’ fashion industry.
The firms that Massey ran in the mid 1930s were quite different to the Simon Massey firm he eventually established. It is interesting that in the 1930s he sold off his higher priced quality garment business, Ornstein and Masoff, only to establish another a few years later.
Of the companies Massey ran in the 1930s there was one I was really interested in, Peggy Page. This is because the firm remained incredibly popular both in Britain and further afield until the 1970s, and is a brand I’ve collected over the years. My research indicates that Peggy Page was established in early 1933 by Harry, alongside Samuel Krohnberg. An article in Women’s Wear Daily (26 April 1933) suggested that ‘
Turning out American dresses British made is what Samuel Krohnberg, late of the Bijou Dress Co, New York is now doing in the West End of London and doing it as a paying proposition. Under the style of Peggy Page Ltd. He has organised a dress manufacturing business operating on American principles and using American models. He is also using American silks to some extent, though the bulk of fabrics employed are of British origin for obvious reasons.
Mr Krohnberg says he is turning out his dresses in American sizes and reports big retail stores are taking up his garments on almost boom scale. He is now turning out 6000 garments a week, and will shortly step up to 10,000. He has 100 employees in his shop, which is located at 3 Little Portland Street, off Regent Street.
Whilst this article suggests that manufacturing was being done on Little Portland Street, certainly by late 1933 Peggy Page garments were also being produced in a factory in Edmonton, North London. When this article was written Harry Massey owned half of Peggy Page, but by 1935 had also bought Krohnberg’s half share.
America, and in particular New York, was very important to Harry Massey’s business model. He bought American designs for his business (some of which were ‘refinished’ in Britain before being sold), used the market more generally as a source of inspiration, and then by the 1940s actually sold the Simon Massey brand widely in the US. Massey himself travelled to the US regularly on business. Having looked into many other fashion businesses of the period Massey can be regarded as a very frequent traveller. I can track him travelling by boat to New York and other international destinations at least once, and often twice a year during the 1930s, and then in the post war period between 1945-1960 at least once a year. It is perhaps illustrative of the success of his companies that he was able to travel 1st class.
The information regarding these trips comes from passenger lists for international travel accessible via ancestry. These paint an interesting picture and suggest how Massey’s business changed in the 1930s (his profession was first listed as a merchant, then a gown manufacturer and then a ‘director’) and who else was involved with his business. Certainly by 1946, aged just 20, Harry Massey’s son Leslie had joined the company. His profession then already listed as ‘director’. I’ll return to Leslie again at a later date, but I believe that he was behind the 1960s rejuvenation of the Simon Massey brand and the important employment of Janice Wainwright as a designer for the company. Indeed, it is perhaps Wainwright’s designers for the company which are today best recognised.
Like many of the firms I’ve researched Harry Massey’s empire was certainly a family one. His son Leslie was involved as I’ve just mentioned, but so too were his brothers. I don’t know precisely where Massey’s brothers fit into the company or companies, but thanks to passenger lists I am confident they worked alongside Harry- both travelled with him to the US during the 1930s and 1940s (An article appearing in December 1937 in Women’s Wear Daily suggested that Alfred Masoff was ‘of Peggy Page Ltd.)’ In the 1939 England and Wales register Harry is listed as ‘Director- Ladies Outerwear company’ His brother Alfred is listed as a ‘Sales Director’ and his brother Joe as ‘Manager- Gown Factory.’
After Harry Massey changed his name in 1939 it does become a little more challenging to track the businesses he owned. The last mention of Massey running all of the companies listed in the 1936 article quoted previously (plus Simon Massey) appeared in Women’s Wear Daily (23 November 1945). Regardless of whether he did or did not continue running these companies it can be seen that Massey was a pioneer of ‘popular priced’ American style ready-to-wear in Britain.
When I started this research, I intended to focus primarily on Simon Massey. However, there is pretty scant information about the early history of the company to be found, and I haven’t been able to trace the exact date when the firm was established. I would like to make clear that this research is being completed in the midst of a pandemic, so I only have internet sources available. In normal times this research would have (and hopefully will be!) enhanced by real life sources- in particular London Post Office directories, which would help me to work out more precise dates for company establishment etc.
The first concrete evidence I have for the existence of Simon Massey comes from an advertisement in the West London Observer on the 5th November 1943. It stated;
We want workers in all depts. For highest class dressmaking and ladies tailoring. Full and part time (hours to suit yourself). Top pay and bonus: 5 day week. Also outworkers (dresses and tailoring) for ready cut work. Good prices paid. Simon Massey, 6 Upper Grosvenor Street.
There were numerous similar advertisements to this in the ‘local’ London papers between 1943 and 1945 and, I think indicate quite a newly established business. These kind of advertisements also provide a real glimpse into how such firms were positioning themselves. Another in the West London Observer on the 11th February 1944 stated;
Excellent opportunity for permanent well paid posts. Fully experienced dressmakers required for highest class Mayfair haut (sic) couture house. Able to make throughought. 5 day week’
Now, this advertisement interested me because Massey’s firm was unquestionably a wholesale NOT haute couture house. A further advertisement appearing the West London Observer on the 16th March 1945 advertised for;
Pressers, tailors £15-£20 per week. Liners, skirt hands, felling hands- £6-£8 per week. Comfortable conditions. 5 day week. Apply Mr Freedman, Simon Massey workrooms, 37A Brook Street, White Lion Yard, W1.
This suggests that by 1945 Massey had moved some of his manufacturing of the Simon Massey firm out of the showrooms (however Brook Street was still very close by!)
After a veritable glut of articles relating to Harry in Women’s Wear Daily in the 1930s, he very rarely appears again in the paper after WW2, other than articles suggesting that he was soon to arrive in the US on business, or those which promoted the firm of Simon Massey. Designs by the company Simon Massey appeared regularly in the advertisements and editorials of the leading British fashion magazines and in 1946 the firm became a founder member of the London Model House Group, who I will be discussing at length in the book.
One thing I would love to find out more about is the late 1940s fashion advertisements for Simon Massey, many of which are in colour and beautifully illustrated. These seem to have two signatures ‘Miki’ or ‘Grant’. I believe both of those seen here are by Grant, but I feel that fashion illustrators of the period are still very much under-appreciated (or studied! Probably because there’s so little information available about the British ones).
Much of the other information I’ve managed to find out about Harry Massey was in fact related to the breakdown of his two marriages. His second marriage was to Peach Benabo.
Massey and Benabo, according to late newspaper articles met in 1941. They married in 1948, although were divorced by 1953 after Peach ‘ran off with a penniless swimming instructor’ in Cannes. The story was splashed across newspapers in 1953. I wanted to share this story primarily to provide some context for the story below from the Daily Mirror (21st November 1945), which discusses Peach’s work as a designer for the company;
Tomorrow a 5ft 4in brunette of 22 will step onto a plane and fly the Atlantic to boost the sale of British clothes amongst American women. She is Peach Benabo, five years ago a war time school-girl, today one of the top-line creators in the more expensive wholesale houses. She will visit big American towns, where she will model dresses, most of which she has designed herself.
When I called yesterday at Simon Massey’s in Upper Grosvenor Street, London Peach was busily directing the packing of the seventeen sample models she is taking. ‘It’s my fist trip to America and I am thrilled to be entrusted with the job of helping to boost our export trade,’ She told me. ‘I’ll be there three months exploring market possibilities.’
Peach began her career in November 1942 as a saleswoman. Two months later, and the only designer left, and an imploring Peach, without any design experience was given her big chance. ‘I’ve never studied art- can’t draw a single line’ she told me. ‘But I managed by draping material over stands and explaining my ideas to the cutters.’ ‘My speciality is coats and suits.’ Many times Peach has seen her creations worn about London streets. ‘Sometimes they look grand.’ She says. But I’ve also gnashed my teeth when I’ve seen them looking hideous on the wrong figure and types.’
Peach has big plans in mind for when she returns from the States. She’d like to do some designing for the stage and the screen. ‘Designing is such fun’ she finished. ‘And I’d certainly advise any young girl who wants an interesting, well paid job to try her hand at it.’
It’s actually quite unusual in this period to find out much in-depth information regarding wholesale couture firms’ designers, so to have this is particularly useful. Indeed, this article indicates still in 1945 the importance of America for Massey’s business both in terms of exportation and gathering ideas.
Before I ramble on too much further, I’ll end this piece here. As I hope I’ve illustrated Massey was incredibly important to the British ready-to-wear in the 1930s and 1940s.He can be seen as a pioneer in the popular price market and also in his recognition of the importance of both American manufacturing and American design ideas for this sector of the market. In the 1940s he diversified into wholesale couture with the Simon Massey label, again proving to be one of the most successful firms, certainly some of his mid 1940s success was created by his partner, Peach. The Simon Massey firm continued successfully during the late 1940s and into the 1950s. It seems the popularity of the brand dropped off in the late 1950s, only to be revived again in the 1960s, likely by Leslie Massey and some innovative young designers, including Janice Wainwright. But I’ll save her for another day. There’s more blog posts already in production, so look out for more here soon on the firm Koupy and Janice Wainwright’s designs for Simon Massey!