British Glamour Since 1950

Posted on June 11, 2012


Ever dreamed of waltzing down the red carpet in a floor length jewel encrusted couture number, stepping out at your (imaginary) debutante ball in a dazzling white gown, or graciously donating a few trillion pounds at a charity gala, while clothed in Alexander McQueen?

Unless you’re the next Angelina Jolie these images are likely to remain archived deep within your cranial matter, but the grand evening wear on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new Ballgowns exhibition provides plenty of scope to get lost in a taffeta draped fantasy land.

If you are actually the next Angelina Jolie, then very well done. Seriously, kudos.

The V & A’s Gallery 40 has been refurbished to create an elegant space for the new fashion exhibitions – the ornate, circular room with its uncovered mosaic floors and dim lighting adds a couturier’s boudoir feel to the experience. Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950’s ground floor showcases a range of ballgowns designed in the 50s and onwards and a grand staircase curves upstairs to a mezzanine level which sits beneath a majestic domed ceiling. Here you can find contemporary glamour with dress designs as modern as this year’s collections on display.

We’re guided through intricate and traditional styles of the 50s and 60s, designed to be shown off throughout the established London season of royal events, balls and formal dinners. The 70s and 80s saw tradition taking a backseat as more garish, cutting edge designs appeared – think lots of randomly positioned giant bows and strange hip and shoulder panelling. I spotted a couple of gowns worth salivating over and using as fodder for my Handsome Persian Prince Proposal Fantasy, but many looked like they may have been fashioned out of old curtains and were inducing winces from the crowds gathered.

Victor Edelstein, 1986

Alluring backless satin dresses sit next to exquisitely sophisticated royal attire  – such as Princess Diana’s iconic ‘Elvis Dress’ and a Norman Hartnell petticoat style dress worn by the Queen Mother. Upstairs a focus on high fashion reminds me why I’ve always steered clear of anything catwalk. There’s a second-skin-esque printed latex dress by Atsuko Kudo, a Gareth Pugh number made from silvered leather which looks like a very fitted suit of armour and even a gown made entirely from sheets of aluminium foil, which I can only imagine wearing if I felt the urge to look like a giant Quality Street.

It’s interesting to learn about the relationship between couturiers and clients, which was evidently vital. Lady Heseltine apparently whiled away hours knocking back coffee and gossiping with her designer inbetween dress fittings – if you were the 1980s answer to Gok Wan it seemed you had a much better chance of getting your designs worn by the elite.

Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood designs on display are nothing short of theatrical. It’s impossible not to be awestruck by the bold audacity of these dresses, the mesmerising grandeur of the materials used and the sheer, intricate attention to detail.

Alexander McQueen, 2011

I can’t help but notice that each dress accompanied with an image of a beautiful model parading it down the red carpet look so much better draped around a real person, as opposed to a dummy. The other designs are definitely lacking something as it’s difficult to picture what they’d actually look like on the catwalk.

Although I’d rather step out in my granny knickers than some of these gowns, it’s easy to see how couture collections have influenced the high street and kickstarted the cyclical nature of fashion crazes, with current trends echoing avant guard, boundary pushing cuts of the 70s and 80s. If you appreciate craftsmanship and individualism in fashion, this exhibition provides an interesting peek into the world of the one-off design.

Having worried that I might leave Kensington feeling woefully underdressed, I actually felt incredibly grateful to be clad in jeans and a jumper with no need to worry if I was ‘on trend’ or whether or not I was going to get my gigantic hip panels stuck in the lift door. If this is glorious fashion, I’ll take polyester over foil any day.

Image Credits:

British Ballgowns:
Alexander McQueen:
Victor Edelstein: