Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 – review
The Observer, Sunday 20 May 2012
The V&A's new show, Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, an exhibition that also marks the reopening of its much-loved fashion galleries, is not for everyone. On my way in, I heard a man all but beg his wife not to drag him round it ("I thought this was a cultural expedition, not another bloody shopping trip!" he might have told her, had he not been practically mute with despair). Once inside, I couldn't help but notice that there was not a male of the species anywhere to be seen.
But if you like a properly made frock and hanker, even just a little, for the days when a big night out meant long, silk gloves and a Dubonnet rather than T-shirts and cheap vodka, it will have you swooning with delight. Yes, you will feel unpleasantly covetous. Yes, you will wonder if you shouldn't, after all, lose a stone, or six. But these things will pass. Fifteen minutes in and your absorption in the way Norman Hartnell used corsetry or Zandra Rhodes quilting will be total. The world will shrink to the dimensions of a bodice or a buttonhole, a collar or a cuff.
Gallery 40 was originally a spectacular domed court, with architectural columns and ornate mosaic floors. The V&A's refurbishment has uncovered the mosaics and a grand staircase now sweeps the visitor up to a mezzanine gallery beneath the dome. The result is elegant and spacious; the mezzanine, circular and lofty, brings a couturier's showroom instantly to mind. But the gallery's lighting still feels excessively muted to me. Downstairs, I struggled to read the labels and if a dress is placed anywhere other than right at the front of a display case, it's impossible to see the craftsmanship involved.
Strange, too, that while dresses and suits from the permanent collection are shown alongside handbags and jewellery, hats and shoes, the ballgowns, temporarily visiting, have only outsize cardboard cutouts of accessories for company (though they're labelled as if they were real, bizarrely). Were the curators worried a brooch or stole would steal the gowns' thunder? Or is this a nod in the direction of the new austerity?
The finest of the dresses – the most beautiful and the best made – are also the oldest. I had a moment of pure buyer's lust (so bad my fingers tingled) in front of a citrine evening coat with voluminous fur cuffs by Norman Hartnell, from 1965. Hartnell, who designed both the Queen's wedding dress and her coronation gown, is thought of now as rather fusty, a lickspittle rather than an innovator. But at his best, his designs had an authentic drama: no wonder Edith Evans was a customer.
And perhaps Hartnell, the son of a Streatham publican, knew precisely what he was doing when it came to establishment commissions. A state evening dress designed for the Queen Mother in 1953 – a crinoline that recalls similar gowns in the paintings of Franz Winterhalter, it has a V-shaped neckline, floaty cap sleeves and a motif of tiny flowers – tells you a great deal about the woman who wore it. At once grand and girlish, it speaks both of entitlement and self-delusion; for a pretty dress, it's magnificently repulsive.
Hartnell isn't the only star in the downstairs gallery. Bellville Sassoon, the debs' favourite house, features strongly: there is a beautiful dress made for Princess Anne in 1968, comprising a buttercup skirt and an extravagant embroidered bodice in shades of brown and orange (a famous recycler of clothes, I do wonder why HRH got rid of this one); and a truly adorable gown of pale pink Swiss organza from the designers' Infanta collection, its pattern of tear-drop shaped embroidery and crystal drop beads offset by its superbly neat lines.
Sybil Connolly's 1966 leaf-green pleated skirt, embroidered white blouse and pink belt is a cool reinvention of the evening dress: daringly, it is made of cambric and linen. Connolly, who was Irish, isn't much remembered now, but Jackie Kennedy was among her clients. Sadly, though, this isn't a detail you'll find anywhere in the gallery. Background information is, it must be said, infuriatingly thin on the ground and the pathetic catalogue, which longs mostly to be Vogue, no help at all. Sweeping past Catherine Walker's "Elvis" dress for Diana, Princess of Wales – a novelty number I've always hated – and the hideous 80s creations of Victor Edelstein ("Let's just stick a giant bow... right here!"), we go upstairs to the contemporary gowns, to dresses worn on red carpets rather than in stately halls, and it's strangely anticlimactic.
For one thing, most of these have been lent by their designers; they were borrowed by the actresses and models who first wore them, rather than bought and loved and kept carefully in tissue and mothballs for a lucky daughter or niece. This makes them, in my eyes, so much less interesting. Their value is mostly monetary. They lack emotional history. Aesthetics have all too often been replaced by the need to draw a cheap kind of attention (though Giles Deacon's tumbling black silk dress from 2007 – it was inspired, he says, by a visit to a car wash – is a deft tribute to Fortuny by way of Issey Miyake).
For another – and this is much worse – they seem not truly to be of service to the bodies that inhabit them, however briefly. The curators note that Roland Mouret has spoken "eloquently" of the pressures of the red carpet, of the fact that a dress must withstand the pressure of flashbulbs from 360 degrees. And it's true that here in the gallery, on a mannequin, his peach asymmetric silk dress from 2010 is perfect from every angle, a feat of precision engineering. Only then you look at the photograph of Maggie Gyllenhaal in the same dress at the Golden Globes and it suits her not a bit. Would it suit anyone? I doubt it. The finest dresses are forgiving. Their artiface encompasses great kindness. But this one is unmerciful; it disdains every inconvenient body part. It seems – what a sign of the times! – hardly to have been designed for a woman at all.