The word ‘ballgown’ conjures up many different notions of style. It makes me think of animated Disney princesses, Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina, Grace Kelly’s poise captured in black and white photos, and lavish charity events in grand, sweeping ballrooms. Regardless of your interpretation, the latest exhibition at the V&A will no doubt tap in to your own princess fantasies.
Housed in the newly renovated Fashion wing of the V&A, Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, showcases a collection exquisite dresses, dating from the 1950s to the modern day, and includes designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Elizabeth Emmanuel (on half of the design team that made Princess Diana’s epic wedding dress) and Bellville Sassoon.
The exhibition is split over two levels. Downstairs the gowns are grouped vaguely according to colour, ranging from cinched waists and endless layers of silk organza, to oversized bows and neat rows of hand-sewn pearls. Short films are projected onto one wall which show adverts and documentaries of fashion houses from the 50s and 60s unveiling new collections in grand country mansions, displayed on models with pristine make-up and permeant smiles.
- A Victor Stiebel dress on display at the V&A’s Ballgowns exhibition
A modern, sweeping double entrance staircase in crisp white leads visitors to the upper level, where the museum has chosen to showcase a more modern take on these fairytale gowns. White wooden imitation chandeliers hang from the ceiling and ballroom dancing steps have been painted onto the white floor. Giant, peralescent balls form large-scale pearl necklaces, draped around each of the three stands, which house half a dozen dresses each.
Photographs of ballgowns from the V&A’s permanent collection are projected onto each of the four alcoves of the dome ceiling. It’s up here that young British designers take centre stage, with creations from Jonathan Saunders, Alexander McQueen, and Nicolas Oakenwell. These gowns are far more modern, and aren’t necessarily how I would picture a ballgown, but they demonstrate how the dresses featured on the ground floor have influenced current designers.
I fell in love with a 1950s design by Victor Stiebel, above, made from silk tafita and organza. The simplicity of the faded teal gown over the striped underskirt is, to me, sublime – simple and understated, but beautiful all the same.
Marcel Fromenti drawing from the V&A archives
There was a strict no photography (or even drawing) policy at the exhibition, but fortunately Harrods have also collaborated with the V&A to showcase their own collection of gowns, which is where the photos (top and below) in this post were taken. While in London it felt like the whole city had Ballgowns fever – even Miss Selfridge on Oxford Street had filled their shop with decadently dresses mannequins.
Ballgowns window display at Harrods
I thought the exhibition was wonderful, with a brilliant mix of old and new (such as a Gareth Pugh mirrorball dress) and it opened my eyes to a whole wealth of designers I’d never heard of before. While there (on a Thursday afternoon) the exhibtion was swarming with women of all ages and I think it (and the rest of the V&A) would be a great destination to take your mum or grandma. There is also a programme of free events and talks running alongside the exhibition, which sounds incredible - definitely worth coming back to London for!
Have you been to see Ballgowns yet? What did you think of it and was there a stand-out dress you loved?
Tickets: £10, concessions available. This exhibition runs until January 2013 so there’s no excuse not to see it! For more information and a list of events and lectures, visit the V&A website.