Friday, March 07, 2008

The Golden Age...

Back in November The Boy took me to London for my birthday. My birthday is in January, but we didn't let that stop us for I was desperate to see an exhibition that ended three weeks before the blessed day, an exhibition of the utmost beauty, The Golden Age of Couture at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

As soon as I saw the exquisite poster illustrated by David Downton I fell in love. I love fashion, I love dresses and most of all I love vintage dresses and the poster evoked the crème de la crème of vintage dresses, works of art from a time 'when a dress was a dream made real' * . The poster itself was a dream, a beautiful watercolour dream in colours to make the heart beat faster.

Back in September I had been in London for 48 hours. With the sort of magical sense of timing that I often possess I had managed to organise the trip over the two days that the exhibition was being unveiled to the press and the fashion world. Of course it wouldn't open to the public until the day after I left for home.

I had never been to the V&A though, so on the afternoon we arrived in London I dragged my Mum along and spent an hour daydreaming my way around the permanent fashion collection, which was beautiful in itself.

We found the wing of the museum that housed the exhibition and with both hands pressed against the smoked glass door, I gazed longingly into the silence, where one breathtaking red dress was lit up like an icon in the darkened room . I whimpered, I sighed and I vowed never to make any travel plans without checking what exhibitions were on ever again.

red chiffon dress by Jean Desses and under dresses and embroidery by Balmain

Three months later Nye and I were back and with excitement that reminded me of Christmas Eve as a child, we made our way back to the V&A for an afternoon of sheer heaven.

And what heaven it was. The dresses, oh the dresses! There are not words for the dresses. Masterpieces, delights, works of art, pure beauty. Design at its most exquisite, design to bring a tear to the eye and make your heart skip a beat.

As much as I loved the exhibition it really broke my heart to see such incredible pieces of clothing sitting in glass cases, in the dark, on lifeless mannequins. Clothes are made to be worn, to be loved and they do not look their best on a headless, black velvet dummy. The dresses just begged to be pulled over my head, zipped up and danced in. The silk wanted to move, to swish and to rustle.

I am not a huge fan of the contemporary couture that was featured in the exhibition, John Galliano's dresses for Dior do not speak to me, do not whisper to me with sweet words like the dresses of Dior's golden age, but the look how much more life there is in the dress that walks down the runway...

Ostrich feather and crystal dress by Pierre Balmain, 1945 and a 2005 couture dress by John Galliano for Christian Dior, one of very few contemporary couture pieces.

The exhibition was not just fashion pieces, there were some wonderful photographs from the golden age of couture fashion too. Works by the greats like Richard Avedon and Cecil Beaton, images which were the reason I fell in love with photography. Black and white film photography will always be my number one love in art so seeing these prints was just as exciting for me as seeing the clothes.

the classic 'Dovima with Elephants' by Richard Avedon, of the famous model wearing Dior in 1955.

This next image is on the cover of the diary that accompanies the exhibition and I fell in love with it straight away. I have a thing for black and white stripes, wearing them gives me confidence and the sight of them fills me with joy, so combined with vintage black and white photography, how fabulous!

Stripy Sofa, by John French.

I was given a copy of the 2008 Diary and I will spend the rest of the year day dreaming over the images. This week it is a photograph by Lillian Bassman, one of the few female fashion photographers of the time. The model wears a fairytale wedding dress and it is so dreamlike, so romantic, so different from the photographs Avedon, French and Beaton were taking at the time. Bassman's images were a huge inspiration to me when I started taking photographs at art school. I loved their romance and their mystery...

Photograph by Lillian Bassman, model wearing Molyneaux wedding dress. Harper's Bazaar, New York, June 1949.

Memories of this trip and The Golden Age of Couture will feed my imagination for a long time to come...

( Images courtesy of the V&A )

Hilary Alexander, The Telegraph)