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Belle of the ballgowns: a guide to the V&A exhibition

From a blue-beaded evening dress made for the Queen Mother in 1953 to the silver satin worn by Beyoncé to Obama's inauguration party – the meanings behind the frocks in the new V&A show

In the spring of 1953 London newspapers reported that Norman Hartnell had been ordered by doctors to take several days' rest. "Britain's First Couturier" was, quite simply, exhausted. Not only was Hartnell working flat out making the coronation robe for the new Queen's forthcoming investiture, he was also responsible for the outfits worn by the female members of the royal party, not to mention redesigning the robes for the peeresses of the realm. It was as if the royal dressmaker was in attendance not just on Cinderella, but her fairy godmother, her sisters and the entire chorus line too. And, to add to the pressure, each required a gown of such exquisite loveliness that it would make the watching nation burst with pride.

Sixty years on, with the nation once again getting ready to feel pleased about its knack for putting on a gorgeous display, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London is showing Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950. Some of the dresses – by Hartnell, Victor Stiebel, Zandra Rhodes, Jonathan Saunders and Hussein Chalayan – are from the museum's permanent collection; other dresses have arrived straight from the catwalks of Roland Mouret, Giles, Erdem and Antonio Barardi. Meanwhile, Gareth Pugh, one of the country's more conceptual young designers, has made a leather dress stiffened with silver – more sculpture than ballgown – just for the occasion.

The exhibition takes as its starting point Hartnell's designs for the coronation. There are several gorgeous examples of that signature silhouette, comprising a tight strapless bodice, with a full, bell-shaped skirt – a rustling, silky promise of an age of plenty. One of the most spectacular, a blue-beaded evening dress made for the Queen Mother in 1953, is a timely reminder that ballgowns have never been exclusively for the ingénue. Indeed, they work particularly well on older women. Long, full skirts are forgiving, while elbow-length gloves, stoles and capes break up the line of exposed flesh. These are neat tricks still employed on the red carpet today, as the Jacques Azagury empire-line dress with bolero jacket that Helen Mirren wore to pick up her Bafta for The Queen, demonstrates triumphantly. Another particularly dramatic piece – a backless gown in scarlet-and-black by Victor Edelstein – was worn with panache by a fifty-something Anne Heseltine in 1986.

Once the excitement of the coronation had fallen away, ballgowns stepped out of the spotlight and returned to the grand country house ball. It was here that couture dresses by Hartnell, John Cavanagh, Hardy Amies and Worth reported for duty. And a big part of that duty involved setting off heirloom jewellery to perfection. With an upper class that had never been obliged to flee a revolution with diamonds sewn into its underclothes, Britain still boasted some of the finest private collections of gemstones in the world. This need for a ballgown to work in tandem with show-stopping rocks explains, suggests the exhibition's co-curator Oriole Cullen, why certain jewel-tones reappear so regularly in any parade of British ballgowns. Amid the ivories and creamy pinks you will see singing reds, greens and blues making their return time and time again.

As the 1960s progressed, debutantes were keen to shed the "girls in pearls" tag that had clung to their mothers. Hip young things who wore Mary Quant and Biba by day wanted something similarly sharp for evening. The design duo Belinda Bellville and David Sassoon then entered the market. Their slender, columnar shapes, stopping a good inch or two off the ground, allowed you to kick off your shoes and dance. One example of their work, a mustard-coloured silk sheath bought off the peg by Princess Anne in 1968, still looks fresh today.

As "the season" gradually lost its allure in the 1970s, there were some odd stabs at formal evening wear, including a rock-chic ensemble from Ossie Clark in which a gold leather corset and jacket is set off by a virulent purple lace skirt. Then there is Yuki's raspberry kaftan, which looked lovely on the statuesque Anglo-American actress Gayle Hunnicutt for whom it was originally made, but might make lesser souls (and bodies) look as if they were in a touring production of Abigail's Party. Rhodes, meanwhile, sums up the end of that stylistically difficult decade with an ensemble comprising a black quilted satin bodice, gold pleated lamé skirt and panniers over black tulle. The effect is of Marie Antoinette during her milkmaid days crossed with a giant Ferrero Rocher chocolate.

These off-kilter extravaganzas from the 70s were designed to be worn at the cycle of semi-public events that had begun to replace country house dances. Not only were film premieres, charity balls and museum galas open to anyone who could afford a ticket, they were also spectacles to which millions more had access via TV and newspapers. Ballgowns, in consequence, became increasingly scrutinised for the non-verbal messages they were intended to convey. Into this category comes Catherine Walker's triumphant "Elvis" outfit of 1989, which saw Diana, Princess of Wales, telegraphing her growing independence from the establishment in a figure-hugging white sheath studded with pearls and sequins, topped by an outside collar. A cerise silk gown from Bruce Oldfield, meanwhile, was Bianca Jagger's weapon of choice in the late 70s when she wanted to show Mick just what he was missing by going off with Jerry Hall.

Ballgowns takes full advantage of the V&A's newly lit and restored Octagon Court, with its display of red carpet glamour – where actresses in mostly borrowed frocks replace society women in couture. This faster tempo is picked up by the mannequins, who pose in mid-stride and even, on occasions, do a dynamic twirl. Here you will find a Stella McCartney outfit from 2011 (worn by Annette Bening to the New York Film Critics Circle in New York). What appears at first glance to be a full black satin skirt turns out, on closer inspection, to be flowing trousers, a clever choice that reflects Bening's insider-outsider status. There are classic styles here too, suggesting that even the most successful of professional women can't resist dressing up as a princess. Hence Maggie Gyllenhal's fishtail Mouret dress in sorbet pink worn to the Golden Globes in 2010, alongside Jenny Packham's powder pink crystal gown chosen the following year by Sandra Bullock.

Just as Hartnell's designs for the coronation shaded off into a kind of performance art, Ballgowns ends with work by contemporary designers such as Giles, Gareth Pugh and Alexander McQueen who situated themselves inside a similarly theatrical arena. Craig Lawrence's dress, with bits of what look like aluminium foil and KitKat wrappers stitched on to a knitted tube, produces a satisfying rustling sound, as well as a metallic shimmer. Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen has constructed a gown entirely from ostrich and cock feathers, which turns the wearer into a rather marvellous giant dove. Also on display is the silver satin Ralph & Russo design worn by Beyoncé when she performed at Barack Obama's inauguration ball in 2009. And, finally, just to make the point that, these days, a ballgown can be pretty much anything it choses, there's even a lace-print latex dress by Atsuko Kudo, the woman who regularly shrink-wraps Lady Gaga. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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