Born: Dorothea Naomi Seale in Jerusalem, 24 December 1927; raised in Damascus, Syria. Education: Studied French and Old English at London University, 1949-50; studied art at Royal Holloway College, Egham, Surrey. Family: Married Robert Porter, 1953 (divorced, 1967); children: Venetia. Career: Lived in Beirut, 1953-early 1960s; established Greek Street, Soho, boutique selling textiles from the Near East and clothing of her own design, 1967-69; also maintained a shop in Paris, 1976-79; in-store Thea Porter boutique created at Henri Bendel, New York, 1969; freelance fashion, textile and interior designer, London, from 1969. Awards: English Fashion Designer of the Year award, 1972. Died: 24 July 2000 in London.
O N PORTER
"Thea Porter to Design Knitwear," in the Times (London), 1 April 1973.
"Back to Bakst," in the Times, 18 December 1973.
"Dressed to Vote," in the Times, 8 September 1974.
"Porterama," in the Times, 21 September 1975.
McColl, Patricia, "Couture Arabesque," in Aramco World (NewYork), March/April 1977.
Shapiro, Harriet, "In Style: Porter," in People, 9 January 1978.
Gibb, Frances, "Top Fashion Designers to Go Out of Business," in the Times, 5 February 1981.
"Thea Porter is Back," in the Times, 18 July 1982.
Trebay, Guy, "Thea Porter, 72; Dressed the Elite of the 1960s inHippie Chic," in the New York Times, 27 July 2000.
Obituary, "Thea Porter, Designer, 72," in WWD, 28 July 2000.
"Deaths Last Week," [obituary], in Chicago Tribune, 30 July 2000.
Having lived in the Middle East as a child, Thea Porter based her fashion aesthetic upon the ethnic clothing she encountered there. During the late 1960s, fashion revolutions of many kinds were taking place, one of which was the new romanticism mirroring the romantic view of the East common to Victorian England. Hippie types went to Porter's store in Greek Street, London, to purchase Middle Eastern imports to decorate their homes, true to the spirit of 19th-century artists who created a complete atmosphere in their immediate environment that included loose aesthetic robes echoing distant lands and other time periods. Porter's shop offered pillows and cushions made from fancy Middle Eastern textiles as well as antique caftans. These dresses sold so well that Porter began to design them herself to meet the demand.
An ancient, loosely cut ankle-length garment, the caftan lent itself to opulent decoration and luxurious fabrics. Porter's evening gowns were made from silks, brocades, velvets, even crêpe de chine and filmy chiffon, embellished with metallic embroidery and spangles or braid. While not strictly native costume reproductions, the caftans captured the spirit of mysterious harem allure. Wealthy international clients like Elizabeth Taylor, Raquel Welch, Charlotte Rampling, Barbra Streisand, and Iranian royalty comprised Porter's clientéle, as much for the exoticism of the clothes, as no doubt for the comfort. Porter had long admired Arabic clothing, entranced by the rich embroideries and fabrics, in shapes producing a protected and secure feeling of being able to hide in one's clothes while feeling like a princess, in the richness of execution of her romantic fantasies.
Porter's nostalgic sensibilities also extended toward the Renaissance and the Edwardian periods. During the 1970s she offered high-waisted midi-or maxi-dresses with voluminous sleeves. These simple historic shapes also lent themselves to luxurious brocades, tapestries, velvets, and embroidery. Her Edwardian looks featured vintage trimmings, and sailor-collared or lacy dresses recalling the last days of the Imperial Russian Grand Duchesses. Porter claimed Chekhov as an influence as well as art déco. Gypsy dresses with their full-flounced skirts allowed for romantic play of colorful patterned fabrics. Again, the shapes were easy, flattering.
Much as Poiret brought Eastern exoticism to a turbulent era, so Porter reflected rapid fashion change toward individuality, coupled with comforting escapism. Even her knit collection, developed for the chilly English climate, included caftan-type dresses, skirt and cardigan sets, and culottes in bright, cheerful colors. By the 1980s Porter had dressed many well-known personalities in her couture and expensive ready-to-wear, including members of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, Donovan, Princess Margaret, and Jessye Norman. Her designs allowed the expression of artistic inclinations, while giving the wearer a shield from the too-scrutinizing eyes of the public.
In the 1990s the Porter look was found in secondhand stores and as with most fashions of earlier decades, enjoyed a bit of a renaissance. Porter's stores in New York and London, however, were long gone. Porter, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, died in July 2000 in London.
—Therese Duzinkiewicz Baker;
updated by Owen James