British Design Season at the V&A, the exhibitions (part 2)

Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950

Split across two floors, this display of ‘beautiful ballgowns, red carpet evening dresses and catwalk showstoppers’ is a wondrous treasure trove for all wannabe princesses/starlets/socialites and general lovers of glamorous clothes alike.

Regular visitors to the V&A will recognise that the ground floor of this renovated Fashion gallery much resembles the old, with the glass fronted display cases finding a continued use in this exhibition. Here, encased porcelain skinned mannequins are draped with exquisite items from the 1950’s onwards, dresses designed for balls, parties and soirees. These dresses are designed to be admired. Frozen models cavort, coil their backs round to face us, peer down their beautifully sculpted noses at us; every twist and turn they’re fixed in strategically chosen to reveal the best and most surprising aspects of their clothing.

One memorable mannequin gazes at her reflection in a mirror, and from our vantage point outside her case we can see our ordinary-self reflected in profile next to her. The denims and cottons reflected back are no doubt intended to even further highlight the gorgeous delicate loveliness of the lace and taffeta Michael Sherard creation on display. I can’t have been the only person at this point in the exhibition wishing that I was inside the box instead of peering in from beyond the glass.

Upstairs on the mezzanine level is a whole different ballgame. Curiously resembling a designer display at Selfridge’s, this could be a giant advertorial for British designers. I could imagine the whole lot being plucked from the gallery and re-installed in a glossy air conditioned mall in Dubai as evidence of British fashion excellence.

This uncased freeze frame of a catwalk or red carpet parade showcases designs by ‘artists’ such as Jenny Peckham and Alexander McQueen. Each dress is completed by an information card which handily reveals which famous women have deigned to be seen out in the item. An unusual combination of art, commerce and celebrity this level of the exhibition seems to have lost its way somewhat. Not that this seemed to cross the mind of the exited visitors who were readily poised to pose in front of their favourite dresses, women everywhere were enthusiastcially snapping images on their smartphones.

I left this display feeling as though I’d spent half an hour walking through the pages of Vogue or Harpers Bazaar. The biggest realisation Ballgowns created was that the total worth of the fabric in these rooms represented more than most people would ever earn in their lifetime. A glittering exhibition full of sublime creations, its biggest power is its ability to create a greedy wanting desire for someone else’s wardrobe and someone else’s life.

Part of the mezzanine level of the Ballgowns exhibition.

Curated by Oriole Cullen and Sonnet Stanfill. On display until 6th January 2013.

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