From debutantes and royalty to charity balls and the red carpet, 'Ballgowns: British glamour since 1950' charts 60 years of stylish evening wear. The exhibition highlights the styles, silhouettes and colours that have been perennial favourites for many years. Here, designers such as Bruce Oldfield, David Sassoon, Mary Katrantzou, Nicholas Oakwell and Roksanda Illincic describe their thoughts on the glamour of the ballgown.
Bruce Oldfield: Craftmanship is what it’s all about. Couture is actually just dressmaking, that’s all, it’s just a French way of saying dressmaking. The French always manage to find a nice way of saying things.
David Sassoon: I’m probably the only designer around today that’s dressed every single member, female member, of the royal family except the Queen.
Mary Katrantzou: It’s quite nice to look back into that time when it was a little bit more formal than it is today.
Nicholas Oakwell: The 40s through to the 60s were a very strong period of time, I think. It was very much ‘Rule Britannia’ at that time and I think Britain was very glamorous at that time with the balls and functions and the debutantes and things like that.
David Sassoon: In the 50s young girls aspired to look like their mothers, but in the 60s the mothers aspired to look like the daughters. All the rules went out the windows so that you really were free to do very exciting and very glamorous clothes. And, of course, clothes could be a little bit more sexy than they had been.
Bruce Oldfield: It has changed hugely in the last 15 or 20 years. The big dress, the occasion dress, has become something that you wear less and less and less of.
David Sassoon: In the 60s and 70s people paid for the dresses, but today red carpet dresses are borrowed so you get stars and celebrities wearing a ball dress.
Bruce Oldfield: People look at a long dress and say, ‘What’s that? Where do you wear a long dress? Oh yes, the Oscars.
Roksanda Illincic: Designing a dress can be really quite versatile and different projects. Sometimes I start with ideas that maybe I just saw on the street.
Bruce Oldfield: I always designed from technique. I would find a technique that I liked, whether it was smocking or draping or pleating or ruching or whatever it might be.
Roksanda Illincic: The ball gown usually demands lots of fabric. There is a place to play, to drape, to draw, to playing with the view of 360 degrees, which is really exciting.
Mary Katrantzou: It starts, I think with a theme. All my collections are very thematic. It’s been perfume bottles and interiors and objects of art.
David Sassoon: A lot of the collections that were designed were based on themes. For instance, we would have an Indian collection or a Chinese collection. I loved doing dresses for Princess Diana. She was very, very charismatic and she could wear all sorts of wonderful colours. Our dress was on the official stamp. These are all the sketches that she would make comments on and write on.
Bruce Oldfield: Bianca Jagger was major in the 70s. Bianca wanted a special red dress for this big ball that everybody went to in Paris. I remember Tina Chow and Marie Helvin and Jerry Hall and all these kind of beautiful … the demi-monde at that time. To be dressing Bianca Jagger for it was quite cool. And the dress is very much a ‘homage’ dress to the dress that Rita Hayworth wore in ‘Gilda’.
Nicholas Oakwell: I think my style – I try to be modern in a way, but still quite romantic with the clothes and try to be feminine and try to think inside what a woman wants to wear. I’m trying to get away from that man dressing a woman and thinking how a woman dresses and what she wants to wear.
Roksanda Illincic: I always have a certain modern woman in mind. She works, she lives in a town, she goes to different events and that’s somebody that I design for.
Bruce Oldfield: I don’t think a frock needs to be challenging, I just don’t, but I think it really should be an amalgam of the woman, the wearer, and the dress. So doesn’t she look fabulous, is good enough for me.
Mary Katrantzou: My idea of glamour is that there’s a symmetry to everything and everything is very considered. I wouldn’t say that my prints are random. I think there’s an essence of classicism there and elegance that still is part of my work, but at the same time I think there’s something about how women in the UK dress up now. There’s still glamour, but again I think it’s a little bit more individual.
Roksanda Illincic: I think what makes Britain different is that sort of effortless glamour. Glamour that is done without trying too hard, without trying too much.