For those seeking shelter from this summer’s storm of Olympic happenings, a London exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum offers a glamorous alternative. Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 looks at the British design tradition of creating sumptuous ballgowns over the past 60 years.
In planning the exhibit, co‐curators Oriole Cullen and Sonnet Stanill were spoiled for choice—a demonstration of the continuing strength of British tour de force eveningwear. The show includes pieces from Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, and Gareth Pugh, as well as a Norman Hartnell gown designed for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, Princess Diana’s ‘Elvis Dress’ designed by Catherine Walker (that she wore on a 1989 trip to Hong Kong), and gowns worn by today’s young royals.
The museum’s recently renovated fashion galleries feature a selection of 60 dresses, ranging from elegant to decadent and worn to every type of fancy occasion—from royal gatherings and debutante balls to opening nights and red carpet events. Co-curators Oriolle Cullen and Sonnet Stanfill answered our questions about the show.
ELLE: How did the exhibition come together?
Oriole Cullen: This year the museum is hosting a British season, as we have both the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics happening in London, so amongst the celebrations we decided to focus on a garment which really encapsulates celebration and a sense of occasion: the ballgown.
ELLE: How is the show organized?
OC: The show is arranged in two galleries. The first covering the period 1950 to early 2000s, laid out in cases which suggest a grand country house with the feel of preparing for the ball. The second gallery, which focuses on tour de force contemporary British eveningwear, is laid out as a ballroom. The space has been designed by Emily Pugh and is very atmospheric with some great little surprises.
ELLE: How did you select the gowns?
OC: We spent a lot of time researching within our archives and chose a number of dresses that had either never been seen before or had rarely been on display—although we also included key pieces such as Princess Diana’s ‘Elvis’ dress designed by Catherine Walker.
ELLE: What has been the social significance of glamour, balls, and gowns over the past 60 years?
Sonnet Stanfill: In years past, a debutante ball was often a young woman’s first opportunity to wear a grand gown. Other balls that were built into the social calendar had similarly glamorous dress codes for the most formal of attire. These balls and the gowns worn to them encouraged patronage of couturiers and set high standards of taste. Today, thanks to the swiftness of the Internet, we can see what is being worn on red carpets around the world.
ELLE: Have some of the dresses been worn at the Met Ball?
SS: We are fortunate to have in the exhibition two stunning dresses worn to past Met Balls: an extravagant feathered Alexander McQueen gown worn by Daphne Guinness to last year’s event, and a columnar chain mail design with a floral motif by Christopher Kane worn by Shailene Woodley earlier this month.
Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, sponsored by Coutts, runs through January 6, 2013.