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tiers and tiaras: british ballgowns at the v&a, london

Edited by: catrin davies
on May 18th, 2012
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Princess complex in check, powder puff poised, the Victoria & Albert Museum launched their summer exhibition this week, neatly playing into the hands of us Brits' own love-and-loathe obsession with royalty, celebrity, class and money, by bringing out the ballgowns of the rich and famous (and a few jet-lagged frocks fresh from the Met Ball red carpet).

In the year of the Jubilee, royalty is inevitably well represented. Check out gowns by Norman Hartnell, Charles Worth and Hardy Amies who represented the British couture scene in the 1950s. Their creations are all tasteful, structured, demure, elegant - everything you expect from your Queen. 

Thanks heavens then for the 1980s, when things start to get really interesting/ frightful. I thought I couldn't love Joan Collins any more, until almost weeping at the amazing monstrosity of a gown designed for her by Elizabeth Emanuel in 1983. The 80s certainly weren't a decade for wallflowers. And in Joan's case, if you saw a wallflower, you bloody well stuck it on your frock and wore it.

The exhibition winds its way up to a newly opened mezzanine,  with a showcase of how the gown has evolved in the hands of Britain's new generation of society dressers. Step forward Gareth Pugh, Hussein Chalayan, Giles Deacon and Alexander McQueen. Pugh was commissioned by the V&A to create a one-off piece for the show, and his metallic leather dress has Daphne Guinness stamped all over it. And if ever there was a person who embodied the new avant-garde gown, then it's Ms Guinness.

But despite the change in context, there is a nice sense of continuity at play. Although the stage for the ballgown has changed (the red carpet is most definitely the new Debs ball) the concept is the same; it's all about accentuating the silhouette and putting lots of icing on top; be that in look-at-me prints (Mary Katrantzou) or serious embellishment (Alexander McQueen).

So, yes, there is a recession going on, but that's boring. And yes, only a very, very small percentage will ever get a sniff of a taffeta stiffened frock and a red carpet, but there's something just funny, theatrical and unapologetically indulgent about spending an afternoon nose-to-glass, with Princess Diana's Catherine Walker Elvis dress. 

Ballgowns British Glamour Since 1950 runs until August 12, 2012 at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London



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