There’s nothing like 60-odd of the most exquisite couture gowns to bring a bit of joy into the rainy and miserable morning in London, as I found out being among the first to view the fashion spectacular that is the exhibition ‘Ballgowns: British glamour since 1950’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Showcasing some of the most elaborate gowns of the last 60 years, the exhibition takes the viewer to a journey through British society of the post war era and tells the story of the crafting traditions of haute couture in England. The exhibition also marks the opening of the newly refurbished fashion galleries at the V&A, featuring the freshly restored mezzanine level – an Edwardian domed court with large alcoves and one of the most dramatic galleries at the V&A. The exhibition is also part of Fashion 2012, an initiative launched by the British Fashion Council to showcase British fashion in the Olympic year.
Curated by Oriole Cullen and Sonnet Stanfill, the exhibition starts on the ground floor with around 30 of the most celebrated and recognised gowns from the 1950s to the early 2000s. Specially made pieces for royalty and celebrities of the era bring to mind the Golden Age of Couture, with each gown bearing the personality of not only the designer, but also the women who wore them. Exquisite gowns by likes of Hardy Amies, Catherine Walker, Zandra Rhodes, Ossie Clark, Belleville Sassoon, Murray Arbeid, Bruce Oldfield, Bill Gibb, Vivienne Westwood, Julien and Macdonald and Alexander McQueen sum up the latter part of the 20th century in an enchantingly beautiful ode to high fashion. On display there is also a selection of royal gowns, such as the the Norman Hartnell’s gown for the Queen Mother and the exquisite pearl covered Catherine Walker creation for Princess Diana.
The gowns from the V&A’s vast collection (one of the largest in the world) and private loans tell the story of British society and the wonderful events they have seen. In the postwar era it was the private and coming out balls they frequented, the 1980s brought the charity ball to the picture and in the 1990s it was the red carpet that became the dream of every couturier and fashion designer. The internet made the extravaganza of the red carpet event widely available for the public, with media and bloggers critiquing every inch of the outfit as much as the stars and starlets wearing it.
The mezzanine level, set to resemble a ball room, features another 30 gowns from the past few years, familiar from the red carpet and catwalk finales. Worn by the likes of Daphne Guinness, Beyonce, Helen Mirren and Elizabeth Hurley, these modern gowns show how the craft of couture has become an art form, with designers exploring unique materials, shapes and cuts. It is the Gareth Pugh’s silvered leather high collar space-age creation and the Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen’s swan feather gown worn by Daphne Guinness that show the inventiveness of British designers, whilst the Atsuko Kudo’s latex dress resembling delicate lace plays tricks on the eyes. Showcasing some of the most celebrated designers of our time – Jonathan Saunders, Erdem, Marchesa, Mark Fast and Roksanda Ilincic among others – this part of the exhibition provides a unique opportunity to see up close and personal the gowns we have come to recognise through media. Whilst dreaming of an opportunity to wear one of these creations, stop and look up into the alcoves – there you will find large scale images of the gowns projected onto the wall. They are photographs by David Hughes, who also shot the images in the exhibition catalogue.
‘Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950’ is a beautifully curated exhibition and one of the finest displays I have seen in the V&A for years. To be able to see such quality of craft and level of creativity with your own eyes is an opportunity not to be missed by any fashion connoisseur. I felt like I had died and gone couture heaven with Norman Hartnell guarding the gates alongside Jonathan Saunders and Christopher Kane, and Gareth Pugh flying around as the cheeky little putto. Not quite sure what I had done to deserve such honour, but perhaps being a devout believer in the great glory of fashion is enough.
‘Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950’
May 19th 2012 – Jan 6th 2013
Victoria & Albert Museum
Cromwell Road, SW7 2RL
Find out more and book tickets here
(All images by the author, taken with Instagram)