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.
One of my major beefs with the exhibition is that one feels it is exactly that—an exhibition, limited in both scope and vision, with few flights of fancy or imagination. Downstairs in the newly renovated galleries, the dresses sit stiffly in glass cases, with a vague attempt at a country-house context in the shape of a few letters and blow-ups of chandeliers, chairs and pieces of carpet. Things are a little better upstairs on the mezzanine, where fashion shots are projected onto the newly exposed dome, which works almost as well as Edmund de Waal's inspired use of the coffered ceiling for his "Signs & Wonders" ceramics installation two year
Set within what the museum calls a "stylized museum space," latterday ball gowns—party dresses from designers like Galliano, Roland Mouret, Mark Fast, Sarah Burton for McQueen, Roksanda Ilincic, Erdem Moralioğlu and Mary Katrantzou—sit unconfined on mannequins. While you can see these dresses properly and appreciate the craftsmanship, what's missing is a real sense of the glamour, anticipation and excitement associated with dressing up, which is, after all, what wearing ball gowns is all about. I wanted to feel as though I was preparing to go the ball myself; the pre-ball toilette is and was an event in itself. And while I regard the idea of "coming out" akin to a high-class bloodstock sale, I was itching to see not only a couple of those virgin-white debutante dresses but a few of those classic black-and-white pictures of the events themselves (blown up to a huge scale).
Where there are pictures of individuals wearing dresses—the Princess of Wales in her Catherine Walker "Elvis" dress, Joan Collins in her David and Elizabeth Emanuel or Daphne Guinness in the Sarah Burton for McQueen feather dress—they are too small to see properly. Would it have been impossible to recreate a dressing room or ballroom environment? I hate to bring this up, because I am a fan of the V&A. But this show wasn't even the little sister to the New York Metropolitan Museum's blockbuster "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" or the poor relation to "Louis Vuitton – Marc Jacobs," currently showing at Paris's Les Arts Décoratifs. Rather, it was the maid sweeping up the crumbs, feathers and empty wine bottles long after the party had moved on elsewhere.
I'm being harsh, I know, so I wanted to give the V&A a chance to reply. This came in the form of the intelligent musings of one of the show's curators, Sonnet Stanfill, who tells me that the glass cases are due to a recent facelift at the V&A. The cases weren't removed because of limited finances. "We struggle with them," she acknowledges. Surely if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well? "I think we did a good job," Stanfill says, pointing out that keeping clothes in good shape is a difficult business, susceptible as they are to both light and dust. When I ask about the glaring lack of debutante dresses, Stanfill says that is more Kensington Palace's bag—"They are the holder of royal and court dresses." But surely they could have asked for a loan? Stanfill doesn't answer. Instead, she points out that the V&A does have one debutante gown in the collection, created by Vivienne Westwood in the '90s, no doubt with her tongue firmly in her cheek.
Another problem is that while this show is patently directed at and created for women, the speakers at the launch event (packed with well-turned-out, influential women) were three dull men and one model who appeared to be recycling her speech from an article she wrote for Vogue, substituting "ball gowns" for summer dresses.
When will the British Fashion Council, and British fashion in general, learn that more women need to be leading the charge at these events? The two curators and the designer of the exhibition are women—Stanfill, Oriole Cullen and Emily Pugh. Why didn't we hear from them? Unfortunately, like the glossy worlds of magazines and luxury goods (whose consumers are mainly female), those holding the purse strings and making the ultimate decisions in the arts are still, in the main, male.
"Corporate support for the V&A is more vital than ever" says the V&A press release. "Please help us by acknowledging the exhibition sponsor Coutts." I'm happy to, but why don't sponsors get more creative? Coutts might have demanded that the V&A allow a section of the dresses to be sponsored by the bank (surely their customers have some they might like to exhibit?) or they could even have considered donating an amount to a young British designer to create a "Coutts" dress for the event. Alliances wherein money meets creativity and credibility are hugely important. But in this case, the chance to promote and reinforce British heritage and craftsmanship, while making the sponsorship brand look good and giving young designers that much needed leg up, was missed entirely.
The V&A show is part of Fashion 2012, the official fashion industry activity for the Olympic year. It's the U.K.'s chance to show the world just how creative and influential the Brits are in the sphere of fashion and luxury goods. British fashion has never dreamed big enough or shouted loudly enough; if we can ask for the world for sports (and get it in the form of the Olympics), isn't it time we were as ambitious for fashion? Let's hope this is a warm-up to the blockbuster events the BFC has planned for the summer to impress the thousands of visitors who are about to descend on London from around the globe. Otherwise, British fashion really will have stumbled at the finish line.
—Tina Gaudoin is a contributing editor at the Journal. Email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @tinagaudoin