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Ballgowns: playing dress-up at the V & A

Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950.

Ballgowns are the ultimate dress-up fantasy. For most, they are not for wearing but left for red carpet dreaming. I haven’t ever had the occasion to wear a classic ballgown before, even at university balls, anything too formal or unashamedly feminine made me uncomfortable. The prom dress a la riot grrrls was more my style, however, a couple of weekends ago, I had a self-indulgent day of dresses. Although you can’t actually play dress-up at ‘Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum, you can get up close to 60 gowns showing the changes in silhouettes, fabrics and styles over six decades.

‘Ballgowns’ is very much a showcase of British fashion, appropriate in the year of the Queen’s Jubilee and London 2012 Olympics. Curated by Oriole Cullen and Sonnet Stanfill, the exhibition charts the changes in ballgowns from the private sphere of dressing for royalty to the global, public glare of flashbulbs on the red carpet. Although the royal link has not disappeared. (I heard one person comment that Diana in the Elvis dress looked like a “proper princess.”) The ballgown with its romantic princess connotations are part of fashion’s wish-fulfilment. Gareth Pugh is quoted in the catalogue by Oriole Cullen,

‘That’s what fashion’s about… you’re transforming yourself from something that you are to maybe something that want to be… that’s the crux of what we do, it’s selling people a dream’. 

And although the exhibition is a social history through a particular garment, in truth the pleasure is in looking at all those dresses from the stylishly simple to the eccentrically attention-grabbing.

Fabric fetish in the ballroom

The exhibition is on two levels with the ground floor showing the preparation for the ball upstairs, where the contemporary designers are displayed. Fabrics stood out for me in these latter designs. From Alexander McQueen’s feathered dress to Atsuko Kudo bringing fetish to the ballroom with a stunning latex lace effect.

If you feel that you need body armour to go to the ball, then Gareth Pugh’s silvered leather gown is the one for you, where even the face is shielded. The beautiful busted dress with full skirt and casual pockets by Erdem (in the catwalk video below at 33s) couldn’t be more different but again makes innovative use of fabric to create an autumnal print using appliqué, quilting and beading.

Debs to swinging 60s

These dresses are designed for celebrities (Beyonce, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Annette Bening…) but back in the 1950s, the upper class girl would come of age at the débutante ball, often her first chance to don one of these fancy frocks. Reinforcing the relationship of ballgowns to old money, the designer was compelled to make their creation work with the family jewels. At fittings, fearing theft, some would draw the shape of a necklace on their skin to ensure the dress still work once they were bejewelled. I could just picture Matilda Etches’ dress from 1956, wonderfully named “Spinning Crystal“, being worn by young deb of this time. This pale green silk gauze dress has one shoulder sash with a pleated full skirt that I can imagine flowing and swirling during a dance.

With the likes of Mary Quant and Foale and Tuffin on the Kings Road, young debs of the 60s could wear mini-skirts as day-wear and so desired styles different to their mothers in the evening too. To cater for this shifting market, designers such as John Cavanagh and Bellville Sassoon, extended to boutique ranges for younger women.  The pink embroidered organza dress with cute bow at the front by Bellville Sassoon stood out for me as being particularly evocative of a ballgown from this period.

Kaftans rule 

In the 1970s the debutante ball changed to the charity ball where access was given to those who could pay the ticket price, encompassing the new royals – celebrities. One of the first dresses on display in the exhibition is a kaftan from the label Yuki worn by the actress Gayle Hunnicutt. Designed for dramatic entrances, it even looks stylish in the static case of the exhibition. This decade also saw trousers becoming an acceptable garment for women. Skip to the ‘oos and the Stella McCartney piece featured is a ballgown cum jumpsuit with pretty floral embroidery and casual pockets.

Bigger and bigger in the 1980s

Gold, extravagant and glitzy, Zandra Rhodes’ dress from 1981 seems to usher in that most decadent of decades. ‘Renaissance Cloth of Gold’ was modelled on Elizabethan styles and at the forefront of the corseted and hooped fashion revival of the time. The gold lamé of Craig Lawrence’s piece from 2010-11 again feels excessive but looks rather shapeless until movement gives it form. (see the video below at 01.50s)

At the turn of the last century the mixing of celebrity, commodity and the ballgown is exemplified in an Elizabeth Emmanuel romantic silk floral dress worn by Liz Hurley in an Estee Lauder advert.

Going to the ball

When I saw Patti Smith perform earlier this year (no less cool for wiping sweat off her face with her t-shirt), I would not have thought her an admirer of ballgowns. She can, however also pull off a Christian Dior.

“People wouldn’t know this about me, but I adore ballgowns,” she said. “I love their cut, their architecture and the thought of the hands of so many seamstresses working on them.”

If I was going to the ball…I’ve love to try Giles Deacon’s pleated “carwash” dress… or maybe this beautiful Worth dress

What about you? Which dress would you pick?

Have you been to the exhibition? What did you think about it? I’d love to hear from you.

Ballgowns: British Glamour since the 1950s is open until 6 January 2013.

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