Fashion

Insider’s guide to the Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum

Elle Canada
Fashion

Insider’s guide to the Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum

 All photos courtesy of V&A Images.

When I was in London recently, I met up with Kate Bethune, assistant curator, textiles and fashion, at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Kate took me on an insider’s tour of the Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 exhibit in the V&A’s newly renovated Fashion Galleries. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation as we explored the collection of show-stopping gowns by incredible Brit designers like Bellville Sassoon, Bruce Oldfield and Julien MacDonald to Gareth Pugh, Mary Katrantzou and Alexander McQueen. Q: The timing is really great for this exhibit (May 19, 2012 to January 6, 2013) as it will be on during the summer Olympics. A: Yes, that’s one of the reasons for having this exhibition. The lead curators Oriole Cullen and Sonnet Stanfill were very keen to put on a show that would be in line with celebrations like the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. They wanted something that would tie in with the time that Queen Elizabeth has spent on the throne, so we start at 1950. Q: Do any of the dresses in the exhibit have a really interesting backstory? A: The difficulty with fashion exhibitions is to give a sense of life to the gowns, which don’t move when they’re on static mannequins. So when possible, it’s really nice to accompany the dresses with interesting stories. For example, there is a dress that Bellville Sassoon designed in 1964. It was given to use by Lady Jill Ritblat. Her mother purchased it for her, for a ball, and it cost £1,000 at the time, which was more than an annual salary. She actually wore it again for her engagement party because she loved it so much and she decided she wouldn’t find another dress that she liked as much. That’s one thing I love about ballgowns. People chose to wear them again and again—they weren’t just one-off pieces, they were timeless. When you look at the detailing on this gown you can see why: you’ve got embroidered teardrop shapes and from each one is suspended a single crystal which shines beautifully. Q: The 1994 white Vivienne Westwood gown with the shredding at the bottom is a standout. I love how the exhibition notes say you are supposed to wear this with pearls. A: This is Westwood’s take on the traditional debutante gown, but it’s done in her subversive style - very much deconstructed with the shredded skirt at the bottom. The court presentation of debutants came to an end in the late 1950s, so this exhibition transcends that and also tells the story of the transition of the ball gown and formal eveningwear from the ballroom to the red carpet and the catwalk.

Q: Which dress in this exhibit do you get asked about the most? A: Everyone’s interested in the 2010 Ralph & Russo dress that Beyoncé wore for her performance at the White House annual state dinner. She was willing to lend the actual dress to us but because of scheduling conflicts and other reasons we weren’t actually able to get it on time. So Ralph & Russo very kindly made us an exact replica. Obviously, Beyoncé has that incredible figure, so it was interesting and exciting to be able to mount the dress and give it the right shape, because obviously our mannequins are standard size and it was a challenge - but it looks fantastic. And there’s the Christopher Kane dress that was a last-minute substitution. It was worn by actress Shailene Woodley to  the 2012 Met Gala, so that came in from New York about a week or so before opening, so, we’re very excited to have that piece here. Q: Did you acquire any specific pieces for this show? A: We did. The Gareth Pugh dress, that’s an acquisition that was made for us. It’s an adapted version of a shorter dress from one of his runway shows. It’s wonderful because it combines tradition and also modernity–you get the sense that it’s armour, but it also has a modern futuristic feel to it. Pugh lengthened it for us and also created a beautiful accompanying neck piece as well. And we also acquired a Matthew Williamson digital-print gown for this show.  

  Q: How have ball gowns evolved in the last 60 years? A: I think what’s changed is that even contemporary designers are still playing with the same forms and shapes like the fuller skirt which was very popular in the 1950s and the columnar silhouette which was popular in the ’60s. There’s a lot of attention now that’s being paid to surface embellishment, surface detail and also prints, and mixing up new technologies. You’ll see in the case of Mary Katrantzou, who’s a contemporary designer, she uses digital prints as her media of choice, and that’s very interesting and exciting. So tradition endures, but  tradition is being mixed with new technologies and it’s giving things a new slant. Q: For the most part, we’ve become such a casual culture.  Most people will never have the opportunity to wear a ball gown. Yet when you look at designer’s runway collections, many shows still end with very formal gowns. What’s the appeal? A: I think ball gowns are the epicentre of a designer’s talent - so you’ve got these show-stopping pieces that are presented at the end of a collection to act as a mark of the designer’s work.
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Insider’s guide to the Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 exhibit at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum