Belles of the ball

Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950, which opens on Saturday, is the latest in a series of exhibitions at London’s Victoria and Albert museum this year to celebrate British design.

The show features more than 60 gowns from the 1950s to the present day, with some on loan from contemporary designers, including Giles Deacon and Stella McCartney, and up-and-comers Craig Lawrence and Felicity Brown.

“The V&A’s permanent collection of furniture and prints, along with the costume archives, have been a constant source of inspiration to students of London’s fashion colleges and so we felt it was important to support young designers,” says Sonnet Stanfill, one of the show’s curators.

Downstairs, in the newly renovated fashion galleries, the first part of the show is arranged thematically, with gowns from different eras displayed side by side. The ballgown has long been linked with the aristocracy and, as jubilee fever fills the air, it seems only fitting that royalty should play a key part in the show.

At the time of the Queen’s coronation in 1953, London had a reputation for designing grand dresses for formal occasions in an era when high society revolved around the royal calendar. By the 1960s, times had changed and the rules had loosened: young women looked to a new generation of designers, such as Mary Quant, who had opened off-the-peg boutiques that were a world away from couture.

The early 1980s saw a renewed interest in the royal family when Princess Diana was thrust on to the world stage. The celebratory mood surrounding the young princess inspired Zandra Rhodes to design her modern renaissance collection in 1981. Drawing on the opulence and drama of an earlier age, she created a series of spectacular formal pieces. Worn by the princess to the opening of the Barbican in 1982, Rhodes’ voluminous pleated gold lamé gown, with its panniers and layers of black tulle, is an extravagant showstopper.

The theme of subverting traditional silhouettes continues upstairs in the dramatic, ballroom-inspired set, which houses some exceptional pieces that have been created in the past five years. Here the connection between the gowns of the past and their modern interpretations is fascinating. The column style favoured by Catherine Walker in the dresses she designed for Princess Diana is reworked and reinterpreted in Atsuko Kudo’s daringly experimental lace-printed latex gown, while Giles Deacon’s “car wash” dress of tiered pleated black silk (inspired by sitting in a car while it was being washed) has a sharp, graphic silhouette, and yet is also informed by the structured look of a 19th-century ballgown. Gareth Pugh, an avant-garde designer, eschews traditional fabrics in favour of parachute silk, rubber and PVC. Here his figure-skimming gown embellished with loops of silver leather resembles armour and could have been designed for a modern-day Joan of Arc.

One of the standout pieces is an elegant yellow duchesse satin gown with a digital floral print, picked out with sequins, jewels and appliquéd leaves, from Erdem’s 2008 collection.

By the mid-1990s a new focus for formal dressing had presented itself. Fuelled by the cult of celebrity, the red carpet became the most important stage for showcasing a dramatic gown, such as the Versace safety pin-studded dress Liz Hurley wore to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral in 1994 or the candy pink Ralph Lauren gown Gwyneth Paltrow wore to accept her Oscar for Shakespeare in Love in 1999, as designers realised the potential for product placement.

While the context may have changed, the ballgown remains a staple in many designers’ collections, as an expression of status, craftsmanship and creativity, and, from a commercial point of view, providing a focal point for the world’s press. It’s also been given a new lease of life by the Duchess of Cambridge. Her take on evening dressing – relaxed but still overtly glamorous – has put the spotlight on designers such as Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen and Jenny Packham.

‘Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950’ is at the Victoria and Albert museum until January 6 2013,

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