A spectacular exhibition of more than 60 ballgowns from 1950 to the present day, Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 is the first exhibition in the newly renovated V&A Fashion Galleries and features beautiful ballgowns, red carpet evening gowns and catwalk showstoppers.
There is a strong British design tradition of creating sumptuous ballgowns, one that has been upheld in the late 20th and 21st centuries through the work of designers such as Hardy Amies, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. The exhibition covers more than 60 years of a tradition that continues to flourish.
Displayed over two floors, Ballgowns shows specially made designs for social events such as private parties, royal state occasions, debutante balls, opening nights and red carpet events. Tour de force evening wear from the V&A’s vast collection by designers such as Norman Hartnell, Victor Stiebel, Zandra Rhodes, Catherine Walker, Jonathan Saunders and Hussein Chalayan are on show, as well as dresses fresh from the catwalk shows of Roland Mouret, Giles, Erdem, Roksanda Illincic, Antonio Berardi and Mary Katrantzou. Innovative designer Gareth Pugh has created a stunning metallic leather dress especially for the exhibition.
Royal gowns, with their luxurious fabrics and exquisite embellishments, always make headlines. A selection of royal ballgowns are on display, including a Norman Hartnell gown designed for Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Princess Diana’s ‘Elvis Dress’ designed by Catherine Walker. Dresses worn by actresses and celebrities including Sandra Bullock, Daphne Guinness, Elizabeth Hurley and Dame Helen Mirren are also on show. Ralph & Russo have recreated a crystal-covered dress worn by Beyoncé, especially for the display.
From Country House to Red Carpet
Since the 1950s, occasions for wearing formal attire have evolved from the private event to the public parade. In the post-war period, as Europe struggled toward recovery, extravagant, exclusive balls provided glittering backdrops for splendid couture gowns, so helping to stimulate sartorial consumption and aspiration in Britain. Coming out balls, where young women were formally introduced to society, were often the first occasion on which to wear a grand gown. The emergence of the charity ball in the 1980s provided a new platform for a wider society to dress to impress. More recently it is the red carpet that acts as the most important site of fashionable splendour. From the 1990s, couturiers have competed to dress stars for red carpet events which gather worldwide press interest. Moreover what the stars of a film wear to a premiere can sometimes deliver as many column inches as the film itself.
Preparing for the ball
The ground floor of the exhibition features over 30 ballgowns from the Museum’s permanent collection. Designs from 1950 to the early 2000s are on display, including gowns by Ossie Clark, Bill Gibb, Belleville Sassoon, Murray Arbeid, Bruce Oldfield and Julien MacDonald. The space has been designed and styled to evoke the excitement of preparing for a ball in a grand country house. The display includes film as well as contextual images and accessories such as elegant evening bags, gloves and shoes. Ballgowns continues from the ground floor onto the mezzanine, taking full advantage of the newly lit and restored Octagon Court, one of the most architecturally dramatic of the V&A’s galleries.
The mezzanine level features a stylised ‘ballroom’ space, with around 30 evening gowns designed by contemporary UK-based makers on open display. It evokes the glamour of the red carpet or a couture presentation. The gowns stand under spectacular pavilions surrounded by oversized pearls. This display shows how ballgowns continue to be the ultimate fashion statement for contemporary designers, and includes unexpected interpretations such as a latex gown by Atsuko Kudo.
Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, V&A’s fashion gallery, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL, 19 May 2012 – 6 January 2013. Open daily 10am – 5.45pm and until 10pm every Friday.