Searching for Madame de Witt
When this little jacket came up on ebay I couldn’t resist purchasing it. It’s a piece of wholesale couture with an interesting retailers label and felt like the perfect excuse for a little bit of research. In this post I’ll talk about the jacket, who made it and retailed it and explore some of my ‘go to’ online resources for research.
Let’s start with the jacket itself. This lovely blue and white stripe jacket is made from a twill (almost herringbone) weave cotton with a satin lining which is hand stitched in place. It has a fitted shape and fastens with fabric covered buttons. I’m sure this would have originally been part of two-piece suit with a matching skirt.
The manufacturers label is stitched into the neckline of the jacket. This large woven label states ‘Matita. London, Paris, New York. Made in England.’ Matita were one of the leading London wholesale couturiers and exported their garments internationally. Wholesale couturiers produced designs which were copied or adapted from French couture for the ready-to-wear market. Their pieces are often beautifully made, with lots of hand finished details like buttonholes and linings.
Rather usefully wholesale couturiers were prolific advertisers and their advertisements are often found in fashion magazines including Vogue, Tatler and Harper’s. I’ve done a little bit of hunting for an advertisement, using the British Newspaper Archive and my own hoard of 1950s copies of Vogue, however I haven’t been able to find one for this jacket. I will say that Matita produced a lot of stripey suits and I would expect that this is a mid 1950s example.
Whilst I wanted to purchase this piece as it was a good example of wholesale couture, what intrigued me the most was the retailers label, ‘Madame de Witt, Croydon’. I currently live in Croydon, so this provided me with an excuse to look into fashion retailing in my local area. In the midst of Covid-19 local studies and archive centres are shut, so I’ve had to rely on the internet and going to look at physical buildings in Croydon, as research. Unquestionably this is not ideal, but it’s a good start!
Croydon Guardian and Surrey County Gazette, 1888, via British Newspaper Archive
My jacket dates to the 1950s, however Madame de Witt goes MUCH further back. The earliest record I can find of the shop dates to 1888 when an advertisement appeared in the Croydon Guardian and Surrey County Gazette (found via the British Newspaper Archive). It stated: ‘Madame de Witt begs to inform the ladies of Croydon that she is now offering all summer millinery at less than half price’. The advertisement provides the address of 74 George Street, however the business moved a number of times in the following few years. In the 1891 census it was located at 64 George Street and by 1896 it was located at 78 George Street where it stayed until at least 1911. Madame de Witt existed in Croydon until at least 1967. In that year an editorial feature in the Illustrated London News suggested a Matita tweed suit was purchasable from the store, however it doesn’t give a precise address for the shop within Croydon.
George Street, 2020
Looking around George Street today it is interesting to consider the date plaques that adorn the top of many buildings. Largely the older buildings on George Street date to the 1880s or 1890s. 64 George Street is the only one of Madame de Witt’s premises that appears to be pre 1900. Unfortunately this building does not have a date plaque, so I cannot be sure whether this is the actual building Madame de Witt was located in.
74 and 78 George Street no longer exist, on this site today is Suffolk house, built in the 1960s. Suffolk house is just meters from 101 George Street, the world’s tallest modular tower, and planning documents suggest that Suffolk House may be set to go as part of the Croydon masterplan.
Whilst researching Madame de Witt it was interesting to wander around East Croydon and realise just how many of the significant and grand buildings of the area appeared in the 1880s and 1890s. This is indicative of Croydon’s expansion in the period. In 1889 Croydon became a county borough and the 1890s saw the widening of the high street and clearance of the Middle Row slum. Just one example of the period (and one of my personal favourite buildings in the town) is Grants which opened in 1895. The original Victorian windows and façade sit above the modern shop fronts.
Madame de Witt was a ‘milliner’. Today we associate milliners with making hats, however historically a milliner would have sold a real range of items. This meant ‘ready-made’ garments (how we buy most of our garments today) alongside fabric, ribbons, trims and all range of accessories including hats. Milliners typically had onsite workrooms and advertisements indicate that this was the case for Madame de Witt.
Census, 1911, via ancestry
So who was Madame de Witt? I believe the original Madame de Witt was a lady called Caroline Elizabeth Bowles, in 1897 the London Gazette reported that a business, ‘Madame de Witt’ between Caroline and her husband Henry George Bowles was being dissolved, and run by just Caroline, as he was retiring. After searching Ancestry Caroline was found. I first ‘located’ her in the 1911 census and then I traced her back. As can be seen in 1911 she was running the business with her daughter (the sister seen here is actually her sister-in-law), with the family living onsite. Caroline was living at the business address in both the 1901 and 1891 census.
Banns of marriage, 1887, via ancestry
Caroline proved hard to trace but I believe the name Madame de Witt stems from her own maiden name, Witts. Caroline also went by the name Elizabeth and I cannot trace her prior to 1887 when she married Henry George Bowles. Via ancestry I was able to find Henry and Caroline’s Banns of marriage. This indicates that it was very unlikely that the shop was established prior to their marriage.
Caroline Bowles passed away in 1912, and after this date I’m not entirely sure what happened to the shop, or who ran it. In 1911 her daughter Gladys had been assisting in the business and it is entirely possible that she continued to run it. I could find very little about Gladys (married name Gladys de Witt Neve), tragically the only other record I have found of her was as a civilian casualty during WWII.
For now this is where my hunt for Madame De Witt ends and certainly this is a post that I will have to revisit post lockdown. Despite searching google with every search term I could think of and hunting through facebook local history groups I could not find any images of the shop. Many images of the local area seem to show the left-hand side of George Street at the junction with Park Lane, but not the right (where both 74 and 78 George Street would have been located. My only question left to ponder is, as the shop existed until at least 1967 do any Croydon residents remember it, and did it stay at 78 George Street?