The Lady & The Dress

Elegance should never be compromised. Whilst todays fashion industry surrounds us with cosmopolitan women, proud of their androgyny, I will confess to a life-long devotion to classical femininity. Thankfully, the V&A support such a sentiment and, in their contribution to resurrecting the tradition, a sparking and diverse exhibition followed. ‘Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950’ stands as a celebration for the classical ballgown and its multiple transformations over the years from 1950’s and 60’s pieces by Worth London to more recent contributions by Erdem, McQueen and Giles Deacon. What shall follow is a celebration of the evening wear ritual as well as a message to restore it.

Standing as the embodiment of visual fantasy, the ballgown is a timeless item of clothing. The first floor of the exhibition was devoted to the very first gown-like dresses from the late 50’s. Suited for debutants and young women coming into society, these dresses epitomised the importance of purity and innocent in a young girl; being old enough for a gown but covering enough to maintain the essential allure, they were necessary to find a husband at the time. Embellishments of black beads and sequined flowers scattered across the bodice and down the skirt of steel-grey silk  from Norman Hartnell in 1953. In contrast, mannequins linked arms wearing simple, neutral coloured dresses by Worth London and Matilda Etches; in 1953 and 1956 with bodices and full skirts, layered with raw silks and lined to perfection with a primary focus on the silhouette, these dresses spoke for themselves. Although they were not particularly impressive from a textiles perspective, they stand as the foundations of the gown and the embodiment of feminine dressing at the time.

Interestingly, when these dresses were in their golden era, it was the dress that held the sentimental value rather than the event itself. Iris Apfel, fashion icon of the 1940’s, recalls in British Vogue May 2012 how “we’d go out in black tie three or four times a week…some of those dresses were so spectacular; you felt special and glamorous”. Although they aren’t something that frequents our social calendars that often, it’s a shame that the floor-length gown isn’t present at society or season balls. We may be students, but is that a reason to brush aside such a glorious tradition? In the same article Carolina Herrera seems determined to uphold the sentiment only “if designers like me stay committed to moving forward with the times”.

Drama and the breaking of creative boundaries obviously dominated the dresses of the 1960’s. With the liberal attitude firmly instigated, what is most pleasing is how the ballgown withered the storm of such social change both within women and fashion. Colour screamed across the skirts of the dresses, now mustard yellow and lime green with long sleeves and belts, merging the classic dress with the modern accessories and ever accentuating the female form. Sybil Connolly and Bellville Sassoon offer perhaps the best examples of this union from 1966 and 1968 with their ballgowns bearing an almost transferrable quality from day to night. The Grecian method of dressing had also crept in; mannequins stretched their arms to show off an ocean’s worth of chiffon and tulle, layered and layered over the waist and around the shoulder, in the same steel-grey by Mary Donan in 1969. Whilst the classical form of the dress had been seemingly violated, it maintains the gentle and feminine aspect that it beings to the wearer as well as the irresistible temptation to spin and swish the skirt around like a child. I’ll admit to a sense of relief in viewing the dresses from the 1960’s; any scepticism regarding the place of a ballgown in an age of short-skirts and sexual liberation was immediately dissolved demonstrating an impressive preservation of the classic dress by designers.

Where is the place of the ballgown in the 1970’s/80’s? Interestingly, numerous designs seen on Princess Diana popped up repeatedly both full length gowns and the famous dress-suits worn at some of the world’s most watched events. Features focused on here resorted back to the simplicity of the design, preserving  the dress in an era of stylish chaos. Victor Elderstine’s piece was a black dress with an oversized red silk bow, striped with black and floor-length ties. In contrast were two dresses that begged for attention, a gold Lamé gown with giant shoulders and layering at the waist of the dress by Zandra Rhodes in 1981 and a dress with a black-velvet bodice and full skirt by Murray Arbied in 1986. Both were garish but somehow retained the ballgown charm, reserves for those who were really daring to take the  reative plunge . Although seldom few could succeed, they stood proud for those who tried as what these dresses stood for was, not the position of a woman in a ballgown but, simply a celebration of creativity. Indeed, Lady Helen Taylor tells British Vogue “feeling good about the way you look is an integral part of a successful evening so there can’t be any room for compromise” – dress included. Evidently, crossing the boundaries from elegant ballgown to a prime example of haute-couture had reached a point of consistency adding to the adrenaline of wearing a ballgown.

Dresses to represent the more recent years stood alone on the second floor in a much more artistic fashion. The shape of the ballgown was anything but modern, with the full skirt and tight-bodice bringing the collection into a full circle of fashion time-travel. It was, again, the embellishment however that gave the dresses their contemporary twist. Alexander McQueen took a simple lightweight silk dress and printed the silk-ripples onto the fabric itself, doubling up the layered effect on top of a classically cut dress, and flaring out around the shins. Gareth Pugh and Craig Lawrence also contradicted the idea, with dresses relentlessly embellishing with tin foil, lame swatches and small metal mosaic pieces creating a twisted sense of style on the delicate feminine frame of the models. Not all were so rebellious however; in homage to the original style, Stella McCartney, steering away from classical sports pieces of late, produced a stunning black gown from 2011 with traditional floral embroidery across the bodice with a high neckline. Simultaneously, Giles Deacon brought back a piece from 2007 of pleated silk mix, tiered into a fully circular gown.

What was a truly exceptionable collection of dresses and style almost effortlessly begged the question ‘where will the ballgown be in years to come?’ Apfel shares my sentiment in mourning the decline of the ballgown in the younger generation saying “I feel sorry for the younger generation because they don’t know what a wonderful feeling it is to wear one”. Whilst this is not the general consensus, and some of us still do relish the full-skirted opportunity, it still pains me to see small, tight dresses at balls within the student community. Some of the dresses created for one-off events are a not only a display of relentless creativity but the physical creation of dreams and fantasies and ensuring that the ballgown survives the unkempt state of our youth will be a difficult task with the changing social standards. However, one look at a couture dress fresh out the studio in Paris is enough to move any woman. The ballgown is an essential part of fashion history and it’s up to us to keep the couture-torch burning.

Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950 will be open till 6th January 2013, V&A Museum.

Rosie Feenstra

One Comment
  • Audrey
    13 June 2012 at 14:43
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    “Elegance should never be compromised.” I just can not agree more than that statement. Classical femininity never dies and will live forever. Those master pieces are just like gold shinning on the fashion industry and guild it for centuries. It will be very hard to imagine the industry would survive well without them.

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