Ballgowns: About the Exhibition
Atsuko Kudo gown worn by Georgia Frost with dresses by Hardy Amies and Worth of London. Lent by the designer. Carlos Jimenez, © V&A, 2011.
19 May 2012 - 6 January 2013
From debutantes and royalty to charity balls and the red carpet, Ballgowns: British glamour since 1950 charted 60 years of stylish evening wear. The exhibition highlighted the styles, silhouettes and colours that have been perennial favourites for many years.
Since the mid-20th century, the occasions for wearing formal attire have evolved from the private event to the public parade. In the 1950s the London season was still organised around established events such as the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and Queen Charlotte’s Birthday Ball.
Towards the end of the century, as these traditions became less important, events such as the charity ball provided a new arena for displaying extravagant evening wear. Today it is the red carpet and celebrity gala that showcase the gowns of glamorous women.
For the most part, ballgowns have stood apart from fashion, while occasionally reflecting current developments in the fashion world. Yet they remain objects of fascination. The luxurious fabrics, intricate work and fine finish demonstrate the skill of British designers in creating dresses that convey splendour and spectacle.
Designing for the ball
Beaded silk satin gown by Norman Hartnell, 1953. Museum no. T.253-1981. Given by Lilli Palmer
Couture pieces would have been shown as part of a designer’s collection and then chosen by the wearer to be made up in their size and shape.
Traditionally couturiers have been happy to include alterations and adjustments to the dresses in order to incorporate the personal taste and requirements of their clients. Often a designer is asked to design a dress to work around a piece of jewellery. Designer Lindsay Evans Robertson, personal assistant to John Cavanagh, recalled being asked to match the colour of silk to a set of aquamarines ‘the size of gobstoppers’.
Knowing where the client will wear the dress is essential in order to avoid two people arriving in the same garment. For the initial event this may be possible, but when the dress is worn to subsequent parties, the matter is out of the designer’s hands. David Sassoon of Bellville Sassoon recalls being informed in the 1970s of four important clients invited to stay with the queen at Ascot weekend. All four arrived to dinner in versions of the same dress.
Gown by Victor Edelstein, 1986. Worn and given by Lady Heseltine. Museum no. T.264-2001. Image © David Hughes 2011
Carefully chosen for one special occasion, a ballgown should not only flatter the wearer and demonstrate her sense of style but also illustrate an understanding of the significance of the event to which it is worn.
Women have long relied on the taste of their trusted designer and, particularly important for women in the public eye, their discretion. Gowns often represent decades-long collaborations between designer and client. These relationships often possess a warm, respectful camaraderie.
As Lady Heseltine said of her long-time couturier Victor Edelstein,
‘It was so easy to be his client. I loved going there, I always took far too long about it. One went for a half-an-hour’s fitting and spent up to two hours just chatting and having coffee!'.
Equally, the loyalty of a fashionable client can be crucial to sustaining a designer’s career. For as Hardy Amies stated, the ‘best discipline for a designer is a customer with taste’.
Satin and flocked tulle gown by Vivienne Westwood. Created for Lay Bianca Job-Tyoran to wear to Queen Charlotte's Ball, 1994. Museum no. T14-1997. Given by Lady Bianca Job-Tyoran.
Since the 1950s, occasions for wearing evening attire have evolved from the private event to the public parade. Traditionally, the British social season included a variety of balls and other events requiring the most formal dress. Debutante balls, where young women were formally introduced to society, were often their first occasion to wear a grand gown.
As society became more egalitarian, the strict social parameters that the season defined were eroded. After Elizabeth II ended formal Court presentations in 1957, other entertainments arose in their place. By the 1980s, private balls were overtaken by the more inclusive charity balls, which allowed entry to all who purchased a ticket.
Other ballgown-wearing occasions include hunt balls and, in Scotland, Burns Night. Britain’s royal family and state officials observe the protocol of state visits in formal attire, their official dinners and gala events requiring the most elaborate of evening gowns.
State evening ensemble 'Elvis Dress' for Princess Diana by Catherine Walker, 1989. Museum no. T.1-2006. Given by the Franklin Mint
The royal gown has always garnered attention and interest. Yet the demands of state occasions are quite specific. The dress must not only be attractive, but must allow the wearer to sit and move easily. It must be free from embellishments which could catch or require attention, and it must be able to support regalia.
In the early 20th century, Queen Mary had the bodices on her evening gowns stiffened with buckram in order to bear the weight of her jewellery. The current monarch has a lighter touch in regards to jewellery, but her dresses must still be able to support the garter sash, which is worn over her right shoulder and to which she attaches various insignia.
On visits abroad, royal garments traditionally incorporate symbols of the host nation. In 1975 on a state visit to Japan, Queen Elizabeth wore a blue chiffon gown embroidered with three-dimensional cherry blossoms in pink. Catherine Walker included thousands of pearls on a dress she designed for Princess Diana to wear on a state visit to Hong Kong in 1989.
Silk satin and beaded 'Rumina' gown by Erdem, A/W 2008. This dress was a highlight of the V&A's Fashion in Motion: Erdem show in December 2009. Lent by the designer. © V&A Images
Today the work of contemporary British fashion houses such as Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood is championed by younger members of the royal family.
In the Spotlight
In recent years, evening wear for the grand occasion has evolved. What was once a more strictly defined set of choices has broadened to a wider selection of silhouettes, materials and surface decoration. For many London-based designers, tour de force evening wear is the cornerstone or statement piece for each season’s collection.
As red-carpet events have grown in significance, the paparazzi-lined path now focuses worldwide press attention on how glamorous women are dressed. Such scrutiny leaves little room for misjudgements of taste. As a result, celebrities dress with particular care, both to avoid negative publicity and to make a media splash.
Britain’s fashion designers are still highly accomplished creators of formal evening wear. A rich combination of traditional craft and maverick sensibility ensures that Britain, with London as its engine, remains a successful laboratory for sartorial experiment.
Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 was kindly sponsored by Coutts.
Video: Ballgowns - British Glamour Since 1950
View transcript of video
Craftsmanship is what it’s all about I mean couture is actually just the French way for saying dressmaking. The French always manage to find a nice way of saying things.
I’m probably the only designer around today that’s dressed every single female member of the royal family except the queen.
It’s quite nice to look back at that time where it’s a little bit more formal than it is today.
The 40’s through to the 60’s were a very strong period of time I think. It was very much Royal Britannia at that time and I think Britain was very glamorous at that time with the balls and the functions and the debutants and things like that.
In the 50’s young girls aspired to look like their mothers, but in the 60’s the mothers aspired to look like their daughters. All the rules went out the windows so you really were free to do very exciting, very glamorous clothes and of course clothes could be a little bit more sexy than they had been.
It has changed hugely in the past fifteen, twenty years. The big dress, the occasion dress has become something people wear less and less and less of.
In the 60’s and 70’s, people paid for the dresses but today, red carpet dresses are borrowed so you get stars and celebrities wearing a ball dress.
People look at a long dress and say, ‘What’s that? Where do you wear a long dress? Oh yes, the Oscars.’
Designing a dress can be really quite versatile and different projects. Sometimes I start with ideas that maybe I just saw on the street.
I always designed from technique. I would find a technique that I liked whether it was smocking or draping or pleating or ruching or whatever it might be.
The ballgown usually demands lots of fabric and there is a place to play, to drape, to draw, to playing with the view of 360 degrees, which is really exciting.
It starts I think with a theme, all my collections are very thematic. It’s been perfume bottles and interiors, objects of art.
A lot of the collections we designed were based on themes. For instance we would have an Indian collection or a Chinese collection. I loved doing dresses for Princess Diana. She was very, very charismatic. And she could wear all sorts of wonderful colours. Our dress was on the official stamp. These are all the sketches that she would make comments on and write on.
Bianca Jagger was major in the 70’s and Bianca wanted a special red dress for this big ball that everyone went to in Paris. You know, I remember Tina Chow, Marie Helvin and Gerry Hall and these kind of beautiful, the demi-monde of the time and to dress Bianca Jagger at the time was quite cool. The dress is kind of homage to the dress Rita Hayworth wore in Gilda.
I think my style, I try to be modern in a way but still quite romantic with the clothes and try to be feminine and try and think inside what a woman wants to wear. Trying to get away from that man dressing a woman and thinking how a woman dresses and what she wants to wear.
I always have a certain modern woman in mind. She works, she lives in a town, she goes to different events and that’s somebody that I design for.
I don’t think a frock needs to be challenging, I just don’t. But I think it really should be an amalgam of the wearer and the dress. You know, ‘Doesn’t she look fabulous’ is good enough for me.
My idea of glamour is that there’s symmetry to everything and everything is very considered. I wouldn’t say that my prints are random. I think there’s an essence of classism there and elegance that’s still part of my work but at the same time, I think there’s something very free about how women in the UK dress up now and there’s still glamour but again I think it’s a little bit more individual.
I think what makes Britain different is that sort of effortless glamour, glamour that is done without trying too hard, without trying too much.
Video: Ballgowns - 'Fashions of the Future'
View transcript of video
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret attend a parade of 'Fashions of the Future' in the 18th century home of Sir Kenneth and Lady Clarke at Hampstead. The Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers (the Top Ten), are staging the show, and many of Britains' leading mannequins are taking part.
Dorothy Spooner models 'Pastique', an evening dress in orange, flame and burgundy tulle designed by Hardy Aimes. Cut on classical lines, the fitted bodice is trimmed with vermillion velvet.
The famous model Dolores wears a Norman Hartnell evening dress of white satin with yellow lace applique embroidered with drop pearls.
'Flowers for the Fair' is a Hartnell motto. This is his 'Flowers of the Field', embroidered with poppies, dasies and cornflowers. "A romantic dress for the days gone by", is how he describes it.
From the Victor Stiebel house comes this elegant evening dress in white slipper satin, embroidered with black net braiding.
Grace and sophistication are the key notes of the Top Ten's royal show.
[© Pathe News]
Video: Ballgowns - Norman Hartnell at Highclere Castle
View transcript of video
Highclere Castle, as stately a home as anyone could wish, served the good cause of the local Red Cross division when the Earl of Carnarvon permitted a fashion show to be held there.
The portrait of the third Earl is among the objects of interest he showed to the models, who were there to display Norman Hartnell's Autumn/Winter Collection.
His Lordship advised the girls how to make best use of the stately backgrounds, and the show began to an audience of county folk.
'Dandini', a blue and silver brocade dress and jacket.
Now a gold brocade dress and jacket.
A creation called 'Juno', a white embroidered jersey evening dress, was nobly displayed.
'Damask Rose', a black tulle evening dress.
The Earl and his guests then saw 'Queen of the Quorn', an evening dress in ginger chiffon.
But perhaps the palace itself stole the picture. Highclere was the seat of the Bishops of Winchester till the 12th century. In it's present form it was finished 120 years ago. A wonderful place for a fashion show.
[© Pathe News]