Tuesday, 2 February 2016

From Mistress to Millinery: Denisa, Lady Newborough

"I just love myself in black velvet and mink, and I know diamonds suit me..."

These are Denisa, Lady Newborough's first words about herself, in her memoir "Fire in my Blood". My first introduction to her, however, was through the stories of my husband's grandmother, Judy.


Judy was living in London in the 1950s, after leaving Hungary and before moving with her husband and young family to Australia. They lived in a boarding house with a number of other Hungarian expats, including a young woman who was a milliner.

This young woman got a job working for the milliner Lady Newborough, who was known for having been a nightclub dancer in Europe before somehow marrying Lord Tommy Newborough. She had long red nails and smoked her cigarettes in a long cigarette holder. Apparently this young milliner took offence to being hovered over by Lady Newborough while she worked, and suggested that perhaps her employer would make more money out on the street corner. Not surprisingly, she was fired. Not only that, but apparently she found herself unable to obtain employment in any other millinery houses in London.

Left: The Newcastle Sun 7 Oct 1954. Right: Brisbane Telegraph 28 Jun 1949.

I suppose it was before this incident, while the young woman was still employed, that Lady Newborough needed some renovations done and ended up hiring some more of the boarding house tenants, including one who was a plumber, and some others less qualified, including Judy's husband, to paint. Apparently she was very good to them, and got them whatever food they wanted for lunch. She also had a draw full of boxes of chocolates, which were gifts from her admirers. But since she wanted to keep her figure, she never ate them, and was happy for the men to take any they wanted.

I enjoyed this story, but not having heard of Lady Newborough, I didn't think too much more of it. That was until I was re-watching some British Pathe videos from the 1950s, and realised I had heard of her! In fact, one of my favourite videos, of hat fashions at the zoo in 1952, displays her hats. She even appears in one or two! Here are the British Pathe videos of her work.

Left: Examiner (Launceston) 7 Nov 1953. Right: The Mail (Adelaide) 23 Apr 1949.

So after that discovery, I set about researching her some more, which led me to her book. I had to have it. It is about her pre-millinery and pre-marriage life, and it's a wild ride. I don't know whether to believe half of it, and she name-drops constantly, although apart from Hitler and Mussolini, not names I know. (She isn't a fan of either man, by the way.)


The book is entertaining and written with a funny, descriptive style, without any unnecessary filler. It's a bit like reading a rambling but fascinating series of anecdotes from your grandmother - if your grandmother led an extremely colourful life.

Denisa was unquestionably a firecracker, and lived a life full of adventure, and empty of shame. She had her boundaries, and never crossed them, but danced wildly right up to them without regret.

This quote goes a way to explain Denisa's ruthlessness in reaction to her employee's insinuation. (Although she was arrested in the 1960s for allowing her Mayfair premises to be used for prostitution. It didn't stick, so who knows.) In general, I feel that the qualities she claims in her own writing are also present in Judy's stories: friendliness, openness and material generosity, many admirers, and a fiery temper when crossed.

Left: The Age (Melbourne) 14 Jan 1950. Top Right: Townsville Daily Bulletin 20 Mar 1948. Bottom Right: Brisbane Telegraph 18 May 1949.

She only refers to her later occupation a couple of times in the book, and only when it relates to her current anecdote.

"One of the accomplishments they taught us little Continentals was the "art of chic", which means needlework plus a little something else. I was glad of it years later when I opened my hat shop in Mayfair, and I was glad of it then, for I worked some wonderful transformations on that one cut-down evening gown of my mother's."

Northern Star (Lismore) 1 Oct 1953

I had to look up the names she drops in this one, but evidently she enjoyed custom from many actresses.

"When I started in business he sent me customers like Eileen Herlie, Judy Campbell, Edana Romney and Glynis Johns; he commissioned hats that were worn in films and publicized in the press and paid handsomely...and nearly ruined my business because people began to think the only hats I could make were crazy picture-in-the-paper ones."

In fact, that's Eileen Herlie in the striped hat, scarf and umbrella combo earlier.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, I can piece together various bits and pieces, although like her own book, I don't know what to believe. Jewels don't lie, I suppose, so the pieces from her personal collection that were auctioned last year, are something we can take at face value. This is my favourite, and really I'm glad I didn't know this auction existed! Not that I could have afforded the £13,000 aquamarine necklace.

The newspapers reported on her divorce case from Tommy Newborough, and also on her beginnings in the millinery business, as required to pay her bridge debts, and is described as "one of the most beautiful of the pre-war socialites" in another article about her turning a hat-making hobby into a business.

The Daily News (Perth) 9 Nov 1949

Thanks to Trove I've been able to find the images of her hats that appear in this post - some outlandish, many more understated and elegant. What I haven't managed to find are any of her surviving hats anywhere, but perhaps one day.

Researching this fascinating lady of hats has been a fun journey. What do you think of her work and her attitude? (And her taste in jewellery!)
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12 comments

  1. This is so fascinating! I sometimes think that I'd like to go back in time, but only if I could live the kind of privileged life that some noblewomen enjoyed. She sounds like a very interesting character, and I quite like her designs.

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    1. I definitely would only want to be living the good life - and even then I wouldn't want to go too far back! She had some pretty alarming stories in there along with the adventure too, so I think I'd pass on her life!

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  2. These biographical studies are a lovely part of historical research. Sounds like quite a character!

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    1. Yes, I'm not much a historian (as you know) but this was fascinating to pursue!

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  3. I love the cover of the book, bit over the top but looks fabulous! She sounds very interesting and much less restricted than many women were at that time. The hats are rather fantastic too!

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    1. She was definitely not living a restricted and chaste life, at any point!

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  4. I love all of these and the cover of the book is awesome

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    1. I agree! The cover is definitely fabulous!

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  5. This is so cool! I have never heard of this woman and her hats are marvelous! I might need to read this book. Thanks for sharing Tanith.

    Liz :)

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed this little bit of her story and glimpse at her hats :)

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  6. Riveting-ly enjoyable post and look at the life of this thoroughly fascinating lady. I feel like I've encountered her name in passing before, but doubt I could have told you much about her before now. Thank you for this informed history and the treasure trove of awesome hat photos, too.

    Big hugs,
    ♥ Jessica

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    1. I'm glad you enjoyed it, Jessica :)

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