Amy Kotze, Dressmaker to the cause

Shelley Tobin, Costume Curator Shelley Tobin Costume Curator
Killerton peacock day dress detail

This month we take a closer look at designer Amy Kotze.

Last month we welcomed The Costume Society to Killerton for their Autumn Study Day.

One of our speakers, Amy Towle shed some light on her namesake, the embroiderer and dressmaker Amy Kotze.  You can read a little more about our dress embroidered in the style of Amy Kotze by clicking below.

Beautifully constructed from heavy wool the dress dates from about 1908-10.  Hand-embroidered in colourful cotton thread with a bold design of peacock feathers on the yoke, collar and buttons, the dress also has an embroidered belt and a suspended pocket, closely resembling  Kotze’s designs.

Exquisite detail
Detail of a dress in the collection at Killerton, Devon
Exquisite detail
" ‘As well as the head lady, there were seven embroidery hands, four junior hands and five apprentices in our workroom. Each apprentice was put to work beside a hand.’"
- Interview with employee, Liberty Artistic and Historic Dress Studio, embroidery workshop

Liberty’s embroidery studio

Born in South Africa, Kotze was working for Liberty by the early 1900s.  Liberty’s Artistic and Historic Dress Studio, opened in 1884, led the way in aesthetic dress style. The census returns for 1901 give Amy’s address as 24 Regent Street, not far from the current Liberty department store built in 1924.  Amy drew out and began designs for embroiderers to follow.

Apparently Kotze suffered from migraines and eventually gave up her work with Liberty to set up on her own in Marlborough Street, advertising her shop in Votes for Women, the W.S.P.U. newspaper.

A suffragette dressmaker?

" ‘her work is very picturesque and highly characteristic, and the colouring alone specially calls for more than a cursory glance. In addition to robes, coats etc are lovely “workers’ dresses” and children’s frocks, both for boys and girls.’"
- Votes for Women, 1909

Emmeline Pankhurst commissioned a dress from Kotze, perhaps heightening demand for Amy’s distinctive designs. Dress historian Cally Blackman, in her article for The Costume Society found here, points out that Kotze may also have made for Christabel Pankhurst

A glimpse of early twentieth fashion
Beautiful peacock embroidered dress at Killerton, Devon
A glimpse of early twentieth fashion

Photographs by Christina Broom (Museum of London collections) show stalls at the W.S.P.U.’s  Women’s Exhibition of 13 to 26 May, 1909. One is stocked with ‘artistic’ gowns and coats, identified in the exhibition programme as donated by Amy Kotze. More than 50 stalls raised funds for the cause by selling a variety of donated goods from sweets to millinery, depicting  suffragettes in a ‘good’ light, as conventionally feminine makers and creators of beautiful things,  rather than as destructive ‘shrieking sisters’. Department stores donated hats and other goods for sale. W.S.P.U. ‘branded’ goods in the organisation’s colours of purple, white and green were also sold. Kotze raised £50.00 (£3,000 today) from the sale of her clothes.

Similar Arts and Crafts influenced dress is seen in contemporary photographs of campaigners such as Charlotte Marsh, Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney.  Embroidered blouses and pinafore dresses were popular round about 1908-10. Suspended pockets also featured in fashionable dress. The large scale embroidery and cut of our gown is similarly inventive and reminiscent of Kotze’s work. I particularly like the embroidered buttons and stylish finish to the belt at the back waist.

Further research

The dress came to Killerton in the 1980s, with absolutely no record of its provenance. Without a dressmaker or shop label it would be hard to prove its origins.

So how do we find out more? London archives may yet have more to reveal. Little is known about Kotze and her career as an embroiderer and dressmaker. Her name does not appear on the 1911 census. Perhaps she protested by not completing the census form in that year.  From about 1913 Amy Kotze was advertising millinery rather than gowns, and by the 1920s was running an art gallery.

Kotze did not label her gowns in a conventional way. Instead she hid an embroidered arrow (symbolic of suffragette imprisonment) inside the seams.

Guess what we will be doing when the dress comes off display at the end of the exhibition?