A new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum traces the evolution of the ballgown from society-girl staple to red-carpet statement maker, with the aspirations of the wearers embedded in every stitch.
Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950 draws a line between some of the most storied garments from the past 60 years in British event dressing. Last night, the great, the good and the gown-wearers convened to celebrate this most storybook of exhibitions.
‘Ballgowns elevate the wearer, create an aura, enhance your personality and bring you into a fantasy world—that’s what fashion should be about,’ Marios Schwab told us at the opening. ‘More than diamonds, they are a girl’s best friend.’
Historically significant designs, like Diana, Princess of Wales’ pearl-encrusted Catherine Walker gown and a Norman Hartnell design for the Queen Mother, sit alongside modern selections from the likes of Mary Katrantzou, Erdem and Giles Deacon. Because despite the ebbing-away of the debutante ball, today, it’s red-carpet events that provide designers with the ultimate forum to air their craft.
‘The wonderful thing about the ballgown is that it’s a celebratory garment,’ curator Oriole Cullen said. ‘It is a fantasy piece, completely removed from everyday life. It’s transportative, and it’s the epitome of a designer’s art in the sense of the fabrics, the finishes, the embellishment. It’s a real moment for a designer to show what they can do.’
But are they wearable?
‘I wear ballgowns all the time, sometimes even when I’m home!’, Roksanda Ilincic shared. ‘Why not? You don’t have to have an occasion.’
‘They’re definitely relevant,’ Christopher Kane told us. The designer’s contribution to the exhibition, a metallic brocade gown that Shailene Woodley wore to the 2012 Met Ball, only arrived back in London last Thursday, and was whisked straight through Customs and into the display. ‘Everyone loves the V&A. I came here as a student, so this is an incredible honour.’
More than that, as Mark Fast said of his involvement: ‘It’s going to make my mother cry.’
Click through the gallery above to see selections from the exhibition and attendees at last night’s opening event