Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Surviving the war, London and designing for the elite // The dressmaker Wanda Zaklika

Sligo Flea Market at The Model, June 22nd

My school reports described me as a 'day dreamer', how I had potential if I only paid more attention in class. I would get in trouble for sneaking Malory Towers books and Anne of Green Gables into my Irish textbooks during class. History and English were the two subjects that firmly held my attention, I was fascinated by people from ages past or by stories of children living out lives far removed from my own, as I sat chin in hand, in that overcrowded rural class setting. Discovering vintage clothing by way of my eBay hobby was a revelation of sorts for me. It was the chance to have my head in the past, but my feet in the present (almost). I was living a day dream of sorts, imagining those who had worn the dress before me, what they'd been like and how exciting it was that 30 or 40 years hence, I shared the same taste as a girl from a decade now past. It was my own role in social history, and my preoccupation with how lifestyles have changed, but at the same time, looking back to what I imagined was a more authentic time, a social life that wasn't dictated by Facebook.

Imagine then, my sincere delight when one summers day last year, an email arrived in my inbox referencing an old blog post, in which I wore a beautiful 1960s floral silk suit. The son of the seamstress who had made the suit had found my blog via a Google alert and had emailed me to inquire about the garment, and by what circumstances I'd come by it.

Wanda Zaklika London 1960s dress
Wanda Zaklika London label, other labels could read 'Wanda Zaklika Haute Couture'

The dress with the label "Wanda Zaklika London" was made by my mother, who died in 1997. It's fascinating to see the dress find a whole second life. I'm afraid I don't know who it was made for. It would have been fun if I could have given you its history. My mother's business centred around a limited group of affluent clients. The dress might, for instance, have been made for the wife of the French ambassador to London or for someone in the Bowater paper family (or some other client I cannot now recall).

My mother wasn't a designer for the mass market She designed and created clothes for a rather small number of very affluent women. She had, perhaps, 20 customers at any given time. Each piece was custom designed and made for the individual and no two pieces of clothing were alike. Indeed, since some of the women went to the same society events it would have been a cardinal sin to dress two of them the same. My childhood involved being surrounded by copies of Vogue and having to walk about carefully because of all the pins embedded in the carpet. Notwithstanding this, none of my mother's talent trickled down to me.

Wanda Zaklika London 1960s dress
Wanda Zaklika London label dress

The dress is evocative of the new gaily coloured prints of the 1960s, with the large collar and buttons on the jacket in a quite conservative cut, typical of early 1960s fashions. It is all silk, the shift dress is very comfortable to wear, and was probably made for a middle aged woman, which would fit with the description I was given of Wanda's clientele. It would probably have been worn at a day event, during the summer.

The reason I was unable to find any information on the maker is because there is nothing to be found. Then as now, many seamstresses worked independently, from home, or in a studio, making dresses to order at the bequest of their clientelle. Now middle-class clients are more likely to buy off the peg, branded designer labels than have clothes made to order. For special occasions, such as weddings or debs/prom nights, we might get a seamstress to make something especially for our shape and to our taste. I was curious about the clientele of Wanda Zaklika and her son was more than happy to enlighten me ...

The sort of people who were customers were the wives of manufacturers or businessmen, members of the aristocracy (in the sense of being titled) and diplomat's wives. It was pretty much a word of mouth kind of thing and my mother never had to go out and hawk her stuff about as is the case with some designers. Given the scale of the business it is quite a surprise to see one of her garments materialize on the web.

Derry and Toms 101-111 High St Kensington. London. Iron grilles. Store frontage.1931
Derry and Toms entrance
Shot outside the entrance to the department store Derry & Toms on Kensington High Street, London.
Top: 1931 picture of the art deco facade of the seven story Derry and Toms store on Kensington High Street, closed in 1971 and a couple of years later taken over by the opulent Big Biba department store for a short while (1973-75), it now houses a Marks and Spencers store. (source)
Middle: Entrance to Derry and Toms store, 1960s (source)
Bottom: Photo shoot outside for Derry and Toms catalogue outside the store entrance on Kensington High Street, 1960s. (source)

My mother purchased many of her fabrics at Derry and Toms in Kensington High Street or at Harrods in Knightsbridge. As a young child, in the absence of daycare, I would accompany her on some of these shopping trips. In exchange for being a cooperative and patient boy I was taken to Harrods toy department to drool at the toys once purchases were complete. Sadly, there were never any toy purchases since our budget would not tolerate it, but it was fun to see how the other half lived.

The dress itself, I have only worn on 2-3 occasions. It has some minor flaws such as bleach stains and cigarette burns. I had a bit of a mishap when I attempted to hand wash it and the colours ran. We assume that it was probably obtained from the sale of someones estate and potentially passed through a few people's hands before ending up on eBay, and finding its current home with me. There could be dresses under the Wanda Zaklika label marauding out there, some possibly even sold on eBay, but often if it is not a brand name, people neglect to list the maker of the item, or label information.

Wanda Zaklika
Wanda Zaklika as a young woman, holding a leopard cub. This was taken in pre-WWII Poland,
probably at a zoo.

Though we can't be sure about the provenance of the dress, it is a piece of a larger, fascinating tapestry, and revealed to me, the tragic beginnings of its brave, driven designer and creator.

My mother was a concentration camp survivor, having been a member of the Polish Resistance. After World War II she worked for the Polish Red Cross in Italy, looking after orphans. There she married my father, whom she had first met as a Polish POW [Prisoner of War] in Germany, and the two of them set out on their honeymoon only to be held up by Italian bandits and robbed of everything they possessed, including their clothes. Given the choice of being sent behind [the] Iron Curtain to Communist Poland or coming to England, they came to England, much of their luggage being lost in transit. There they set up their lives anew under very difficult conditions.

My mother had a degree in economics from the best business school in Poland (known by its initials SGH, and referred to in English as the Warsaw School of Economics) but her qualifications were not recognized in the UK. She began to study for a duplicate degree in Britain while simultaneously learning English. When I arrived on the scene her studies were interrupted and she began piecework sewing of shirts, something she could do to supplement our extremely modest income while looking after a baby.

Having acquired sewing skills through this and a range of subsequent dressmaking and design jobs, she set up her own couture enterprise. She acquired clients primarily by word of mouth and kept a restricted clientele so she could continue to care for me. Typically, she employed one or two people to do the finishing work on the clothes. My mother continued the business until I went off for postgraduate work, so it must have lasted for nearly two decades, perhaps from around 1955 to 1975 or so.

What an incredible story, of courage, survival and necessity. I'm glad that despite her horrifying time during the Second World War, Wanda Zaklika found success in her business, and raised a family, and I have a personal artefact to remember her by. Something I will never gain from the latest on-trend piece from replica high street stores. I feel very lucky that Wanda's son shared her unique story with me.


If you have a Wanda Zaklika dress, and perhaps you too found this post as a result of a Google search, please get in touch with me via my email. I'd like to put you in touch with Wanda Zaklika's son, as I'm certain he would be interested to learn where his mother's creations have ended up. Most things have a story to tell, as this happy anecdote demonstrates.

Has anyone else any similar stories to share?


  1. Wow what an incredible story! How lovely that her son got in touch with you aswell. Thanks for sharing :)

  2. I am so glad you finally made this post so I could read the whole story! She sounds like a damn amazing woman and you are so lucky to have a piece of her amazing couture. I hope one day you come across more of her garments somehow!

  3. Whoa, this is an amazing story. Makes me want to do a little research on my own second hand pieces!

  4. What a story--thank you for sharing! And that photo of you in your coat is just smashing. I've often wondered about the lives of the people who owned my clothes prior to me wearing them. . . but this is an additional layer.

  5. Zoe this is fascinating, what a great post!! You must have been so excited when his son emailed you!

  6. gosh this is amazing, unbelievable! A truly wonderful story

  7. What a wonderful story, and a beautiful suit too.

  8. This is such a fascinating story! Thanks for sharing. You look lovely in the photo there.

  9. THIS IS SO AMAAAAAAAAAAAAAZING!!!! Not only is the dress gorgeous but that her son reached out to you in this way?! Amazing!

  10. Wow, I have just come by a Wanda Zaklika piece myself and googled her to get some background in - how fascinating to find this! I will email you... x