There's been a lot of fuss made recently about the "Ballgowns" exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I can understand why. Britain is famous (perhaps infamous) for its eccentric and constrained social strictures, made manifest by that quaint custom of holding balls where the crème de la crème of society gather to marry well and behave badly....
Balls and ball gowns have long been used by writers as a method of denoting social standing. Most notably, Jane Austen's modestly dressed (and very modestly incomed) Eliza Bennet meets the urbane Mr. Darcy ("he has ten thousand a year") at a country dance, while the decline of literature's most glamorous opportunist, Thackeray's Becky Sharp, is charted via her increasingly diminished sense of style and obvious lack of means at balls and dinners.
In 1958, the queen stopped the ludicrous court presentations of debutantes. But that hasn't stopped the French or the American South aping the practice (minus the royal, of course). The whole concept seems even more outmoded these days, until one considers that the Duchess of Cambridge only has to don a long, ball-gown-ish dress and a bit of sparkle to lead the global news agenda, or that the "posh boy" image that dogs the U.K.'s present prime minister is due almost entirely to a picture of him standing with his student drinking buddies in full evening regalia.
"Ballgowns" (until Jan. 6; www.vam.ac.uk) focuses only on the past 60 years, which is a shame since the most glamorous and relevant eras were certainly long before then. That the shape of a ball gown has changed very little since the days of Becky Sharp isn't in doubt. John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld and Alexander McQueen have all used the original silhouette of a nipped-in waist, plunging décolletage and billowing skirt to great effect. Dresses owned by Jill Ritblat, Elizabeth Hurley, Gayle Hunnicutt and, inevitably, the Princess of Wales are all on show. Designers such as Charles Frederick Worth, Hardy Amies, Bellville Sassoon, Ossie Clark, Zandra Rhodes and Catherine Walker are also represented—not forgetting the master of social conformity, the court dressmaker Norman Hartnell. What has changed are the fabrics. Once satin, silk tulle and taffeta were de rigueur; these days, feathers, sequins, lace or latex are as likely to make an appearance. Gareth Pugh created a dress especially for the exhibition made almost entirely of metallic leather.
The ball itself has given way to the red carpet and the society benefit. These days, as the exhibition illustrates, long, extravagant gowns are as likely to be seen at Cannes and the Met Ball as they are at the Crillon debutante ball in Paris. Just because the venues have changed doesn't mean there's a lack of subject matter. In fact, since "Ballgowns" begins with the 1950s, there must be a wealth of photographic material with which to play. (Read entire article.)