A feature by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!






British Glamour since 1950



V & A


19 May – 6 Jan 2012



This is the show to separate out your georgette, organaza, dupson and boucles, and know your silk from your satin. The history of the ball gown from country house, charity ball to red carpet is a delight for those who have never left the dressing up box, those who admire exquisite craftsmanship and a well hemmed line, and those who appreciate the glamour behind the celebrity. The excitement caused by the inclusion of Diana Princess of Wales’ Catherine Walker creation, in white crepe silk and pearls, dubbed the ’Elvis Dress,’ was palpable every time someone walked passed it.

The glamour of all that is British ranges from the 1950s and the House of Worth to contemporary designers and their experimentation in non-traditional materials such latex, in Atsuko Kudo’s snake-like, fan-tailed creation or Gareth Pugh’s silvered-leather full-length gown, inspired by Medieval chain-mail, commissioned especially for the exhibition.

The ground floor features exhibits from the museum’s permanent collection. The mannequins appear trapped, like huge exotic insects, made up of intricate tracings in beading, paste and seriously applied applique. The House of Worth dominates: full skirts and waist details in bows and material belts in dusky, predominately pastel shades. Then there’s Hardy Amies’ chic in strawberry ice-cream and black silk as worn by Dame Edith Evans. Or the Queen’s favourite Norman Hartnell, whose cosy name, evokes a cosy British chic, which reaches a kind of zenith in Sybil Connelly’s 1966 creation in linen, cambric and silk satin.

There are surprises everywhere: either because they recall events, people or reactions. David and Elizabeth Emanuel 1980s’ rose-pink Gone With the Wind look for Joan Collins, who at the time played the duplicitous Alexis Colby in TV’s long running US series, Dynasty. Whilst Julien Macdonald’s 1996, viscose and latex, fan-tail train, needs a model from Planet Thin-and-Non-Existent to wear it. And exhibited alongside is the by-word for British fashion outré, Zandra Rohdes and Vivenne Westwood, whose  leopard-print gown seemingly floats on yards and yards of black tulle is outrageous in design and concept. This is not a frock but a way of life...

Upstairs the newly restored Octagon Court offers a more theatrical context as stylised transparent pavilions, surrounded by oversized pearls, evoke the glamour of the red carpet. Huge projections of the exhibits sit amidst the circular alcoves in the Octagon’s domed roof. The entire experience shows a contemporary confidence in design and ingenuity, epitomised by the likes of Alexander McQueen’s Feathers for Daphne Guinness.

A hidden gem is the film which glimpses another fashion world through clipped, male vowels. The backdrop is Highclere Castle, currently featured in Downton Abbey, providing an exclusive view for royalty and a few invited guests. Models pose against ornate mantelpieces, a far cry from today’s cat-walk experience with its pulsating rhythms, flash bulbs, and pumped up action. Maybe this is the greatest change.

The red carpet is a global opportunity and its creations feel like statements. Daphne Guinness in Mc Queens’ Feathers turned this into performance art in the window of Barneys Department Store, NY, a new twist to window-dressing, while Holly Fulton, in leather and silk, offers a retro, fun look in a Rolling Stones full-lipped moment which recalls Andy Warhol, Lovingly curated by Oriole Cullen and Sonnet Stanfill, whose names alone evoke fashion chic, Ballgowns is strictly ballroom, strictly fascinating, strictly British….




10 - 17.45 daily, 10 – 22.00 Fridays
£11.00, £8.40 concessions
V & A Museum
Cromwell Road London, SW7 2RL

020 7942 2000

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