I do love exhibitions about fashion, especially the ones in which famous people have donated or have had dresses donated in their memory, mainly because you can then imagine them wearing it and marvel at what terrible taste they had! Yes, you, Joan Collins! The Victoria & Albert Museum have come up with this exhibition to celebrate the reopening of the Fashion Gallery which has had a make-over recently. The central structure to this newly renovated area houses the exhibition which has a hefty £10 entrance fee and includes beautiful ballgowns and evening wear spanning the decades, featuring some stunning dresses by Norman Hartnell, Alexander McQueen and Zandra Rhodes amongst many others.
Starting from the 1950s there are dresses used for private and public balls, gowns celebrities had used for red carpet events and state occasions. It made me long for the days when women dressed up to the nines just to do the weekly shop! It was fascinating to see the styles evolve through the decades, the biggest change from my point of view, being the comfort of wearing them. The dresses from the 50s were very stiff with extreme boning and coarse fabrics, the 70s were all loose draping and huge sleeves matching huge skirts (a bit like wearing a bedspread) and upstairs the modern red carpet affairs that seem to hark back to the formality and opulence of the 50s but with fabrics kinder to the skin! I was impressed with the daring designs of the more modern dresses and blown away by the details, hand stitched sequins and beads aplenty. Giles Deacon’s gorgeous black tiered gown was one of my favourites and adorns the exhibition poster, Gareth Pugh was also present as one of the more avant-garde designers of today with a dress he had created especially for the show.
David Sassoon, who owns the Bellville Sassoon salon in Knightsbridge and has dressed most of the female members of the Royal family, explains;
In the 50’s young girls aspired to look like their mothers, but in the 60’s the mothers aspired to look like their daughters. All the rules went out the windows so you really were free to do very exciting, very glamorous clothes and of course clothes could be a little bit more sexy than they had been. A lot of the collections we designed were based on themes. For instance we would have an Indian collection or a Chinese collection. I loved doing dresses for Princess Diana. She was very, very charismatic. And she could wear all sorts of wonderful colours.
I was looking forward to seeing the iconic ‘Elvis’ dress designed for Diana Princess of Wales by Catherine Walker the most, more for the workmanship that had gone in to it rather than who wore it, but as soon as you see it, all you can think about is Diana. She was a lot taller and a hell of a lot thinner than I expected! It is this dress for me, more than any other that sums up the point to this exhibition. The point that these are not just statements of fashion, they are status symbols, they are olive branches, they can ingratiate you into somebodies good books by being politically or socially aware (pearls were used on Diana’s dress as she wore it for her official visit to Hong Kong, the home of the pearl) and can embarrass the most confident of characters if you happen to turn up to an event in exactly the same gown as another guest! On this last point, I was interested to learn that it is the job of the designer to ensure this type of faux pas does not happen. I presumed that as soon as the dress was fitted it was out of their hands, but it seems the work of the designer never done!
Nicholas Oakwell explains;
The 40’s through to the 60’s were a very strong period of time I think. It was very much Royal Britannia at that time and I think Britain was very glamorous with the balls and the functions and the debutants and things like that. I think with my style, I try to be modern in a way but still quite romantic with the clothes and try to be feminine and try and think inside what a woman wants to wear. Trying to get away from that man dressing a woman and thinking how a woman dresses and what she wants to wear.
There are wonderful quotes along the way from designers and the beneficiaries of these stunning dresses, bringing to life the events surrounding the gowns conception, but still this exhibition left me feeling a little hollow, I felt the need for a dress up box or some sort of tactile display where you could feel the fabrics and truly appreciate the workmanship that goes into each outfit. With the displays being behind glass or up high on plinths it does give you the feeling that you could have just bought Vogue and have gotten the same experience at a lot less cost. I am not saying ‘don’t bother’ as it was a real pleasure to see the styles from the 50s in the flesh. There is also a fabulous black and white show reel playing film from catwalks back in the day and footage of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret going for a private viewing of the new fashions of the time. Just be prepared at the end of your visit, you will definitely want to go shopping!
Exhibition runs 19th May-6th January 2013. Full price tickets are £10 and are timed.