The V&A Captures the Importance of the Ballgown in Britain

From McQueen to McCartney, British glamour goes on display

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You will find, at the centre of the newly redesigned Gallery 40, a collection of more than 60 ballgowns. Worn to red carpet events, royal soirees and debutant balls, these gowns are the V&A’s latest exhibit in the Fashion Galleries, Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950.

The main floor is home to a display of gowns from 1950 through the 1990s, while the mezzanine level displays those of the last decade. Donated by designers, royals, and celebrities, the exhibit includes favourites by big names such as Vivienne Westwood, Matthew Williamson, Stella McCartney, Erdem Moralioglu, Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, and Burberry.

This collection will thrill any lover of exquisite dresses, and pleasantly surprise all others. Experts will recognize the feathered dress by Alexander McQueen worn by socialite Daphne Guinness at the 2011 Met Ball, or Princess Diana’s famous ‘Elvis Dress’ designed by Catherine Walker in 1989. Those who happened upon the exhibit by chance will find excitement in the dresses of last ten years, which include a latex gown by Atsuko Kudo and the attention grabbing ‘Rumina’ gown by Erdem.

“The British designers have been unafraid to experiment with unusual textiles,” said Sonnet Stanfill, who curated the exhibit along with Oriole Cullen. “That is one of the exciting elements of recent years, this interest in experimentation.”

Each gown on display was subject to a list of criteria; it needed to fit the time frame of the exhibit, be formal and full length, and display well. But there was no fashion elitism affecting the selection process. “In the upstairs section, which focuses on the contemporary, there are designers who are not yet household names alongside people like McQueen and Westwood who, for the British public, would be very well known,” said Ms Stanfill. This display is very much about the best and most innovative British designers of the last six decades.

“The 1950s [were probably the most influential time depicted in this exhibit] because that was the decade when the new look, Dior’s collection from 1947, expanded into a household silhouette,” said Ms Stanfill. “That very narrow, slim waist with the bell shaped skirt. Designers go back to that again and again.”

She also noted that “the 1970s were, for Britain, a really interesting time for fashion because there was a sense of romanticism, and an interest in the exotic. Designers referenced other cultures in their fashion.”

It is very obvious to any visitor that these gowns have at least one thing in common. They are timeless. Some dresses, created decades ago, could easily be mistaken for something that graced the pages of Vogue last year. Everyone knows that fashion is recycled, and this exhibit does a fantastic job of showing us the most important elements of the gown, and the silhouettes designers go back to year after year.

There are countless fantastic designers in North America, but an exhibit focusing on British ballgowns has one added element to draw on. Ms Stanfill quickly pointed out the excitement of the British royalty. “In London [they are] ever-present on the public scene, and that level of glamour trickles down to the rest of society.”

The V&A team left nothing incomplete. The exhibit is paired with low light, music, and decoration to create the perfect atmosphere. Each group of gowns on the ground floor is displayed with large cardboard cutouts of mirrors and dressing room furniture. The backgrounds are images of the Music Room wall panels from Norfolk House in London. This space was styled to evoke the excitement of preparing for a ball. The mezzanine level depicts the ballroom itself, with gowns standing at different heights, beneath gorgeous chandeliers and the high ceilings of the Octagon Court.

The exhibit reminds us that the ballgown has always been, and continues to be, one of the most important pieces in any collection, and any closet.

Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 is on at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 6th January, 2013.

Written for Union Jack News

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