Belinda Bellville, fashion designer who dressed British high society and the Royal family – obituary

Belinda Bellville in 1960: to start her business, she sold a wedding present Citroen for £500, but that was the only capital she ever needed
Belinda Bellville in 1960: to start her business, she sold a wedding present Citroen for £500, but that was the only capital she ever needed - Evening Standard

Belinda Bellville, who has died aged 94, founded the fashion house Bellville et Cie (later Bellville Sassoon), whose young, fresh designs became a staple in the wardrobes of society ladies, brides-to-be and members of the Royal family over four decades.

She was dubbed “Belinda Bellville, the top peoples’ darling” by the press, and her patrons included Princesses Margaret and Alexandra and the Duchess of Kent, as well as Audrey Hepburn, Julie Christie, Jackie Kennedy and Catherine Deneuve.

“Titled ladies applaud the titled models” reported the Daily Mail of one of her early shows in the 1950s. “200 women crowd into an elegant drawing room in Park Lane to see 18-year-old Lady Beatty and five other models show off the latest creations of Belinda Bellville. The Duchess of Westminster, Lady Derby, Lady Rupert Neville, Lady Oppenheimer, and Lady Ebury squeezed on to little gilt chairs. The less fortunate had to strain to see from the corridor outside. The street was jammed with Bentleys and Rolls-Royces.”

A wedding dress by Bellville et Cie
A wedding dress by Bellville et Cie - Alamy

When Lady Pamela Mountbatten married David Hicks in 1960, her wedding trousseau was designed by Bellville – as was the dress worn by her bridesmaid Princess Anne. The designer Cath Kidston, whose mother was Belinda’s first cousin, recalled being told how when Belinda went to Buckingham Palace for the fitting of the dress – a yellow ruffled affair – the Queen came along to see it and said “It’s very nice”, then turned to Belinda and said, “Will it wash?”

In 1963 The Sunday Times reported that Bellville had just completed its 80th wedding dress of the season with 20 more to finish by October. By the end of the decade, a survey by Tatler showed that Bellville et Cie had made more society wedding dresses than any other couture house had over 30 years.

In 1970 Belinda Bellville went into partnership with David Sassoon and the business expanded into a full-blown couture house. In 1981 Belville Sassoon created the outfit that Lady Diana Spencer wore when her engagement to Prince Charles was announced, and went on to design her wedding trousseau and her going away outfit. Between 1981 and 1993 Bellville Sassoon created more than 70 outfits for the Princess of Wales.

Diana, Princess of Wales, wearing a Belville Sassoon dress in Australia, 1983
Diana, Princess of Wales, wearing a Belville Sassoon dress in Australia, 1983 - Anwar Hussein

The oldest of three children, Belinda Bellville was born on March 29 1930. Her father was Anthony Seymour Bellville, whose family wealth came from Keen’s mustard. Her mother was Audrey Kidston, whose family owned Clyde Shipping.

She grew up in Leicestershire where her parents were part of a fashionable set – keen on racing cars, aeroplanes and horses. Summers were spent at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, where her parents sailed and had parties on their yacht Mahelah, a converted Thames barge equipped with a grand piano and cast-iron bath.

During the war, her father joined the RNVR and had the deck of the boat covered in concrete to transform it into an anti-aircraft platform from which he would shoot at doodle bugs – like shooting high pheasants, he claimed.

To avoid the bombs, the rest of the family moved to a house on the river Wye, near Builth Wells, where they enjoyed riding Welsh ponies in the mountains, fishing for salmon and collecting gulls’ eggs.

Belinda Bellville, left, dressing her model Lady Gillian Pepys in 1959
Belinda Bellville, left, dressing her model Lady Gillian Pepys in 1959 - Evening Standard

Belinda’s interest in fashion was inspired by her (divorced and remarried) paternal grandmother, Gladys “Cuckoo” Leith, who had run a dress shop in Savile Row in the 1920s. With clothes rationed during the war, Belinda helped her mother make garments out of whatever they could find, including old curtains.

Towards the end of the war, Belinda did a short stint at Miss Faunce’s school at Wimborne St Giles, Dorset. Six foot tall and elegant, in 1947 she was presented at court.

Determined to forge her own career in fashion at a time when there were few opportunities to study for design qualifications, Belinda Bellville dabbled in fashion journalism, assisted a fashion photographer and worked for a clothes shop in Bond Street.

In 1952 she married David Whately, a partner in a firm which made mobiles and abstract sculptures for advertising, and later a financier.

The following year, aged 23, she founded Bellville et Cie in partnership with Sydna Scott, who had a shop in Kinnerton Street, Knightsbridge. “The space was so small, it had an outside loo and I used to visit the neighbouring pub to design and sketch the dresses,” she recalled.

Belinda Bellville in 1960
Belinda Bellville in 1960 - Evening Standard

Needing money to invest in the business, Belinda sold a Citroen car that her brother Jeremy had given her for a wedding present, for £500; astonishingly it was the only capital the company ever needed.

In 1953 Belinda Bellville held her first show at Cuckoo Leith’s house in Manchester Square, with her sister Camilla and friends as models. People queued up to see it, and the show was a riotous success, featuring in Illustrated magazine. Orders flooded in and by 1957 her collection included millinery, cocktail dresses, ball gowns and, most famously, wedding dresses.

She moved to new premises at 14 Motcombe Street, Belgravia, where she employed 40 people, serving an upper-class clientele. “Belville understood that Cheltenham racecourse is a draughty place and would always know to within an inch how much decolletage the Duchess would stand at dinner,” observed The Times.

In 1958 she was joined by David Sassoon, who had impressed her with his designs at a Royal College of Art degree show. Belinda, he recalled later, “had no formal training but she had great taste; she understood the moods of fashion, had a great love of fabric and a very good colour sense. Socially she knew all the right people and brought in a lot of royals.”

Diana, Princess of Wales, in a Bellville Sassoon dress in 1984
Diana, Princess of Wales, in a Bellville Sassoon dress in 1984 - Tim Graham

“Boutique”, Bellville’s ready-to-wear collection, was launched in 1963 and in 1965 Vogue Patterns invited Bellville et Cie to join their pattern books. By 1970 Bellville Sassoon, as the company was now called, had a staff of over 100.

Belinda Bellville stepped back from the company in 1982, but remained a consultant. She moved with her family to a house outside Shaftesbury in Dorset, while the company continued to flourish under David Sassoon.

The family moved to north Norfolk in 2001 and her husband David died in 2008. Belinda survived major brain surgery in 2011, but continued to live happily in Norfolk, always commenting on the fashion choices of her visitors.

She is survived by three daughters.

Belinda Bellville, born March 29 1930, died May 5 2024