Saturday, 19 May 2012

The Best of British Ballgowns, V&A

When Vesper Lynd (played by Eva Green, in Casino Royale, 2006) walks into the Casino Royale in Montenegro where James Bond is playing a high-stakes poker game with Le Chiffre, all eyes – including Bond’s – turn to watch her in her aubergine gown, with its plunging silver neckline, its sexy little knot at the centre of her chest, and the kiss of the long skirt around her thighs. Lynd is a complicated character. Vicious, cynical and prickly on the outside, with a startlingly black hole of longing on the inside. Her dress – picked by Bond, of course – matches her personality. An unusual colour, an enigmatic V of silver, and a confident hugging of the curves.

Then there is the iconic black-embroidered strapless gown that Sabrina (played by Audrey Hepburn) wears for the Larrabees’ garden party in Sabrina, 1953. Remember that dress? White gloves? Detachable train? Rumour has it that Hepburn, ever the style queen, chose this confection from Givenchy’s S/S 1953 collection. “His are the only clothes in which I am myself,” she said of the designer. “He is far more than a couturier, he is a creator of personality.” This dress, too, has something to say about the wearer – Hepburn, the elegant ingénue, a curious mixture of naïve schoolgirl and pink champagne.

To celebrate the opening of the newly renovated Fashion Galleries, the Victoria and Albert have opened the 2012 summer season with an exhibition of ballgowns displayed over two floors. The exhibition scans sixty years of British eveningwear and features designers like Hussein Chalayan, Alexander McQueen, Erdem, and Jenny Packham. Iconic gowns include Norman Hartnell’s concoction for the Queen Mother, Princess Di’s “Elvis Dress” by Catherine Walker, and dresses worn by Sandra Bullock and Bianca Jagger. Each gown (whether you like the dress or not) has its own unique imprint – for some, this is the stamp of the designer, while for others, it is the wearer that has left on the gown a hint of their perfume.

The Norman Hartnell gown is a full-bodied cream silk, with a multitude of gold-embroidered colonial-style tentacles (a little too Memsahib for my tastes, but who’s arguing with the Queen Mother?) The Erdem is a bird of paradise, with a canary-yellow bodice, and a skirt that Van Gogh wouldn’t sneeze at (actually, neither would the exotic bird. It may actually try to make a nest in it.) The McQueen confection is, as always, a show stealer. A full furry-licious skirt with feathers hugging the bodice, this dress is definitely more glamorous swan than fuzzy chicken. The Roksanda Ilincic is a different kettle of fish. My favourite retro-rose colour, with shimmying bits of lace and silk, this is a stunning pastiche of a cocktail dress – probably not an Ilincic that you can find on Net-a-Porter, huh? 

Alexander McQueen

Victor Edelstein


Victoria and Albert Museum, May 19, 2012 – January 6, 2013
Pictures from Victoria and Albert
Article upcoming in The London Word

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Fashion Targets Breast Cancer

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that ethical fashion, in all its avatars, will become more and more important around the world in the coming years, as we come to terms with the consequences of our choices. When it was just sweatshops that were the problem, a lot of us could turn a blind eye. If it doesn’t happen here or to you, but in a land far, far away, it’s easier to ignore. If a tree falls in a forest, and there’s no one there to see it, etc…But we are now facing recession (a second recession, though I can’t remember when the first one finished. But maybe I was too busy trying to balance my cheque book.) We are also looking at catastrophic climate change. And if none of this seems like an immediate problem, heck, fashion prices should be enough to make us hyperventilate.

I’ll confess. I like clothes. Kooky colours, prints put together in some odd couplings, the sheen of silk, a riot of flowers – it’s all intoxicating. But the stories behind the clothes – the below-minimum wage paid to workers, the children that have no choice but to sweat away at the loom, the hundreds of thousands that celebrities pay for a diamond-studded sandal to walk the red carpet, the awful working conditions of labourers that will never in a million years be able to afford the buttons they are sewing on – it’s depressing. As Marx said, capitalism is a vampire, and can only survive by sucking on living labour.

So, when I hear about anything to do with ethical fashion, I feel just a little bit better about my love for fashion. Whether it’s Edun – the collaboration between Ali Hewson and Bono that promotes fair trade partnerships with Kenya and Uganda, or a pairing of M&S with Oxfam to encourage people to recycle clothes, or a commitment to local production and sustainable practices by indie brands like Beyond Skin shoes – it’s all good, and I’m hoping, it is more than just a celebrity fad.

And now here’s another way to show a commitment to charitable causes. Fashion Targets Breast Cancer is an endeavour set up by Ralph Lauren in 1994 after he lost a close friend to the horrible c-word. Since then, celebs like Elle Macpherson, Twiggy, Naomi Campbell, Kylie Minogue have given their face and their time to the campaign. Brands like M&S, River Island, Topshop, Warehouse, Coast, My Wardrobe, Laura Ashley, Debenhams and others sell bespoke pieces for the project every year, with at least 30% of the proceeds going to Breakthrough Breast Cancer.

“Buy it, Fight it,” say posters of Georgia May Jagger and Pixie Geldof, who are fronting the campaign this year. Look out for these denim-clad ladies in their street-chic during your early morning commute. This year’s offerings include jazzy festival wear – think woven bracelets and imprinted t-shirts, and one-shoulder dresses, fascinators and teapots for a royal theme. All very apropos for the Diamond Jubilee summer season.