British couture has always rivalled that of other cities like Paris and, much later, Milan. Couturiers such as Norman Hartnell and David Sassoon are known internationally for their extensive client lists which even boast the royal family and royal courtiers as clients of the grand couture houses. Their workload was sometimes so high that back in 1953, Hartnell's work load grew out of control resulting in the doctor ordering him to take time off to rest. During this time, he was not only working on Queen Elizabeth II's coronation gown but also all the dresses for each female member of the royal party. This is testament to the popularity and the importance of couture to Britain. The Victoria and Albert Museum are currently celebrating every style of British ballgown ever made in their blockbuster exhibition which will be running till the 6th January. For lovers of glamour and beauty it is not one to miss.
As you walk into the exhibition you are greeted by hundreds of elegantly dressed mannequins all draped in beautifully flowing chiffon, silk or organza. Each display cabinet sets a different scene, a different era, different party or different social class. Most of the ballgowns in the first section of the exhibition are specially handmade for a particular client after being first displayed as part of a designer's collection. Of course, knowing where the dress will be worn is an important factor in designing a dress. No one wants to turn up to an event with other guests wearing the same thing. This is easier said than done as although the dress may have been commissioned for one event, it can easily be worn to many more afterwards. Walking around the dresses on show, it is astonishing to think how many stories are interlaced between the seams. It is hard to imagine the oppulance and wealth they would have played witness to.
What I really enjoyed seeing were the dresses designed by the design house Bellville Sassoon. Not only were the dresses absolutely stunning but they were designed by David Sassoon who myself and the other Moda de la Mode contributors have had the pleasure of meeting on numerous occasions. His incredible skill and creative vision leave me awestruck. I definitely lingered a little too long at those cabinets, just gazing at the magnificent dresses. It was also a pretty special experience seeing dresses that were designed for my namesake, Empress Eugenie.
With the demise of the débutante balls, ballgowns had to change and evolve to fit the changing times. Upstairs, the gallery showcased a collection of today's ballgowns which have become known to the masses as red carpet dresses. These dresses form the cornerstone of each designer's collections each season. The layout of this area also indicates a shift in tone. No longer are the dresses stuck behind glass walls, the mannequins are having a party. Hanging from chandeliers, balancing on extra large pearl beads, or standing neatly in line are just a few of the creative poses adopted for this display. Names that we hear every day in the fashion magazines were all present here. Mary Katrantzou, Erdem, Craig Lawrence and Alexander McQueen are just a few of the names presenting their ballgowns in this section.
Seeing all the gowns in one place and being able to see the journey Britain has come on in regards to producing couture gowns was a magical experience. It amazes me how talented some people are and it really reiterates that time old phrase that 'practice makes perfect' because these ballgowns really truly are perfect. Rule Britannia!!
Watch a short video from the V&A covering the exhibition to see what the exhibition has to offer:
To book tickets for this exhibition, click here
Images courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum