There is something about a dress that suggests the possibility of change. Cinderella fooled her prince into believing she too was a princess with the help of one. A debutante enters formal society as a young woman with one of her choosing. The bride leaves the single life behind for a life of love and commitment in one all in white.
While the finest of dresses are now being paraded in Paris at the couture shows, here in London, the V&A Museum celebrates the British ballgown tradition with its own Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 exhibition. More than 60 dresses from private parties, royal balls and opening nights are on display, from designers that include Alexander McQueen, Ossie Clark, Hussein Chalayan, Erdem and Victor Stiebel.
Of all dresses, the ballgown is one in particular whose power has no less diminished, even as its use and value has. It is a dress designed for dancing, worn by high society during private balls steeped in social ritual, good manners and devotion to the Queen.
But the annual Queen Charlotte’s Birthday Ball in Grosvenor House, which was the height of the London season, came to an end in 1957 as deference to the crown started to wane. And the ballgown, nearly escaping extinction, became the subject of fashion fodder at charity balls and red carpet events. A 1953 Norman Hartnell gown is one of the few ballgowns on display from this forgotten era, fashioned from cream satin and embellished with pink feathers and beading. Hartnell, who dressed the Queen for both her wedding and coronation, created ballgowns that were lavish and theatrical.
But for Hartnell and other royal dressmakers, dressing royalty was not without its own set of rules to follow. In the early 20th century, Queen Mary had to have her bodice stiffened with buckram to bear the weight of all her jewelry. Designers also must not forget the dress’ purpose. A 1989 Catherine Walker dress worn by Princess Diana on a visit to Hong Kong was decked in pearls – a symbol of the Orient.
These royal gowns paved the way for lighter, softer and more ebullient dresses of the charity balls and red carpet. A 1972 Yuki coral caftan dress, worn by actress Gayle Hunnicult at a Windsor Castle ball, was designed to flow gracefully with each movement.
Or in a reverse instance, designer Zandra Rhodes looked to the traditional use of panniers from the 18th century to inspire her romantic and over-the-top “Renaissance Cloth of Gold”. The 1981 gold silk lamé gown, innovative at the least, can be worn two ways: with the under-panniers used to support the skirt or removed, with the bodice worn outside the skirt.
Dresses are designed to cater to our fantasies, to give rise to opinion, to captivate our attention. Yuki and Rhodes, as well as the more contemporary Giles Deacon and Craig Lawrence understand the power that the dress has always had over its wearer. And they understand something more – the power of today’s ballgown on the world around it.
Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 exhibition at the V&A Museum in London is on display from 19 May 2012 to 6 January 2013.