Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950 – Review

This summer the esteemed V&A museum has upped its exhibition game and is playing host to a dazzling showcase of the best ballgowns British fashion has to offer from the last six decades.

Spread over two floors are a careful selection of dresses designed by various fashion houses that have adorned the rich and famous or at least made a striking impression on the catwalks. Dotted about also are placards explaining the way the use of ballgowns has evolved over the last sixty years. No longer are they the preserve of the upper classes but with the decline of formal balls, they are now mainly seen on celebrities stalking down the red carpet as well as on royalty and elite aristocracy. Some of the placards also displayed more detail about the dresses and their famous wearers as well as the occasional amusing anecdote – invitees to one ball were told to dress ‘bewitchingly’ and some of them took that description a bit too literally!

It was interesting to observe that the gowns lent to the exhibition straight from the wardrobes various members of the aristocracy seemed a little big on the mannequins while the more modern dresses sent over from the designers fit snugly. A perhaps rather telling reflection of current society’s attitudes towards beauty and weight…

While the lower floor seemed to be the preserve of older, traditional dresses worn many years ago or by the more mature lady or members of those ancient institutions of aristocracy/royalty, once you ascended the stairs you entered a new, showier era of the ballgown.

The layout of the upper floor was fantastic and had a dreamlike quality that made you feel as if you have walked into the dressing room of your dreams. The whole setting and the props were glossy and white with mannequins posing around giant models of pearl necklaces and chandeliers. And the dresses were breath-taking. Some were extravagant affairs made of foil and feathers and encrusted with jewels. Others had a more pared back elegance. By far my favourite was a frothy white and grey design by Marchesa that had a wonderful ethereal quality to it. The short, edgy Mary Katrantzou dress covered in an architectural design with floor reaching panels of floaty material gracing each side of the dress was a close second.

If you love watching the red carpet for show-stopping dresses and are fascinated by fashion history, I highly recommend this exhibition – the layout and the creations within it are exquisite. And if, like me, you love beautiful dresses but are not a celebrity, princess or have a hoard of gold casually lying around, this exhibition probably will probably also be the closest you will ever get to designer frocks as well… So get booking!

The ‘Ballgown: British Glamour since 1950’ exhibition is showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum until 6th January 2013.

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