Design student flees Nazi scourge, arrives in England with suitcase full of fabrics, finds fame and fortune as glove maker to the Queen

It is the stuff of legend and 75 years on the fashion business founded by Cornelia James continues to surprise. Cornelia had studied art and design in Vienna and arrived in England as a refugee in 1939. After the war, in a world made drab by rationing, the leather gloves that she made in a huge range of colours became fashion essentials. Vogue magazine profiled her as “the colour Queen of England” and Cornelia quickly established a thriving business supplying gloves to couturiers and leading stores.

Cornelia James designing gloves

In November 1947 the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Lt. Philip Mountbatten provided a vivid splash of colour against a background of unremitting post war austerity. Norman Hartnell made the Princess’ wedding gown and ‘going-away’ outfit and he turned to Cornelia James to provide the gloves. It marked the beginning of a long association with the Royal Household marked, in 1979, by the granting of a Royal Warrant. Today it is Genevieve James, Cornelia’s daughter, who holds the Warrant as glove manufacturer ‘by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen’.

Princess Elizabeth wedding

The 1950s were golden years for the glove industry and Cornelia employed dozens of machinists, many of them working from home, making gloves that filled the shelves of department stores and fashionable boutiques the world over. Gloves were an essential item of daily attire.

All this changed abruptly in the 60s; Mary Quant, miniskirts and Beatlemania dominated the cultural scene. The fashion world and society were rocked to their foundations when Jean Shrimpton, the world's very first supermodel, attended the Melbourne Cup horse race meet wearing neither hat nor gloves and a dress that ended a shocking 4 inches above the knee. It was truly a pivotal moment in fashion history.

Jean Shrimpton at the Melbourne cup in 1965

It was many years before Cornelia could find it in her heart to forgive the willowy Jean. The business reeled and then rallied. Diversification was the key and Cornelia went into accessories - silk scarves - and swim wear. All the best boutiques and department stores boasted a Cornelia James connection. A ‘corporate’ division was established and Cornelia made neck ties for Rolls Royce and resort wear uniforms for Euro Disney World.

But gloves were always Cornelia’s true love and, in recent years, the business has refocused on the Cornelia legacy to renew its identity as a specialist glovemaker. Based just outside the village of Ripe in East Sussex, England, the company hand-makes bespoke gloves which are sold in every corner of the world.

Today it is Genevieve James, Cornelia’s daughter, who holds the Warrant as glove manufacturer ‘by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen’. Cornelia James products feature consistently in the fashion shoots of the world’s top magazines and fashion editorial. The company's identity is underscored by the very close relationship that the brand enjoys with the fashion press. ‘The Independent’ called Cornelia James “a fashion insider’s favourite” - a quirkily British success story.

Genevieve James