Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950 at the Victoria & Albert Museum

By Rhiannon Starr | 25 June 2012
A photo of a series of glamorous ballgowns inside a see-through case within a gallery
© V&A images
Exhibition: Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, until January 6 2013

Norman Hartnell and Atsuko Kudo are two designers not often mentioned in the same breath. The former earned Royal Warrants as Dressmaker to HM Queen Elizabeth and Queen Elizabeth II; the latter is a leading designer of Fetish clothing, specialising in Couture Latex Design.

A photo of a female model walking down a catwalk in a decadent light grey dress
Alexander McQueen (2011)© Christopher Moore, catwalking.com
Hartnell designed regal gowns for the 1953 Coronation; Atsuko Kudo created a mind-boggling red latex costume worn by Lady Gaga.  Aesthetically their work may exist as polar opposites of the couture spectrum, but garments by both designers rightly feature as examples of British Glamour since 1950.

Fabric and silhouette choices may change over time, but such a varied line-up reveals a common design feature: exquisite craftsmanship. This is an exhibition which will leave you in awe of the painstaking hours which went into designing and hand crafting each piece of couture, from the tens of thousands of pearls adorning a silk crepe dress worn by Princess Diana to the extravagantly feathered Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen creation.

The exhibition is keen to illustrate the changes in British society as a backdrop for the evolution of our formal evening wear.

A Cecil Beaton photograph of gowns by Charles James modelled in a neoclassical interior was a key reference for the exhibition’s set designer, Emily Pugh. Further study of period furniture informed the vignettes which frame the mid-20thcentury garments, suggesting the ritual of debutantes preparing for a ball.

However, ever since Elizabeth II ended formal court presentations in 1957, the strict rules which once defined formal evening wear have gradually broadened. Red carpet events have grown in significance, with the parade of dresses now attracting instantaneous press coverage worldwide.

A photo of a female figure reclining in a glamorous silky dark red and black dress
Victor Edelstein (1986)© David Hughes
The significance of this new arena is clear in the popular use of metallic finishes and crystal beading: embellishment designed to sparkle under the dazzling flash of paparazzi photography.

The relaxing of our national dress code has ushered in a playful, whimsical approach to contemporary ballgowns, as designers experiment with the rich possibilities offered by such luxurious swathes of fabric.
As exhibition curator Oriole Cullen observes, many of these creations still pay homage to traditional shapes or techniques.

The silhouette of a jewel-hued Erdem dress, for example, recalls the traditional bell shape, but the raised waist and inclusion of pockets give a very modern edge. A digital print and traditional applique blend beautifully to create the imagery of leaves swirling up around the hem of the dress.

Other designers, such as Atsuko Kudo, utilise unexpected and innovate materials. The example of her work on display here is - unlike the voluminous outfit worn by Gaga - surprisingly subtle: figure hugging with a delicate lace-like print and scalloped edge. Gareth Pugh and Craig Lawrence have produced particularly futuristic pieces fashioned from metallic leather and knitted foil respectively.

Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950 successfully showcases established and emerging British talent, and makes a persuasive case for the current and future relevance of British couture houses.

To coincide with the Diamond Jubilee and London Olympics, this summer the Victoria and Albert Museum are celebrating British design with three major exhibitions: Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950, British Design 1948-2012: Innovation in the Modern Age, and Heatherwick Studio: Designing the Extraordinary.

  • Open 10am-5.45pm (10pm Friday). Tickets £3.50-£10. Book online.

More pictures:

A photo of a young woman standing on a stool wearing a glamorous dark dress
© Tim Walker. Model: Coco Rocha. Photo: Tim Walker / Art + Commerce
An image of a series of mannequins clad in glamorous dresses inside an art gallery
© V&A images
An image of a female model standing in a glamorous desk inside an art gallery
© Carlos Jimenez, V&A Images
An image of a yellow and blue floral dress on a mannequin holding a book with red leaves coming out of it
© David Hughes
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