Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950


Opening the British Design Season at the Victoria and Albert Museum and held in the newly renovated Fashion Galleries, the exhibition is inspired by the Queen’s 60 year reign and celebrates British fashion design – showcasing the finest formal eveningwear from the elegant 1950s to the more avant-garde creations of the present day.

Many of the dresses have never been publicly displayed and include some of the most important fashion statements of the past six decades – couture gowns commissioned for royal occasions, charity balls, and celebrity-studded award ceremonies. These dresses were time-consuming pieces crafted from the finest materials, tailored to the individual and always achieved high impact. It isn’t difficult to become transfixed by more than 60 spectacular gowns comprising of silk, lace, satin, feathers and latex. The drama and splendour of the ballgown unfolds from the mid half of the 20th century and culminates in a staggering display highlighting today’s fashion designers at the forefront of British design innovation.

The exhibition features a ravishing 1955 embroidered pink silk ballgown with crystal embellishments designed by House of Worth, a voluminous blue beaded crinoline Norman Hartnell designed for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and Princess Diana’s famous pearl and sequin studded and aptly nicknamed ‘Elvis’ ensemble by Catherine Walker, worn by the Princess to the British Fashion Awards in 1989 and emphasising the importance of the relationship between the British fashion industry and the Royal Family. Princess Diana helped to revive the trend for elaborate evening dresses during the boom economy of the 1980s and her wedding dress designers Elizabeth and David Emanuel are represented in the exhibition by a ruffled pink taffeta dress (reminiscent of pink Angel Delight) which they designed for Joan Collins in 1983, on loan from her wardrobe.

In an age where debutantes gave way to the dawn of the celebrity – the ballgown symbolises the evolution of our culture through premium fashion and provides a fascinating look at society’s changing tastes. The exhibition includes dresses worn by A-List stars Sandra Bullock and Elizabeth Hurley and pays homage to some of the most influential and pioneering British fashion designers of the last 60 years including Vivienne Westwood, Ossie Clark, Zandra Rhodes, and Alexander McQueen, many of whom learnt their trade in the workshops of traditional and respected Savile Row tailors and have long been recognised for putting Britain on the international fashion map.

Gliding up the 1930s Hollywood-inspired sweeping staircase to the mezzanine level you find a dreamlike display set off by chandeliers and revolving mannequins. The exhibition finale surprises visitors with eyebrow-raising contemporary red carpet designs – a world away from the demure 1950s styles on the floor below. Today’s leading designers take full advantage of modern fabrics and technology – fully expressing their imagination and sheer forward-thinking whilst managing to incorporate traditional glamour and decadence in a unique and distinctively British way.

Memorable styles include the Gareth Pugh metallic leather dress created especially for the exhibition and the bespoke Ralph & Russo dress designed for Beyoncé, encrusted with over 20,000 Swarovski crystals which is believed to have taken a team of seamstresses three months to hand sew. Fashionistas and followers of red carpet fashion will be stampeding to the V&A to appreciate just how imaginative our designers are and why British fashion continues to be the leading force in the industry.

An accompanying book, Ballgowns – British Glamour Since 1950 (£20 hardback) is available from the museum gift shop and online.

Information: Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, London. SW7 2RL. Tel: +44 (20) 7942 2000. The exhibition is showing until 6th January 2013. To book tickets (£10 Adult) or for more information, visit the website.


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