At the beginning of June, I took a decadent day off work and visited the Victoria and Albert museum in South Kensington, London, to see the Ballgowns exhibit.
The show, entitled ‘Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950’ is running throughout the year and features over 60 ‘event’ dresses and accessories from more than 60 years of design.
The exhibit is split over two levels in a self-contained gallery in one of the larger gallery rooms in the museum. The ground floor showcases older dresses, up to the early 90s, frequently worn to formal balls and royal events. While there were some lovely pieces here, the whole space suffers from gloomy lighting, which I found frustrating. A lot of the pieces are on loan from the owners whilst upstairs the majority appear to be on loan directly from the designers.
The mezzanine level also had a different layout. The dresses weren’t behind glass but instead were on raised diases or giant mother of pearl globes and sometimes rotating for a full 360 degree view. The lighting was much better as well.
But whilst the exhibit space was striking, it didn’t detract from the fabulous gowns.
There were pieces from Matthew Williamson, Giles Deacon, Alexander McQueen, Jenny Packham, Stella McCartney, Mary Katrantzou and many others.
I discovered after taking two snaps (without a flash of course) that photos are not allowed which was very disappointing.
Though most of the modern dresses could be easily tracked down via fashion site coverage of runway shows, the images don’t quite capture how these gowns came across.
For instance, the stand-out dress for me was the ‘carwash dress’ from Giles Deacon’s RTW s/s 2007 show. Pictured below, it doesn’t really stand out because the texture has been flattened. The dress is made up of tiers of pleated black silk, with a collar and belt of black patent leather. In real life, the artistry of this dress is strikingly apparent but these images cannot capture its drama.
Being able to see these arresting outfits in the flesh, so to speak, made the show worthwhile but some of the presentation decisions felt like mis-steps to me. Resoundingly excellent however is the surrounding gallery, (which is not a special exhibit so is free like the rest of the museum) has some fantastic Western dress from across the centuries, with half of the room dedicated to the 20th century and some stunning men’s and women’s clothing from designers including Chanel, Balenciaga, and Dior.
These two pics show just a quickly snapped example from some of the inspiring clothes to be found. The outfit on the left is by Dries Van Noten, with a wonderful beaded jacket. On the left is a display featuring clothes by Ossie Clarke who worked with print designer Celia Birtwell. The smocking of the front of the thigh of the trouser suit alone is fascinating. Not sure if I want to see that swing back around though…
Ultimately the black sequin evening trouser suit and blouse by Chanel on display (linked above) was more glamorous to me than many of the older ballgowns, perhaps because it was more provocative than a high-society deb ball would allow.
If you can’t make it to the show, you can watch a video about the exhibit here. It features great close-ups of some of the gowns, importantly with all the lights turned on!