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'Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950' Exhibition at V&A Museum

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by Sandra Lawson (subscribe)
To paraphrase Dorothy: 'There is no place like London.' I hope I can convince you of that here. Also check out my blog at and my theatre reviews at
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Cinderella, you can go to the ball
I can't speak for the boys, but I know that most girls love to play at dressing up when they are young, and I'm sure we never completely outgrow this. We may no longer have a box full of mum's old clothes to try on, but how many men hate to shop with a woman? They complain that we have to try on everything, even if we walk out of the shop with the first item we put on. Look at the trend for vintage fashion too. A couple of years ago I was at the Vintage Festival at the Southbank and was impressed by the number of people, of both sexes, who had dressed from head to toe in a particular period. Perhaps the nostalgia for the past has something to do with the informal ways in which we dress nowadays.

The V&A is currently exhibiting Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950. The evening wear (bags and shoes are included with the dresses) makes you yearn to have a chance to dress yourself up to the nines for a night out, and is a far cry from the drunken ladettes lying in the gutter in the most unfeminine ways imaginable. The exhibition is divided into two sections: downstairs you will be able to marvel at the older ballgowns and formal wear, whilst upstairs is a small collection of contemporary evening wear.

Norman Hartnell 1953 Gown
Norman Hartnell 1953 Gown

As Britain moved through the austerity of the post-war years, high society and royal events, Queen Charlotte's Ball and formal Court presentations gradually became less important and charity balls began to take their place in the 1980s. It's easy to spot many of the earlier creations, just by looking at the silhouettes, although every piece of couture carries information about its designer and/or its donor or lender. You will also be strongly aware of the part played by British fashion designers, names such as Zandra Rhodes, Vivienne Westwood, Catherine Walker, David and Elizabeth Emmanuel, John Galliano, Bill Gibb, Julien Macdonald, Bellville Sassoon and Stella McCartney.

Vivienne Westwood
Vivienne Westwood Gown Created for Queen Charlotte's Ball

I can still recall the plummy tones of the BBC TV announcer describing the creations worn by the Queen and the rest of the Royal Family, especially when designed by the establishment couturiers Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell. You too will be able to share this experience when you stop to watch the black and white newsreels of fashion models wearing clothes from the 1950s and 1960s. You will see the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret at a fashion show and will wonder how anybody could afford to spend 12,000 on a white mink coat fifty years ago.

Catherine Walker Designed by Princess Diana
The Gown Designed by Catherine Walker for Princess Diana and Worn by Her in Hong Kong in 1989

The mezzanine collection, upstairs, is concerned with contemporary evening wear during a period when celebrities and red carpet displays have taken over the formal wear arena. You'll also get a sense of experimentation, of designers manufacturing frocks from metallic leathers, Lurex and feathers and using Swarovski crystals for adornment.

Many of the creations on show have been donated by royalty and celebrities, among them Princess Anne, Princess Alexandra, Elizabeth Hurley, Bianca Jagger and Joan Collins. Other gowns come from the V&A's large collections of costumes. As you admire the dresses upstairs you'll be particularly well placed to look down on the regular fashion galleries on the floor below, and to marvel at how clothing design has progressed and changed over the last four hundred years.

When you come downstairs again, pause for a moment and make believe that you're wearing one of these exclusive designs as you descend a grand staircase to be confronted by photographers snapping you from all angles.

Alexander McQueen's 2011 Creation Made From Feathers
Alexander McQueen's 2011 Creation Made From Feathers
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When: Until 6 January 2013. Opening times are on the website
Where: Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL
Cost: 10, but concessions are available
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