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.
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