Ballgowns at the V&A

On Monday, Lisa, a new friend and colleague, and I met in London, and, as part of our time together, went to the ballgown exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum.   We were more interested in talking about our work than looking at great art, so this show was preferable to, say, the invisible art at the Hayward Gallery, which is probably great but requiring a fair bit of concentration.  The ballgowns were perfect: visually delightful and enough nostalgia for the two of us to get to know each other effortlessly by talking about what we remember our mothers wearing or what we loved as children.

The catalogue, of course, is absolutely sumptuous.  The Victoria and Albert have recently started to outdo themselves with a series of books about costume and design, and this catalogue is definitely one of them.   The exhibition appeared to be colour-themed rather than chronological, and it was grouped around broad themes such as the ball, the wearers, the big occasion, and now the red carpet, but the dresses that were chosen seemed to be in a very similar palette in their groupings.  Upstairs was a gallery full of contemporary ballgowns had some breathtaking dresses.  So, all in all, a very good show for some escapism and wallowing in the loveliness of yards and yards of the very best fabric and half a ton of crystal beads.  And, of course, as I was wandering round, I tried hard not to think about the privilege on view, the energetic symbolic maintenance of the British class system or the celebration of anorexia in most of the contemporary frocks.  That aside, perfect.

Anyway, I wanted to do this post because it was only when I got home and looked at the catalogue that I realised that the slide show projected around the walls of the contemporary part of the show had models with the most spectacular hats/heads made out of altered books.  The books themselves weren’t in the show which is a great pity, but are lovingly reproduced in the catalogue for which they were made.  So, here are a few of the altered books headrests I could find on the web:

And this stunning creation, which was on one of the loveliest dresses in the show:

The headpiece was an explosion of butterflies out of the book:

So, if you like altered books, it’s worth getting the catalogue for a whole range of really inspiring ideas.  And the interesting part for me was that they weren’t the creation of a book artist, but of the set designer for the photoshoot, Vincent Olivieri.  He and the photographer, David Hughes, deliberately chose to work with books.  According to the catalogue:

That Hughes and Olivieri used books creates a reference to a fairy-tale or story-book context befitting the grandness of the idea of the ball gown and the sense of occasion it implies.  This could be an imaginary fiction as much as the real story or biography of the previous owner of the gown.  The use of second-hand books also represents the new function of the dresses as historical artefacts now collected and stored by the V&A, itself a seat of learning and an repository of books and knowledge.

Magdalene Keany (2012) Introduction: Pictures Worth a Thousand Words, Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950.  London: V&A Publishing, pp. 10 and 13.

So, an added bonus when I got home.  The exhibition continues until 6 January 2013, and I intend to go back with my sketchbook.

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