Image credits: Photograph – Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images. Source – The Guardian.
Recently I went to the V&A to see their exhibition Ballgowns: British glamour since 1950 in the newly-reopened fashion galleries. The V&A is one of my favourite museums and their exhibitions never fail to both impress me and stimulate my mind – so I always make an effort to visit at least a few times in a year. V&A exhibitions which interest me more are obviously ones related to performance, fashion and textiles; typically I find myself overwhelmed by the scale of the items curated as well as the research presented. Excellent examples of past exhibitions which I will never forget are Dior & the New Look; Diaghilev & the Ballets Russes; and Hats: an anthology by Stephen Jones.
I was therefore excited to visit Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950. Let’s face it – who wouldn’t be? As always, I went with an open mind, albeit with high expectations of ‘dress porn’: pretty dresses and excellent couture workmanship to ogle. It took place in the newly-renovated and re-opened fashion galleries, and firstly I must say that the exhibition design is really beautiful. Exhibitions which have been hosted in the fashion galleries before have generally been quite small and use the space in similar ways; but this one was laid out very prettily, with dresses grouped mainly by colour or feel (rather than period, for instance) that were kitschly backed with blown-up images of equally glamorous dressing-room items from the rest of the V&A’s collections. The colour scheme was powder pink with the black-and-white cardboard cut-outs of, for instance, mirrors and brushes.
It opens with what I expected it to: huge, New Look-style dresses in sumptuous silk chiffons and satins, with firm understructures and amazing beadwork and embroidery: the epitome of the couture dress, in other word. As the century progresses, the extreme formality of what is accepted as a ballgown seems to change: trousers might be worn for instance, or the silhouette is looser and less structured. I myself noticed the way that the dresses reflected innovations in technology (use of digital printing on fabric or uses of plastic, for instance) but was more surprised (or even shocked, I’ll admit) at what seems to be the new acceptability of the use of synthetic fabrics by couture designers for these expensive, formal gowns. In the centre of the space is a beautiful, wide staircase which draws visitors upstairs, where a beautifully-staged culmination of the exhibition displays 21st-century dresses – mostly worn by actresses and singers at red-carpet events.
The V&A champion the exhibition as a celebration of a Glamour which, significantly I feel, is specifically identified as British - and modern. I therefore had thought that the presentation of dresses might explore the concept of glamour itself, and how this is significant or different when coupled with a British aesthetic, both in a socio-cultural capacity as well as purely in terms of image and style. The V&A say: The exhibition will cover over sixty years of a strong British design tradition that continues to flourish. Unfortunately, as I walked through the exhibition, I was merely confronted with the concept of Britain’s class system: huge, beautiful dresses which were definitely exquisitely and perfectly made by huge teams of seamstresses, put on display for people who could never otherwise dream to lay eyes on them – let alone wear one themselves. It was like a real-life display of the public’s vicarious consumption of celebrity dress lists. I did not really feel like I was learning anything: neither the displays, nor the brief information placards on the walls next to certain groups, told me anything particularly revealing about what I was looking at. They re-iterate the fact that yesterday’s celebrities were the monarchy; today, in our post-postmodern, capitalistic society, anyone can be a celebrity with looks, determination, and the right connections (artistic talent is often dubious and irrelevant, judging by the amount of socialites): your figure matters more than your birthrights. But the exhibition does not present any enquiry as to why this might be so, how it came to be, and why this is significant to British culture.
I had hoped that the exhibition would be a visual learning experience akin to an interesting academic text such as Glamour: A History by Stephen Grundle. Instead, in a culture increasingly obsessed with images and surface splendour, it’s simply more of a beautiful, life-sized magazine, filled with beautiful dresses to revere in the flesh.
Has anyone else here seen this exhibition? I would be interested in hearing your opinion (friendly debate welcome!)
N.B. the exhibition lighting coupled with my lack of professional photographic skills and equipment meant that I took no photographs of my own. It just wouldn’t have been worth it. And if you’re interested – it’s really always better to see things in the flesh.
‘Ballgowns: British glamour since 1950′ is on until 6 January 2012. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/ballgowns/ballgowns-british-glamour-since-1950/
‘Glamour: A History’ by Stephen Grundle is published by Oxford University Press.