The V&A exhibit focuses specifically on the world of post-War couture, so what they have on display is work from some of the most important designers of the 40's and 50's and it's truly wonderful to look at. The exhibit itself is... well, it's not the best-designed museum exhibit I've ever atttended, although it is chock-full of jaw-droppingly beautiful things. It's a crowded and not extremely well-organized -- don't take a large backpack or a child in a stroller, because there isn't a lot of space. There isn't a strictly organized traffic flow for any of it; so while I appreciate not being herded around like livestock, what I wound up feeling like was a rat in a maze, except not all the rats were going in the same direction so periodically there would be big clumps of rats that would reach a sort of impasse, or there would be one rat who wanted to spend longer in front of one dress or go back and compare it to another dress and that rat was prevented from doing so by the pack or just inconvenienced all the other rats by swimming upstream... okay, you get the picture. Enough with the rodent metaphor, and please don't think it in any way indicates that I don't think the exhibit is worthwhile, because it is not possible to feel rat-like while gazing on something like this:
At the Victoria and Albert Museum in London there is currently a wonderful exhibit called The Golden Age of Couture. If you are going to be anywhere NEAR London before January 8, don't miss it. It's fantastic. Did you ever play that game where you pick which historical era you would like to have lived in? Well, for me, it would be post-World War II, the late 1940's through the 1950's. Oh, sure, I know it wasn't the most enlightened time socially speaking, and that our "Happy Days" perception of it in this country is rose-tinted and inaccurate. And perhaps there are more compelling periods to live in, intellectually or sociologically. But the truth of the matter is that I'm really not interested in living without either soap or mascara (not to mention a cocktail here & there), so I'm sorry, Versailles during Louis XIV is right out. But in 1947, there was soap, martinis, lipstick & eyeliner, good jazz, automobiles, and women got to look like this:
This is the Bar Suit from Christian Dior's 1947 New Look Collection. It's my ideal; my favorite silhouette of all time -- romantic and feminine and pretty darned swoony. Of course, I realize that the above is advertising photography and looking at it and saying that "women in 1947 looked like this" is roughly akin to saying "women of 2007 look like this" while perusing photos of Catherine Zeta-Jones at a red carpet event, but let's leave my fantasy alone, shall we? Had I been alive in 1947, I would ALWAYS have looked like this. End of discussion.
Hard as it is to believe, the New Look was rather shocking and revolutionary for its time. Remember, during WWII there was fabric rationing and all kinds of shortages -- this skirt, with its yards and yards and yards of fabric, was positively decadent. And many people now look on it as a step backwards for women -- during the War women had been brought into positions that were abandoned by men off fighting, working in factories and offices and making real strides forward in independence and power. After all the soldiers came home, the New Look signified women's return to a submissive role -- the soft shoulders, the wasp waist, the enormous, movement-inhibiting skirt. Still, it's pretty hard to argue with this
This is the back of a gown by my beloved Cristobal Balenciaga, mid-50's. Breathtaking.
This tartan gown is by Jaques Fath from 1949. It was made for a member of British royalty, as I recall, for a state occasion. (Must remember to take notes!!)
Beaded and embroided pink satin shoes by Roger Vivier for Dior, late 50's. Swoon.
Gorgeous couture tailoring by Michael Donéllan in 1954. There is a large assortment of suiting by Donéllan, Balenciaga, Creed, Chanel, and others in the exhibit. A good suit is just as difficult (maybe more so) to make than a stunning evening gown, and the Fashionista in me was so frustrated that I couldn't climb up on the dais, take these things off the mannequins, and turn them inside-out to examine the cutting and seaming.
Silk brocade from Givenchy, mid-50's. This dress makes obvious why so many of Balenciaga's clients turned to Givenchy after Balenciaga closed his atelier.
Dior, 1957. I don't care who you are -- you put on this dress and you are instantly the most gorgeous thing in the room.
Spectacularly beaded & embroidered velvet from Dior, 1956. This dress is cocktail length. You know, so it's more practical...
This is my favorite. Red silk chiffon from Jean Dessés, 1953. I'm pretty sure this dress dances all by itself. This is the dress of my dreams -- in this dress I would be perfectly perfect. I would drink nothing but champagne. I would have no split ends. My feet would never hurt. I would be as witty as a Phillip Barry play. I would dance divinely, my dear. Men in tuxedos would pursue me, planning to buy me jewels. Other women might hate me. I would not care.
The exhibit also has a really wonderful section of photography, with work by people like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, among others, including this one:
I've got nothing on Dovima or Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, but I do what I can.
(You can see more of Caro's beautiful photos here. Check 'em out, you won't be sorry.)
Photos: Victoria and Albert Museum, Caroline Charles