Valentino: Master of Couture shines in debonair fashion exhibition at Somerset House

By Rhiannon Starr | 21 January 2013

Exhibition review: Valentino: Master of Couture, Somerset House, London, until March 3 2013

A photo of a large shadow-lit mannequin of a woman in a glamorous white dress
© Peter MacDiarmid
In November 1959, Elizabeth Taylor was filming on location in Rome: a visit which coincided with the launch of Valentino’s first collection at his salon on the Via dei Condotti. The actress commissioned a dress for an upcoming film premiere, which would introduce the brand to an elite clientele and critical acclaim.

A photo of a tall female mannequin in a black and white dress standing among chairs
© Peter MacDiarmid
Accordingly, the couture-clad mannequins on display at Somerset House flank a 60-metre catwalk which stretches throughout the Embankment Galleries. Unfortunately, the theatrical staging has resulted in an over-crowded display. But the exhibits themselves are exquisite.

There is the luxury of autumnal velvet, wool and cashmere: trimmed with fur or feathers and accessorised with a low heel and an enveloping Cossack hat.

Translucent gowns in the palest of silks are graced with pearls, while layered black lace is encrusted with embellishment. Life-size animal prints - leopard, giraffe, tiger and zebra - feature on coats made of wool, silk and satin.

The corselet of a sequined dress is woven from pleated lengths of chiffon in indigo, teal, sage, stone, rust and orange to produce a mosaic of autumnal colour.

The pale blue tulle of another creation is gathered in delicate horizontal pleats across the bodice before cascading down to swirl in frothy ruffles around the feet. The white charmeuse of an evening dress falls elegantly to the floor and fans out with glistening inserts of strass crystal.

The traditional finale of any couture collection is a bridal gown: in this case, the one worn by Marie-Chantal Miller for her wedding to Pavlos, Crown Prince of Greece. Twenty-five seamstresses worked for four months to create the extravagant design, which features 12 different types of lace.

A photo of a series of female mannequins in fashion dresses standing in a shadowy display
© Peter MacDiarmid
The labour-intensive techniques employed in the Valentino atelier are apparent throughout the entire exhibition, and a close look at any garment reveals fascinatingly perfect craftsmanship. A complementary display of fabric samples and video footage offers an insight into the skill of les petites mains, who hand sew every single stitch.

This rare opportunity to glimpse the secrets of haute couture techniques such as budellini, drappeggio and incrostazioni greatly enriches the pleasure of this glamorous exhibition.

Watch a video about the show:

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