The Duchess of Argyll, her underwear, and me

I think it is safe to say that many of us were glued to the TV watching Claire Foy portraying the Duchess of Argyll in A Very British Scandal. For those of you who missed it, Margaret Campbell was a famously beautiful celebrity but she would be remembered for just one thing in her later life: the so-called ‘divorce of the century’, which ended her marriage to the Duke of Argyll in 1963. Ann Lindsay sent this article in to us which relates her encounters with the Duchess in the 1960s where she worked for couturier Hardy Amies.

I met the infamous Duchess of Argyll several times, and always in her underwear. In the mid 1960s I worked in a lowly position for the couturier Hardy Amies in London, a generous, witty, acerbic designer for, among others, the present Queen.  As the assistant to a ‘vendeuse’ or saleswoman, in my case a volatile chain smoking Frenchwoman Madame Marthe, my many tasks included helping ladies buying these astonishingly expensive clothes in and out of the items they were wearing as they arrived.

Many took care to wear their Hardy Amies suits to these fittings and I helped them into the clothes they were buying. As I got to know Mme Marthe she would look at the well worn suit, wink and me, and often wrinkle her nose with disapproval. The inside of the collar was a favourite judge of the client’s care, and cleanliness.

As the minion, I would be silently handed their outer garments, hanging them up on cream satin hangers and carefully place them out of sight. Within the generously proportioned changing rooms, I would then hold up the new outfit to be fitted, allowing them to step into the half made dress. A wobbly customer would clutch my shoulders to steady herself. I could detect a whiff of perfume, cigarette smoke, sherry or gin.

We all slightly held our breath as the customer saw herself in the many mirrors, and the atmosphere could be warm, smiley and chatty, or sullen, disapproving and disappointed as the mirrors were never magical enough to diminish the reality of a very substantial bottom.

The Duchess of Argyll, her underwear, and me

So I saw many elegant ladies in their underwear, including the Duchess of Argyll. By the mid sixties she was still famous, if only for the ‘scandalous’ divorce case, as the media relentlessly portrayed it, but to me she was a many faceted  image.

At my stern Scottish boarding school during the period of the 1963 court case, the news papers were gutted of reference to her. One pupil’s father was on her legal team, and although we were aware, were also too naive to question her.

Mme Marthe, a forceful character behind many of our customer’s backs treated her with a mixture of awe and ultra politesse. I was intrigued by her champagne coloured satin undies alongside her amazingly pale skin. Had she ever sunbathed? Doubtful. The only mutterings from my opinionated boss was that she could wear anything and make it look elegant. Probably the highest accolade she would bestow. It was true. Most unusually, Hardy Amies himself might pop by the greet her.

True also was the carefully guarded secrets of the bills. She rarely, if ever, received a request for payment for these fabulous clothes. Amies knew what an excellent walking advertisement it was for him. She had everything he required in an era of diminishing clients for his haute couture clothes.

She would instantly attract attention at the high society events she attended.  She would be guaranteed to display his clothes to best advantage. She managed to remain apart from the crowds, excellent for being photographed. Her elegance, porcelain skin, immaculate glossy dark hair, was even in her early 50s, deeply impressionable on me.

Did I ever see the famous scars from her fall down the lift shaft? Never, and I had never even heard of it before the recent television series. Did I see her smile? Rarely. 

What do I recall? With total clarity, it was her presence, aloof but not unkind, her brief thanks to me, but otherwise her paucity of conversation, her natural beauty, her polished appearance and her mask like facial expression. Often, as she left the premises, a press photographer might appear. She did not appear to dislike this, but her expression never changed from one of sad acceptance.

What do I recall? With total clarity, it was her presence, aloof but not unkind, her brief thanks to me, but otherwise her paucity of conversation, her natural beauty, her polished appearance and her mask like facial expression.

Often, as she left the premises, a press photographer might appear. She did not appear to dislike this, but her expression never changed from one of sad acceptance. She recognised her persona was steeped in only one event in her life. Nothing else.

Ann Lindsay was brought up in a rural area of Scotland, then spent years living and working in Italy, France and London before retuning to the north. She settled in the less remote area of Perthshire, bringing up 3 and has written a number of non fiction books ranging from drying flowers (just about to be re-issued in an exciting, very contemporary format) biographies, Scottish life and basically anything she stumbles across.  Despite all evidence to the contrary she is hanging onto firmly to her belief that next year the house will be magically tidier, the pets marginally more manageable, the garden gloriously blooming. Also clinging onto her mantra that the greatest additions to modern life are thermal lined wellies, with lipstick a close second, plus reminding herself daily that one must never ever  ‘do anything on the domestic front that a machine can do for you’. Ann’s website can be viewed here

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