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wearable arts



The V&A’s new fashion exhibition does not live up to the grandeur and romance promised by its title; “Eveningwear” would be more accurate. The subtitle, however, is telling. In this Olympic and Jubilee year, the show features British-born or British-based designers exclusively, and hearkens back to the midpoint between the last London Olympics (1948) and the Queen’s accession (1952). This determinedly patriotic agenda may account for its mediocrity. Half-Welsh Sibyl Connolly and New York-based Marchesa are represented, but not Charles James or Christian Dior, the postwar masters of the form. Absent are the glory days of the British ballgown: the glittering country house parties and coming-out balls of the interwar years (court presentations of debutantes ended in 1958). Instead, the exhibition effectively charts the decline of the ballgown as it deflated in size and social importance, from a privileged debutante’s first serious couture gown to a B-list starlet’s off-the-rack red-carpet look, borrowed for the night.

Ballgowns might have worked as a mere assemblage of pretty dresses, only many of them are not pretty. While there are a few standout pieces—a sexy and sculptural Hardy Amies made for Dame Edith Evans in 1961; a beautifully bohemian Bill Gibb from 1974; Erdem’s 2008 “Rumina” gown in mustard yellow, beaded and appliquéd with purple leaves; the feathered and panniered Alexander McQueen heiress Daphne Guinness wore to the 2011 Met Ball—there are a lot of wallflowers at this party. A late Ossie Clark ensemble in quilted gold leather and purple lace is predictably hideous. A pink taffeta, rose-trimmed Emmanuel is so eighties, it could only have been worn by Joan Collins. The lone John Galliano has none of the drama or romanticism a ballgown—or a Galliano, for that matter—should possess. Meringues and butt bows are in plentiful supply.



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