Fairy-tale gowns: You shall go to the ball

A new exhibition looks at the romance – and the relevance – of that fashion fantasy, the fairy-tale gown, says Susannah Frankel
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It's a feel-good show," says Oriole Cullen, co-curator, with Sonnet Stanfill, of Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

The two women preside over modern textiles and fashion, and 20th century fashion there respectively. This is indeed an exhibition that lifts the spirits and that is ultimately as light-hearted as many of the designs included display lightness of touch. It is also the place to go to see some of the biggest, boldest, most beautiful and, at times, most crazed party dresses imaginable.

Take as prime example of the latter Cindy Beadman's late 1970s gown and accompanying coat, a fondant-hued extravaganza that comes complete with tiny quilted princess in her tower on its bodice, many, many sugar-pink roses here, there and everywhere, and even a hand-embroidered silver fairytale at the hem. "They lived happily ever after in the land of eternal youth" reads its hemline in suitably curvaceous – and just marginally sinister – script. American-born Beadman lived the dream in rural Oxfordshire apparently, Cullen explains, and the dress in question was worn by Anita Harris way back when. Worthy of Grayson Perry at his most hyper-feminine, it is perhaps the greatest example of designer folly in evidence. And given the premise, that is quite something. No less attention-seeking – though fierce over and above purely frivolous – is Zandra Rhodes' enormous gold lamé design with pleated panniers and ruffles the size of elephant ears. Dated 1981, it is the sartorial embodiment of a Ferrero Rocher chocolate, if you will, courtesy of one of Britain's most flamboyant talents.

Ossie Clarke's gold leather jacket and corset, paired with an ultraviolet lace skirt, is another example of this country's affinity with peacock dressing and with rule breaking, too. Whatever, these are not clothes that are aimed at the shy.

The show is the first to be located in the museum's newly redesigned fashion gallery. Around 100 outfits from the museum's permanent collection are presented chronologically around its circumference and they are testimony, if ever any were needed, that there's nothing like a short, sharp edit to make fashion history sing. Around 50 per cent of the ballgowns in the show are owned by the V&A also and the rest have been lent or donated by hardened ballgown lovers from Joan Collins (a pastel-pink, flower-strewn meringue designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel) to Rosie Huntington-Whiteley (more narrow and contemporary: Burberry, Antonio Berardi).

The first floor is dedicated to the history of this work-intensive garment from the 1950s through to the mid-Noughties, taking in names including Worth London, Hardy Amies, Victor Stiebel, Yuki, Bill Gibb, John Cavanagh and Catherine Walker. The latter designer's high-collared white satin "Elvis" jacket and gown, hand-embroidered with tens of thousands of oyster pearls and made for the Princess of Wales, is all present and correct, for example. These are shown in a collection of vitrines that evoke the relatively demure and quaint environment of the dressing room of a young woman of means.

As well as the aforementioned outré looks, there's a comparatively quiet loveliness to a bell-shaped gown designed by Norman Hartnell for the Queen Mother in 1953. (Hartnell famously designed the Queen's Coronation gown.) This one's embroidered with jewelled, cornflower blue blossom and has panels of pleated tulle at the shoulder to ensure ma'am's upper arms are presented in the most pleasing way possible. It demonstrates the ability of a truly great dressmaker to both show consideration to the wearer and to crowd-please on a grand scale in one fell swoop.

According to Cullen, the overblown skirt that for the most part dominates, and that was upheld by this Royal Family member from the 1930s onwards in particular, was achieved post-crinoline by sewing as many layers of net into a waistline as it could accommodate. It is favoured both for its princessy connotations and because "it is a chance for a designer to make a statement – it's a blank canvas [a very large blank canvas] upon which they can showcase their expertise," she says.

There is an unashamed nostalgia to the look. "That romantic tendency is very British," Cullen argues, "and it's somehow different to the sophistication of Paris designs." It's true that there is an innocence to more traditional pieces such as these that harks back to a time when young debutantes came out for "the season" in the hope of meeting suitable husbands and were presented at court in strapless white puffs of dresses and the requisite long evening gloves (also white) should anyone think too much flesh was exposed.

Dame Vivienne Westwood's riposte to such a studiously virginal wardrobe is more wanton and no less wonderful for that. Her "debutante" dress dated 1994 has a signature corset proudly on display and a shredded hem as if our heroine has struggled over hill and dale battling against the elements to meet her beau.

In fact, Westwood's sensibility and wit clearly paves the way for many of the designs on the mezzanine floor – or for the duration of this show, "the ballroom" – that date from 2005 to the present and showcase the modern ballgown which, following in the footsteps of the grande dame of British fashion, upholds many of the requirements of formal dress all while subverting them.

Giles Deacon's pleated silk "carwash" dress (2007) rubs shoulders with a body-conscious floor-length gown constructed out of loops of silver leather by Gareth Pugh especially for the show. Then there's Atsuko Kudo's fetishistic latex snakeskin-print dress to consider; a feathered design made by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen and worn by Daphne Guinness to the 2011 Costume Institute Ball; a Stella McCartney gown with a bifurcated skirt sported by Annette Bening to the Golden Globes and the Jacques Azagury ensemble chosen by Helen Mirren when she picked up the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in The Queen.

Despite including the odd red-carpet moment, this is less amplified exhibition than many of the recent international fashion blockbusters. That is not least because the latter are largely paid for by the fashion behemoths whose work they celebrate, somewhat lessening their impact in terms of academic value. Ballgowns is sponsored by Coutts and it is positively frugal by comparison. The effect is refreshing in its lack of bombast, whether that is intentional or not, and also apposite. Because if there is a single unifying factor to the show it may be found in a sense that the majority of the gowns on display here have their own stories and were worn and loved by the people for whom they were made. And that, it almost goes without saying, is a million miles away from the here today/gone tomorrow spirit that contemporary fashion all too often represents even at it is and all the more charming for that.

"That's another facet of the British ballgown," Cullen agrees. "These things were worn and worn."

Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, Victoria & Albert Museum, May 19 to January 2013; vam.ac.uk

'Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950', edited by Oriole Cullen and Sonnet Stanfill, £20 V&A Publishing, is out now