A Front Row Review of the V&A Ballgowns Exhibition

While in some ways intrinsically frivolous, each of these fabulous, dramatic, skilful dresses tells a story or represents an era, says Caroline Williams

A Front Row Review of the V&A Ballgowns Exhibition

While in some ways intrinsically frivolous, each of these fabulous, dramatic, skilful dresses tells a story or represents an era, says Caroline Williams
 
 
GIRLS ALWAYS LIKE to make an entrance. We enjoy dressing up for our own and others’ entertainment, be it in formal gowns for social events or elaborate costumes for fancy dress parties. The elegantly-curated new pop-up exhibition Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 at Kensington’s Victoria & Albert Museum showcases some 60 years of creations which artfully combine style, silhouette and colour to surprise, amuse and amaze.

However the experience is a bit labyrinthine, with no obvious starting point, and the draw of Ballgowns as centre of attention can mean the casual visitor can miss 200 more years of carefully-selected fashion of yore. Exceptionally fine items from the V&A’s hundred thousand textile and fashion items are almost a side issue, arranged as they are on the outskirts of the finely-domed, restored and revamped fashion and textile gallery.

Ballgowns presents key pieces ranging from the days when post-war debutantes were presented at Court, a practice ended by the Queen in 1958, via the sort of attire worn at Queen Charlotte’s Ball to the gowns of today, where the red carpet is the formal setting for sartorial ostentation. Frocks on display in this temporary celebration of the statement piece range from design classics to surprises, culminating in a creation entirely in latex. Delightful poseuse pieces from Giles Deacon and Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen and Erdem sit alongside dresses with enough legroom for ballroom dancing.

Attiring oneself in the perfect confection for an evening’s entertainment is every girl’s living fairytale. We shall go to the ball and young British designers abound whose material expressions of flair, daring and romance allow women of all ages to go forth in their finest attire to their chosen event, be it formal or merely important at a personal level. Entering the room to enjoy one’s chosen entertainment is a time to savour the moment: create a stir, turn heads, make an impact.

So while in some ways intrinsically frivolous, each dress tells a story or represents an era. From association with a particular wearer such as Princess Diana or designer to perennial classics, the show is undoubtedly a collection of masterpieces, and illustrates the continuing talent of UK designers of ready-to-wear, couture and formal dresses. With co-curators and wardrobe mistresses Sonnet Stanfill and Oriole Cullen raiding the V&A’s considerable dressing up box - self-confessedly overwhelmed with choice - some 60 dresses have passed muster. These showcase Britain’s sartorial talent at its best and most diverse, touching on a variety of approaches, shapes and embroidery techniques.
 


 

Atsuko Kudo gown in latex worn by Georgia Frost
 
THE STORIES BEHIND the dresses themselves are told through fairly helpful but not exhaustive captioning. It is worth buying the exhibition catalogue for further reading. Not every ‘previously worn’ Ballgowns dress has enveloped a known name, or been created by a high profile designer, but each has an interesting history and marks a moment in time. Starting with a gown by the father of British couture Norman Hartnell which was owned by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and put through its paces in the 1950s, the show grounds itself firmly in an elegant world where the requirement of an evening wardrobe was to flatter the figure whilst fitting very strict Royal requirements.

As shown through one of her dresses from the 1980s, Princess Diana characteristically challenged convention with a rebellious dress worn with mismatched gloves. Debutante balls were of course designed to launch eligible young women into society and with luck into the arms of appropriately marriageable beaux. A Belville Sassoon classic from the 1960s saw the family investing some £1,000 in their daughter’s future; the red-carpet gowns of today are statement pieces in a different way, helping to bolster or change the wearer’s image in the eyes of the paparazzi, their fanzine and their critics.
This temporary exhibition sits within a broader space devoted to costume over the last three centuries. Over the years the V&A has amassed some 100,000 textile and fashion items from gloves to greatcoats. The architecturally stunning circular exhibition hall, refreshed and redecorated over the past year to impressive effect, houses highlights of the permanent collection together with topical shows such as the latest Coutts-sponsored and DCMS and Arts Council England-backed Ballgowns, which truly trips the light fantastic not least owing to sympathetic uplighting and spectacular projections by renowned artist David Hughes with questionably appropriate yet arresting surrealist props by Vincent Olivier.

The domed space with newly-revealed monochrome tesserae underfoot provides a dance floor which pays homage to colourful gowns whose owners have graced courtly and social occasions through the centuries. Decade upon decade of stylish living come to life in tableaux settings grouped to show the progression of evening attire from 1750 to the early 1900s.

Starting with a stunning paniered mantua dress from 1755, curators Jenny Lister and Claire Wilcox conduct us on a tour of the grand salons and ballrooms of England, allowing the visitor to visualise the ladies and their consorts who wore such elegant garb. Through thoughtfully-arranged tableaux it is possible to imagine them gliding into social events, skilfully negotiating carriage, doorway and dancing partner, clad in cumbersome attire whilst retaining perfect posture.

From the days when mulberry silk was imported from Italy and woven in Spitalfields, British evening fashion has clearly long been characterised by extravagance and exclusive materials. With the ban in 1766 of on silk imports to protect British interests , the pull of Paris fashion started and French silks became highly sought-after. Spitalfields weavers strove to keep pace by adding topical and often exquisite romantic references through the language of English flowers. The forerunners of modern fashion magazines emerged as hand-coloured fashion plates were circulated with depiction of what people were wearing at Court.
   


  

Erdem gown A/W 2008

BY 1775 AN element of ‘rus in urbe’ ensured that the fashionable girl about town subscribed to the vogue for ‘lustring’ – wearing light summery silk with ruched skirts in witty reference to country dress. One learns that the original ‘negligee’ (or rather less romantically termed ‘sack back’) was a dress formed in loose pleats hanging direct from the shoulders. Fashionable materials were so expensive that as little cutting and tailoring was done as possible. Indeed fabrics were often crafted to fit the human form using little more than origami-like pleats to preserve the cloth for future alteration in line with the next vogue.

What is clear is that fashion was from the outset driven by entrepreneurs, who pushed new materials and inventions to a wealthy market only too eager to display their affluence and support. In the late 18th to early 19th century, fashion became the backbone of the UK’s industry and economics. Aniline dyes invented in the 1860s as a byproduct of research and development in the chemical industry replaced natural dyes, and high society dresses became the perfect advertisement for a new spectrum of brilliant colours. The new approach alarmed the medical community, the BMJ warning of the dangers of arsenic used in magenta dyes which could leak into the skin through washing, rain or perspiration.

Controversy in the fashion world raged even then as British visitors to the International Exhibitions of 1851 and 1862 considered the high quality French fashions on display the height of good taste, whilst their cross-channel counterparts ridiculed garish and unwieldy English creations. Further technological advances in the nineteenth century allowed fashionable ladies to sport cage crinolines of sprung steel, replacing heavy layers of petticoats with frames which allowed ladies’ dresses to become ever more voluminous. While widely ridiculed, as with the best of modern avant garde fashion, their popularity at the time is evident with production levels in their thousands.

Yet at the same time, the British aristocracy spent large parts of the year at their country estates. Such was the appeal of classic plain woollen outdoor clothing for traditional outdoor sporting activities that this quintessentially British style even created fashionable waves in Paris, understandably so since British tailors were adept at showing off a man’s figure to its full advantage, emphasising symmetry and proportion. Such was the trend towards fitted garments that tailoring manuals were published en masse from the beginning of the nineteenth century with new measuring systems to help with cutting, leading ultimately to the production of the first general purpose tape measure in 1818.

Dressmakers were not far behind, reinterpreting riding coats as ‘redingotes’ for suitable attire in which to walk, travel and pay calls to neighbouring estates. With a triumphant nod to the Napoleonic Wars, witty decorative details on ladies’ clothing soon included cord, tassels and frogging directly borrowed from military uniform – a style still in fashion to this day. By the 1830’s the Jacquard loom reduced labour costs and increased productivity. Innovation in the dyeing and printing industries increased choice for women and speeded up the pace of fashion. Feather-filled sleeve supports and petticoats stiffened with card or horsehair were used to create the ‘correct’ silhouette.

Yet then as now, in polite society thrift and expediency could come to the fore whilst maintaining appearances. Couture dresses were such an investment that they were often made in deconstructed mix and match pieces which could be variously combined or added to in order to make the seamless transition from day into night in different combinations of bodice, skirt and peplum (a sort of train). Huge amounts of fabric were involved: it was not unusual to go the whole nine yards.  
 


 

Giles Deacon S/S 2007, photographed by Tim Walker BY THE EARLY twentieth century the British fashion trade was attracting an international audience. Top couturiers Worth and Pingat began to attract clients from as far away as America, eagerly seeking the exquisite trappings of silk, fur, lace and embroidery. Whilst the British company Redfern built an unrivalled reputation for tailormade ladies’ suits, department stores copied the latest fashions and retail therapy thus became a leisure pursuit for all levels of society, with ready-made corsets and bustles available off the peg for the first time. High fashion was no longer the prerogative of the upper classes. The expansion of ready-made tailoring meant that many more could buy fashion at competitive prices.

But then came the backlash: artists and dress reformers began to react against the artificiality of fashion and created simpler styles, returning to natural dyes and fabrics such as wool jersey, practical for increasingly popular sports requiring substance and durability over form. Since then, ‘alternative’ styles have become mainstream.

Returning to Ballgowns, among the latex, sequins and lurex, perhaps the most poignant creation of all is one of the sixteen pieces in Alexander McQueen’s final collection of Autumn/Winter 2010. Inspired by the art and skill involved in hand-worked garments, McQueen’s stunning yet simple monochrome maxidress seems to close the fashion circle in this most black and white of spaces. Shunning the world of technical wizardry, McQueen instead deliberately moved back to a 1780’s style of handcrafting, revisiting and revitalising skills which somehow the heady and competitive world of fashion had increasingly subordinated.

Through cutting pieces of fabric himself and draping them on a stand on a daily basis, McQueen’s creation resembles a relief sculpture. Presented in the simplest and softest of dove greys, the ostensible loveliness of peaceful, mirror-image pensive angels protecting the wearer’s breast is threatened by louring and aggressive ravens bearing down from either shoulder. Looking more closely, the fabric is artfully crumpled and centres on a dark arrow pointing downwards from the sternum to the navel. Opaque woven fabric round the bodice flows to light transparent layers of skirt and then to a floating hem, leaving many unanswered questions in keeping with McQueen’s untimely death at what is widely considered to be the height of his powers.

While temporary, evanescent Ballgowns is not. Styles and fabrics go in and out of fashion, which changes but fundamentally stays the same. Get your own snapshot while you can, before the vogue changes.

Fashionable attire polarises opinion. A fellow visitor dressed head to toe in a witty tape measure-print yellow tracksuit by Jeremy Scott certainly turned heads and visibly relished the attention. In dubious taste, perhaps, but a brave and bold statement entirely in keeping with the show.

Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950
Victoria & Albert Musem
Sponsored by Coutts
19 May 2012 – 6 January 2013

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