Ballgowns and the Fashion Galleries @ the V&A

In Exhibitions on September 8, 2012 at 1:25 pm

I have been taking advantage of new position as an employee on Exhibition Road (but not for long – snivel) and have been paying visits to our lovely neighbours. This time, I took a turn around the V & A, visiting their new Fashion Galleries and Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950 exhibition.

Courtesy of the Guardian. As usual at the V&A, Ballgowns is a "No Photography" exhibition.

Courtesy of the Guardian. As usual at the V&A, Ballgowns is a “No Photography” exhibition.

The reason I am combining a review of both a new permanent gallery (fashion) and a temporary exhibition (Ballgowns) is simple – they are pretty small, even combined. The re-vamp of the Fashion Galleries has come with a fair bit of fanfare, and I was truthfully expecting more – certainly in terms of spatial volume. Still – both are situated in a fabulous rotunda part of the building, and the Ballgowns space will be host to a range of changing fashion exhibitions. This being the V&A, the Vivienne Westwood retrospective cannot be far away (and I will, of course, be there).

The Fashion Galleries are looking pretty sleek and new, it’s true, and have a reasonable mix of fashions, styles and nationalities on display. It’s muddled, however – the whole thing has a sort of “Oh god, have we got room for this Victorian day dress? Yes, we do, in the Pop art case!” feel to it. That’s a hyperbolic example, but I did get a scattered impression of the gallery. Although the casing and general design of the room is uber-minimalist, the clothes are crammed in, and they lose some of their splendour by being crowded out. I think the V & A could have done with adapting Coco Chanel’s famous advice about always removing one or two accessories: “Less is always more”.

Upstairs, using the centre of this large domed gallery as a podium space, are the Ballgowns, ranging from conceptual fetish rubber creations to a Beyonce bedazzler. The dresses here are all on open display in a very arty fashion – and there is something just a little bit more...fabulous…about seeing the clothing of the rich and famous when they are at their most famousest, i.e. the red carpet ridiculousness that we all watch on E! (Don’t lie. I know you like museums, but I know you also watch E!. It’s ok – you’re in a safe place. No judgement.). There isn’t a lot of interpretation up there – it’s mostly just dress. I like minimal interpretation, and I think it works well here. “This dress was worn by Beyonce” and a designer name is all you get in most cases, which I like. There’s not much else you need to say.

The space is used to much better effect on the Ballgowns exhibition than downstairs. This bodes well for future exhibitions of the V&A’s vast fashion and textiles collections, but I am concerned about downstairs. I don’t think there are any plans to “thin it out” as it were – this one’s permanent. Shame, really – they are so snugly embroiled that they feel like only one exhibition – and like downstairs was the rushed half of it. Still – if you’re a fashion follower, you absolutely must pay this one a visit. It is an undeniably fantastic collection on display. There’s just not a lot else you can say about it – it’s just…there.

Entrance to the V&A is free, as is entrance to its permanent Fashion Galleries. Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950 runs until 6 January 2013, and admission is £10 for an adult (which I think is pretty steep for what you get, but hey-ho). There are a range of concessions for seniors, students, etc. Children, Museums Association Members and National Museum employees go free.



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