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Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950


Alessandra Lolli

There is a fabulous exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950. From the moment you arrive, you become submerged in more than 60 beautiful evening dresses that span the generations from the 1950’s to the current day.

Displayed over two floors, the Ballgowns exhibition contains specially-made designs for a variety of important occasions: royal balls, wedding engagements, private parties and more recently red-carpet celebrity events. All these highlights of the social calendar confine the wearer to her finest attire. For this reason these types of gowns feature precious materials and need special care as well as meticulous attention to detail, more than any other dress.

1950 ball gowns - British Glamour Since 1950
1950 ball gowns – British Glamour Since 1950

British Glamour: A strong British Design Tradition of Creating Sumptuous Ballgowns

While browsing the exhibition it becomes apparent that there is a strong British design tradition of creating sumptuous ballgowns, one that has been maintained throughout the late 20th and 21st centuries through the work of designers such as Hardy Amies, Zandra Rhodes, Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen.

1950 ball gowns - State evening ensemble 'Elvis Dress' by Catherine Walker - V&A images
1950 ball gowns – State evening ensemble ‘Elvis Dress’ by Catherine Walker – V&A images

Some of the most fabulous pieces displayed are the royal gowns including the Norman Hartnell gown designed for Elizabeth the Queen Mother and the dress that Catherine Walker designed for Princess Diana to wear on a state visit to Hong Kong in 1989 that was embossed with thousands of pearls.

There are also spectacular dresses worn by actresses and celebrities including Sandra Bullock, Daphne Guinness and Elizabeth Hurley.

Since the mid-20th century the occasions for wearing formal attire have evolved from the private event towards the public parade. Particularly in the past, ballgown design has been separated from conventional fashion, while only occasionally reflecting the current trends of the public. Regardless of this, ballgowns have always been objects of fascination featuring luxurious fabrics, intricate work and a fine finish that exhibits the skills of British designers in creating dresses that convey splendour and spectacle.

A section is also dedicated to ballgowns that are mostly couture pieces, handmade for a particular client. These dresses would have been shown as part of a designer’s collection and then chosen by the wearer to be made up in their size and shape. Carefully chosen for one special occasion, a ballgown should not only flatter the wearer and demonstrate her sense of style, but also illustrate an understanding of the significance of the event to which it is worn. It is a real and unique “masterpiece”.

In recent years evening wear for the grand occasion has evolved. What was once a more strictly defined set of choices has broadened into a wider selection of silhouettes, materials and surface decoration.

The last gallery called “In the Spotlight” is about the most modern gowns that belonged to celebrities, actresses and models. There are dresses that were worn for red-carpets events as well as dresses and gowns fresh from the catwalk shows of Roland Mouret, Giles Erdem, Roksanda Illincic, Antonio Berardi and Mary Katrantzou Royal, with their luxurious fabrics and exquisite embellishments that always make the headlines.

The gowns displayed “In the Spotlight” demonstrate that Britain’s modern fashion designers remain highly accomplished creators of exquisite formal evening wear.

What else to say – elegance, glamour and style all in one exhibition!

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