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The word ballgown instantly conjures up a vision of cascades of satin, crystals and lace swirling around an ornate, high-ceilinged room full of mirrors to the classical music of Johann Strauss or the golden voice of Fred Astaire. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s new exhibition, Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, which runs until 6 January 2013, celebrates everything there is to love about the ballgown, red-carpet evening gowns and catwalk showstoppers.
The ballgown has come a long way; it was originally conceived to impress friends and acquaintances with exquisite craftsmanship and extravagance at exclusive dances and functions. Throughout the post-war period, aspirational ballgowns helped to stimulate the economy as Britain struggled to overcome the financial downturn caused by the Second World War.
From that time until the present day, the royal family has been at the forefront of ballgown-wearing society and many sumptuous royal gowns are on display, from a Norman Hartnell design for Elizabeth the Queen Mother to Princess Diana’s ‘Elvis’ dress, designed by Catherine Walker and named for its white stand-up collar.
Ballgowns today have become a source of major press interest – often generating many column inches for designers. No longer saved for private functions, couture gowns are worn to opening nights, red-carpet events and awards ceremonies. Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 includes many dazzling dresses worn by celebrities such as Elizabeth Hurley, Daphne Guinness and Sandra Bullock.
‘Social media and cameras are ever present,’ says Oriole Cullen, one of the curators of the exhibition. ‘From the ‘90s onwards it’s about people being seen in the public eye, so far a designer’s gown to be worn on the red carpet is a wonderful endorsement of their work.’
The exhibition first and foremost celebrates British couture design from the past 60 years. Gowns from Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and Alexander McQueen are on show alongside dresses from the catwalks of rising stars such as Erdem, Roksanda Ilincic, Mark Fast and Jenny Packham. ‘A ballgown usually demands lots of fabric and there is a place to play with the view of 360 degrees, which is really exciting,’ adds designer Roksanda Ilincic. The exhibition of over 60 ballgowns spans two floors of the newly renovated V&A Fashion Galleries and is definitely not to be missed.
See a preview of the show at Harrods as the department store celebrates the exhibition Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 in its window displays with Ballgowns and Crowns, a selection created especially for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee by leading designers such as Carolina Herrera, Roberto Cavalli and Valentino. Ballgowns and Crowns can be viewed until 15 June.