The newly renovated fashion galleries at the V&A open with an exhibition of more than 60 glamorous ballgowns from 1950 to the present day. This is a show designed to be a gold medal winner in an Olympic year: more than 50 designers are featured, from Hardy Amies and Worth, to Sarah Burton and Christopher Kane, displaying the best of British talent in a sophisticated, modern two-tier gallery.
On the ground floor, the glamorous aesthetic is combined with a nod to social history. The narrative of the exhibition suggests that in the 1950s, the ballgown occupied the private territory of country houses and the court, worn by debutantes and royals to meet the demands of the social season. In the 1980s we are advised that the ballgown entered a different world, with high profile charity balls providing a public arena for the gown. This trend continued in the 1990s with the spotlight on the red carpet, captured by the paparazzi and capturing the public imagination. This social change is characterised beautifully by the evening bags on display: while in the 1950s they were required to carry dance-cards, today they are designed to provide a home for mobile phones.
The curators have assembled gowns from their own collection and cleverly negotiated loans from celebrities including Elizabeth Hurley and Joan Collins. Ralph and Russo have even recreated a crystal-covered gown, which they designed for Beyoncé, especially for this exhibition. Royal ballgowns on display include designs from Norman Hartnell and the iconic ‘Elvis Dress’ designed for Princess Diana by Catherine Walker. The exhibition also demonstrates how the fashion industry is increasingly drawing upon technical innovation. using a variety of materials including tin foil, and latex which mimics lace, in the gown by Atsuko Kudo.
On the mezzanine level the display is set within a ‘stylised’ ballroom space in an attempt to evoke the glamour of the red carpet or a couture show. There is certainly no shortage of glitz and elegance, but the stark white environment feels cold and a touch sterile.
Although video, photographs, and projections are used to suggest the impression these gowns can make, there is no avoiding the fact that the true test of a beautiful ballgown comes when it is worn by a real woman. A beautiful gown should appeal to all our senses; we should feel the sensuousness of the fabric, hear its rustle and see its movement and flow. For example, the Yuki kaftan on display is a delightfully pretty chiffon concoction, but the vitality and sheer sexiness of the dress is only revealed when we see it worn by Gayle Hunnicutt and notice a thigh level split designed to emphasis her leggy loveliness. Undoubtedly this is a special collection of glorious gowns, from the extravagant to the eccentric, but despite the beauty on display, this remains a curiously soulless exhibition.