Sunday, 11 November 2012

A visit to the V&A

We spent some time in London last week, which included a trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum so that I could visit the newly refurbished costume galleries and the exhibition, Ballgowns - British Glamour since 1950.

First of all, a word of warning to anyone wanting to see the exhibition, Hollywood Costumes. It is incredibly popular, so much so that all the tickets for the day are usually sold out by 2:30pm. When we got to the museum at about 11am the queue at the main ticket desk was already well out of the main hall. Fortunately for me, Mr Tulip nipped down to the Costume Gallery while I stood in the (entirely stationary) queue, and he discovered that I could buy a ticket for Ballgowns at the gallery itself.

The exhibition is in the centre of the gallery. On the ground floor are ballgowns since 1950, in a dozen cases, split by theme, colour and (broadly) era. They range from elegant 1950s frocks to a 1994 Vivienne Westwood dress made for a debutante attending Queen Charlotte's Birthday Ball. On the mezzanine is a collection of contemporary gowns, reflecting the move away from formal occasions such as balls to red-carpet events as the time when formal evening wear is most on display.

Unfortunately neither photography nor sketching(!) was allowed, so I have made do with this picture from the main galleries, which gives a taste of the exhibition.

Pierre Balmain evening dress, about 1950

Of all the dresses on display, one particularly caught my eye, and not entirely for the right reasons: a Norman Hartnell cream satin dress made for the Queen Mother. It had an overskirt of petal-shaped panels, each edged with blue beading. On the front panel one curved edge was beautifully smooth but the other was, rippled! Several of the other panels were the same. Let me just repeat that: a dress made by Norman Hartnell, couturier to two generations of the royal family, and displayed by one of the top museums in Britain, had rippled satin. I'm not proud of this, but after all my recent battles with satin, this quite made my day.

Anyway, on to the main displays. Unsurprisingly, all of the costumes are displayed behind glass, so apologies for the quality of some of the photographs.

With the centre of the gallery taken up with the exhibition there seemed to be less space, and therefore fewer costumes on display. However the overall theme of the gallery seemed to be less about showing as many costumes as possible, and much more about how the 'look' of a period was achieved. For example, next to an early nineteenth century evening dress was a display of the many and varied undergarments

1825 evening dress

Chemise, corset, sleeve support, dress sleeve and petticoat with shoulder straps, 1825-35

A mid nineteenth century bodice was displayed beside an uncut length of the fabric used to make it.

Jacquard-woven silk and bodice, about 1865

And a late nineteenth century bodice was displayed flat and opened out, to show the construction.

Jacket bodice, 1886-88

Mirrors in some of the display cases allow you to get a back view.

Late nineteenth century dress, side and back views

And accessories, which were previously in separate cases, are now displayed alongside clothes of the period.

Hats, shoes, gloves and a miniature dress from the 1950s

Finally, many of the cases have a background panel based on one of the dresses on display.

Callot Soeurs evening dress, 1922-25

I assume that when there isn't an exhibition on, the centre part of the gallery will not be used to display more of the permanent collection. I may need to go back to find out!

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