ILLA KNINA

 (llona Kodicek)  1899 - 1990

 

 

Until her salon closed in 1970, Madame Illa Knina, was the doyenne of Mayfair corsetičres for over 30 years. It is ironic that the name of her erstwhile rival salon, Rigby and Peller lives on, but who today can say they knew or know who Illa Knina was, or that the two salons were then only a few hundred yards apart, each a short walk west from New Bond Street?

 

Illa Knina, already a renowned corsetičre in Europe, established her business at 30, Bruton Street in 1939 where it remained until she shut up shop in 1970, at the age of 71. Until the 1960s, good corsetry was literally the foundation of high society women of all sizes. Mayfair was where their salons were to be found, Rigby and Peller, at 12, South Molton Street, Rose Lewis at 18, James Street from 1948-1957, after which she moved to the north side of Knightsbridge opposite Harvey Nichols where the business remained until the late 1990s. For the figure conscious gentlemen waiting for his spouse or partner there was Overett, east of New Bond Street on Hanover Square, to which address they had moved from Knightsbridge in the late 1930's.

 

As well as establishing a renowned corset salon, Illa Knina was a great patron of the arts and in death a notable benefactress of charity. A testament to the beauty of her creations is found in no less a place than the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is not just the wonderful colour but the attention to detail, such the hooks to hold the long line bra on the girdle. The girdle itself is formidably long, completely contains the hips, but the designer, obviously an experienced corset wearer, has fitted an elastic gusset to preclude any compromise on gait. Close at hand is a pair of strong front suspenders attached to the girdle seams to prevent overstretching of the elastic at the hem.  The final touches are the satin tabs to give its nervous wearer the reassurance that, if she’s wearing a sheath like skirt, her front suspender 'bumps' are safely concealed from roving eyes. (See Appendix Two for more information.)

 

 

 

 THE HERITAGE

 

Who was this forgotten lady? As we will see, the woman, Ilona Essig Knina Kodicek was a most remarkable lady. Her story begins on 23 October 1899, when Ilona, the only daughter and second child of five children was born in Budapest to Sabina, a Czech, and Leo Essig a Hungarian. Known by the diminutive Illa, when she was but a year and a half old, the family moved to Vienna where Leo could better supervise the chain of leather goods shops he had established all across the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. (This embraced what are today Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.)
 
She was born into an era when women sought to emulate the waists of the fashion icons of Victorian and Edwardian Europe such as the Empress Elizabeth of Austria and Princess Mary of Teck, later Queen Mary of England. In her teens Illa would no doubt have been corseted in the classic styles of the day as would have been her mother and maidservants.


 

THE PRAGUE YEARS

 

At an early age and in order to escape the monotony of family life, she married a wealthy Viennese businessman, Erwin Knina, who had fallen in love with the very pretty young girl. The couple then moved to Prague. As Illa had inherited her father's talent for working materials and personally trained as a sculptor it was not long before Erwin realized the potential of converting these talents into a business enterprise and thus was born the House of Illa Knina, a corset salon catering to those women with the means to afford the very best in corsetry. Records show that the idea was a good one for the corsetry salon became famous in pre-war Europe and Illa was established as a very successful corsetičre.

One can but imagine her producing even sculpting the sewing forms on which she would sew or display her range of corsets. At the thought of sewing forms one is reminded of the 1995 TV adaptation of 'Cold Comfort Farm' in which Joanna Lumley at her over the top best plays the part of West End grande dame Mrs Mary Smiling who is the elegant confidante of orphan Flora Poste (Kate Beckinsale). In one memorable scene elegant Mary, frumpy Flora and friend walk between the sewing forms and mannequins displaying Mary’s wonderful collection of corsets and lingerie.

Although they had a son, the Knina’s marriage did not last and they divorced. Erwin returned to Vienna leaving Illa to run the corsetiere business on her own. It was then that she met and married a man eight years her senior, Josef Kodicek. Not only was he a distinguished Czech writer, philosopher and theatre critic, but he was 'a leading light of his generation' and one who knew Freud, Adler and Jung. In 1957, the late Dr. Otto Radl wrote:-
 
“He too was talented and was a writer of genius, a critic and a newspaperman, who devoted his life to literature and art, theatre and films. He always stayed faithful to the democratic world outlook, and who represented the greatest influence on two subsequent generations in democratic Czechoslovakia.
 
In Prague, the Kodiceks established themselves at the centre of society and an old acquaintance recalled that, "Before the war Illa presided over the foremost salon in Prague, was wealthy and beautiful, and a young man felt that he had really 'arrived' if he managed to get an invitation to the Kodiceks where the foremost writers and artists of the day would be present.”
 
However, her business success was brought to an abrupt halt by the Munich agreement of 1938 because Joseph Kodicek, a high profile intellectual, passionate Jewish Czech nationalist was a sure target for the Nazis who by then were occupying the Sudetenland and only a short drive away from Prague.

Heeding the warning signs of the coming Nazi regime, Illa and Josef fled to London where they arrived in those anxious times with few possessions and little money. Nevertheless, they managed to create a new home and carry on the fight against oppression.

 

 

LONDON 1939

 

Undaunted, by the loss of her Prague corset salon Illa quickly found premises on Bruton Street in London's Mayfair, where, as shown by the late 1939 entry on the phone book, she had re-established her corsetry business.

 

 

She had shrewdly selected her location. Bond Street was only steps away. How easy it would be for society ladies to complete their shopping for the season’s fashions and pop into a discreet side street and entrust their figures to corsetry of the highest quality and most imaginative designs.

 

Thus in the short period up to the outbreak of war it was recognised that Illa Knina, the premičre corsetičre in Europe now had the same reputation in England.

 

The Kodiceks first lived in a flat in Chelsea and later moved away form the Blitz to a house in Walton-on-Thames where their celebrated library and burgeoning art collection were displayed. As well as their new house they also found a pied-a-terre in Curzon Street, which served as ready access to their respective places of work.

 

Josef worked initially for the BBC in Langham Place until it was bombed in 1940 and then in Bush house. He broadcast to Europe for the BBC and was editor of the official London paper of the Czechoslovak Foreign Ministry, The Central European Observer.

 

The area around Illa's business in Bruton Street has always seen fine art galleries and these must have acted like a magnet to Illa as she walked between her salon and the Curzon Street flat. Josef was no doubt interested in pictures but it appears that it was Illa who initiated the art collecting with the money she made as a corsetičre. In that regard one would think that the exigencies of wartime would have affected her business until one recalls that high society women drawn to Bond Street have always been drawn from the wealthy end of the social stratum, where the cost of my lady’s corsetry was insignificant even at Madame Knina’s prices.

 

 

POST WAR

 

Whilst Illa and Josef had fled to London, Erwin Knina had married again and emigrated to Australia. There, along with his new wife he set up Corsetiere Knina importing the very latest designs from Illa in London. From one side of the globe to the other the Kninas were influencing the shape of womens’ fashion. The words of a paragraph on the fashion page of the Sydney Morning Herald of 5th August 1947 say it all:-
 

That very tone of the piece gives a clue as to the outlook of the better off fashion conscious women, be they from Australia or anywhere else for that matter. The war years of austerity were over and Dior’s 'New Look' had arrived and had taken the world, not just Paris and Sydney, by storm. That short fashion piece tells us that she was highly innovative in her designs and introduced under-wired bras. Inspired perhaps by the Mainbocher corset of 1939, she had produced high waisted styles, which would not just nip the waist but were “a subtle modern version of the hour glass figure”. She made back-lacing and front-lacing “to flatten the figure”, surely poetic licence given that the busk of a back lacer is surely the most effective tummy flattener ever invented!

 

By the 1950s her adverts appeared regularly in Vogue and other fashion magazines. These were not just three liners in the classified advertisements, but quarter page or larger accompanied by drawings or photographs of what she offered. Two from 1953 are reproduced here:-

 

 

 

At a time when the average weekly wage was still only about Ł6, 'belts' (the euphemism for girdle or corset) was priced at six guineas, while a subtly boned corset swimsuit of the type Princess Margaret was reputed to wear could cost 12 guineas or two weeks' wages. That said, the styles were innovative and the plunging neckline, cleavage revealing 'Marquise' in the advert was far ahead of its time and certainly is quite lovely to behold even today. By 1957, Alison Adburgham, in an article in that amusement of the upper classes, 'Punch' from 27th March 1957 issue wrote:-

 

"For the pleasure bestowed by the contemplation of pure artistry one must visit Illa Knina. Her clients include princesses, royal duchesses, actresses - all the most famous and flattered figures in London are moulded by her foundations. These are couture corsets; made to measure, made to last, made with dedication and delight; made in nylon brocades, black-and-gold, blue-and-gold, green-and-silver and in magnificently colourful Italian flower prints. They are the costume-museum pieces of the future. She came to London at Munich time without a single client, without a penny for publicity. Yet - and this she cannot explain - from the very first day the clients came and now they come from far and wide."

 

 

2010 - RECOGNITION AGAIN

 

As will be shown in the appendix, two of Illa’s creations have found their way into the fashion artefacts of none other than the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London. Her long-line brassiere in luscious deep blue is featured in a new book and catalogue 'Underwear: Fashion in Detail' (pub. Oct 2010) written by Eleri Lynn, Fashion Curator at the V&A. Ms. Lynn writes:-

 

Madame Illa Knina was a famous Mayfair corsetičre with prestigious clients that included royalty and Hollywood actresses. She played on her exclusive image to advertise her ready-to-wear and mail-order ranges as ‘the haute couture of corsetry’. She also had mass-market ambitions and designed several ranges for Marks and Spencer. She used new fabrics such as nylons and innovative printing techniques and dyes, creating bold and colourful patterns that appealed to the emerging youth market.

 

See Appendix One for more information

 

 

THE ART COLLECTION

 

The early 1950's were the chief collecting period as she displayed her enthusiasm for the classics of modern art and her keen appreciation for the innovative trends of the young contemporary artists. The work began with her husband but his untimely death at the age of 62 in 1954 left her on her own. No doubt she inherited some money from him which with her own business income enabled her to pursue her art collecting with less restraint, In fact she became a well-known figure in the artistic circles of 1950's London, a factor which no doubt enabled her to overcome the loss of her partner in life.

 

She was a close friend of Victor Musgrove of Gallery One from whom she bought her first Yves Klein. Jimmy McMullan of the Obelisk Gallery was another to benefit from her patronage. She also bought works from The Hanover Gallery, The Lefevre Gallery, Marlborough Fine Art and Arthur Tooth & Sons.

 

By 1960, her collection was by and large complete. Later she was to boast that she never spent more than Ł1,000 on a work of art and thus she found the rising prices of the 70's and 80's beyond her comprehension.

 

A testimony to the quality of her 'eye' is demonstrated by the fact that her flat at Curzon Street, to which many were invited, was featured in an article in 'House and Garden' of September 1957 entitled 'An Art Patron's Flat in Curzon Street'. The magnificent Braque nude provides the magazine's cover. The fully illustrated article was occasioned by Illa Kodicek commissioning the interior decorator Herman Schrijver to arrange the interior design. Michael Wickham wrote "When arranging the rooms shown here, Herman Schrijver was doubly fortunate, for he had a client who liked modern furniture and who had in his own words, "a strong and well-rounded personality". The flat presented its own challenge, or rather challenges: the considerable personality of the client, the insistent domination of many of the pictures and, above all, the almost claustrophobic enclosure of the flat itself...In such passive surroundings, the pictures acquire an unexpected domesticity. All these paintings, despite their contrast in size and technique, seem very much at ease in close proximity. In Schrijver's words, his client has 'tamed her possessions'."

 

 

THE MOVE TO GREEN PARK

 

In 1962, Illa gave up the Curzon street flat and moved to one in Green Park House, Piccadilly, overlooking the park and the avenue of trees leading down to Buckingham Palace. There she could no doubt display her collection more satisfactorily. She used Herman Schrijver to create a no less memorable a setting in the new apartment which, in the words of the Christies catalogue for the auction of her collection of 19931,“housed a little-known collection of modern and contemporary pictures”.

 

 

RETIREMENT

 

Undaunted by advancing years her business went from strength to strength under Illa Kodicek's inspired and skilful direction until she was to close it down upon her retirement in 1970.

 

It was her interest in the work of young artists that continued to inspire her later activities after she retired. She joined the Contemporary Art Society with which she indulged her love of travel in making a number of art tours. In 1983 she donated a work by the young Czech artist, Stanislav Kolibal, to the Tate Gallery and in 1984 she was International Adviser to the contemporary art exhibition body Rosc (The Poetry of Vision) in Dublin. She continued to visit exhibitions and entertain friends and artists, retaining her independent spirit until the end.

 

Appreciative of Britain providing a new home to her husband and her before the War, she latterly became interested in finding a home for her collection in London. Having been introduced to the activities of the National Association of Boys' Clubs she quickly appreciated the value of their activities and their need for funds. Thus she determined to leave her collection to the Association for the benefit of their comprehensive programme of youth care.

 

She resided at Green Park House from 1962 until her death in 1990 at age 91 and she never lost her passion for visiting art galleries.

 

One can only wonder if it was fond childhood memories of life with her four brothers, some no doubt old enough to have fought and maybe perished in WW1 which prompted her to give to a charity that superficially one would think is far form the interest of such an artist and talented corsetičre.

 

For the curious the following were some of the artists whose work found its way into Illa’s home and heart:

 

Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)       Chaim Soutine (1893-1943),       Henri Matisse (1869-1954)

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)       Louis Marcoussis (1883-1941)    Jean Souverbie (1891-1981)

Georges Braque (1882-1963)     Francis Picabia (1874-1953)       Jules Pascin (1885-1930)


 

 

 

APPENDIX ONE

 

THE V&A BRA

 

Illa was in the forefront of new trends in the brassiere as listed below in the V&A catalogue.

 

Rather than paraphrase the V&A catalogue, the pages 184 and 185 record much of Illa Knina’s achievements in the 1950s:

 

Madame Illa Knina was a famous Mayfair corsetičre with prestigious clients that included royalty and Hollywood actresses. She played on her exclusive image to advertise her ready-to-wear and mail-order ranges as ‘the haute couture of corsetry’.18 She also had mass-market ambitions and designed several ranges for Marks and Spencer. She used new fabrics such as nylons and innovative printing techniques and dyes, creating bold and colourful patterns that appealed to the emerging youth market. This three-quarter-length bra is made of a plain nylon. At the bottom are elastic tabs t o secure it to a matching girdle and to pull it taut. It is lightly boned with spiral steels at the centre-front to separate the breasts. Some of the seams and the shoulder straps are lined with nylon velveteen. The garment is rather simple, creating a plain, sleek foundation for its signature feature: solid foam rubber cones, stitched into each cup.

 

The 1950s trend for pointed breasts meant that a large percentage of bras were shaped with artificial cups like this, known as ‘falsies’. Indeed, they were so necessary for the creation of the fashionable silhouette that the Corset Guild of Great Britain noted that three out of every four women were wearing falsies in 1955.19

 

Falsies were hard inserts worn inside the bra, or stitched into the cups as seen here, and were almost the only way to achieve the exaggerated pointed breast shape that reached its height in the late 1950s, particularly around 1957. Another way to achieve it was with circular or whirlpool stitching around the cup, however this often required further padding at the point to reinforce the shape. Long-line bra

 

Illa Knina

Britain (London), late 1950s

Nylon, foam rubber covered in knitted nylon, and nylon velveteen

V&A: T.852–199

 

The V&A is acknowledged as the source of this information and readers are urged to buy the catalogue itself, no reproduction can equal the original photos, drawings and text.


 

 

APPENDIX TWO

 

THE V&A CORSET

 

This corset set combines modern materials with glamour and celebrates feminine curves. The brightly flowered matching set is made of lightweight nylon and features decorative lacing, satin straps and suspenders. The maker, Madame Illa Knina, had trained as a sculptor. She was a leading corsetičre and produced made-to-measure undergarments from her studio in Mayfair, London.

 

 

    * Artist/Maker:       Knina, Illa (maker)

    * Materials and Techniques:       Nylon

    * Credit Line:       Given by Miss C. Bellow

    * Museum number:       T.850:1, 2-1994

    * Gallery location:       In store

    * Place of origin:      United Kingdom (made)

·         Date:1950s (made)

 

The V&A is acknowledged as the source of this information and readers are urged to buy the catalogue itself, no reproduction can equal the original photos, drawings and text.


 


123 June 1993, London, King Street, THE KODICEK COLLECTION OF MODERN PICTURES

 

APPENDIX THREE

 

The Viceroy's Daughters

 

The book "The Viceroy's Daughters" by Anne de Courcy, details the lives of the three Curzon sisters who graced London society between the Wars. Chapter 35 commences as follows: "The eldest Curzon sister, Irene's public persona was still impressive. Handsome and upright, her somewhat shapeless figure shown to best advantage by the skills of of Nancy Astor's corsetiere, Illa Knina of 30 Bruton Street...." Nancy Astor was the wife of Waldorf Astor and resided at Cliveden, the stately pile near to Taplow in Buckinghamshire. Since Nancy Astor and Irene Curzon were clients of Illa Knina, then ladies of somewhat lesser means would have struggled, presumably, to afford the the services of Madame Knina. Perhaps they simply had to make do with Spirella that in itself was beyond the means of many.

Interestingly, the shop that occupies 30, Bruton Street belongs to Stella Nina McCartney - not Knina any more.