The Roland Mouret Galaxy dress was first shown in 2005 and immediately became a defining shape of its time. Partly, the dress was so successful because it was strict and yet curve-friendly, making it easy to look nice in. It had in it a tension and a contradiction. The cleverness of the tailoring, the 3D precision of the darts and seaming, always makes me think about the concave angles they use when designing stealth weaponry, except that in the case of the Mouret dress, obviously, the idea is not to be invisible, but the most spectacular creature in the room. ‘The dress is a tool,’ as Mouret himself has put it. ‘And a tool has to work.’
The idea has been much developed since, by Mouret himself and by many others. In 2007, Victoria Beckham wore a pink Mouret Moon dress on her first appearance with her husband after he joined LA Galaxy (‘Real elegance requires not only a great dress but a discriminating and disciplined wearer,’ Germaine Greer enthused in the Guardian. ‘Suddenly I was reckoning VB as among the all-time greats’). In 2011, the Big Brother contestant Imogen Thomas wore a navy-blue one for her hearing at the High Court in connection with the Ryan Giggs v. News Group superinjunction. And in Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950 at the V&A (until 6 January 2013), you can see a full-length one-shouldered pink silk version called the Siren, as worn by the actress Maggie Gyllenhaal to the Golden Globes awards ceremony in 2010. The dress is aggressive in its pink simplicity. It’s slender and sharp and slightly twisted-looking – a dress that would cut you like a knife.
The great thing about Roland Mouret, the show’s curators write, is that he understands ‘the complexities’ – as a caption puts it – ‘of the spirit of the red carpet’. Dresses like these are no longer bought for marriageable young fillies to wear to country-house parties, in the old-fashioned, coming-out way. The contemporary ballgown is more often built to be displayed on a celebrity body in the harsh light of the global media marketplace (which perhaps explains why this show of supposedly ‘British’ glamour features work by people who don’t have much connection with Britain at all). ‘Photographers will try to find the bad angle and the bad picture sells more than the good picture,’ Mouret is quoted as saying. One bulge or bone or misplaced billow, and dress and star will be exposed to the vicious scrutiny of the Sidebar of Shame on the Daily Mail website.
Upstairs at the V&A exhibition, the layout is that of the digital panopticon. Arty photos – by David Hughes – are projected on the walls all around of the same ugly, theatrical dresses you can see life-size on display, worn by skinny department-store mannequins, with books and lampshades and hedges for faces. The fabrics themselves are digitally panoptic too, what with the current fashion for grotesque hyperrealist prints. I particularly enjoyed a frock by the very of-the-moment Mary Katrantzou, a simple short shift with a perspective composition on it of swags, windows, topiary, a pair of Louis Quinze chairs. A yoke has been added at the shoulders, like a pelmet, and a pair of full-length curtains sewn on at the thigh.
Downstairs, the dresses are softer and more romantic – rose and dove and primrose and oyster, tulle and organza and puffy silk. Of my fellow spectators on a Thursday morning, pretty well all are female and white and upper-bourgeois-looking, and many have come in pairs: mothers and daughters of various ages, old chums up in town on a day-trip, elderly ladies out with a relative or friend. There’s a strange mood, sad and gentle and full of longing: ‘Mother absolutely killed herself to get me a nice dress for it, do you remember?’ ‘You’re exhausted, love, come over here a minute and sit down.’ I also liked the ladies who were having a cackle at Joan Collins: ‘Did you see her, at that Jubilee thing, trying to do a curtsey in those heels.’ The stimulus was an appalling poison-pink and ruffled Emanuel monstrosity, worn by Collins in 1983. What did she think she was doing, a (then) thrice-married woman of fifty, in princessy pink ruffles? Though was it really any better when the frills and flounces were in ivory, the wearer a virgin bride of 19?
It was to be expected, I guess, that a show like this would have a lot of royalty in it: Norman Hartnell’s wide Winterhalter neckline for the Queen Mother, Catherine Walker’s high-collared Elvis-in-Vegas number, made for Diana in 1989. But I was surprised to notice how personally people seemed to greet the outfits – how familiar they were and in a weird way, loved. ‘The family provides the central structure of identification,’ Judith Williamson wrote in an essay on ‘Royalty and Representation’ in the 1980s. ‘They are at once like us and not like us … The ordinary held up for everyone to see.’
The dress that really made me gasp, though, was an off-the-peg number in mustard yellow, made by Bellville Sassoon in 1968 and donated to the show by Princess Anne. The bodice is fitted, with cuffed elbow sleeves and a high, round Star Trek collar. The latticework embroidery is yellow and orange and brown. The heavy yellow skirt is gathered just enough to be neither wide nor narrow. The hem looks thick and folded, unfinished and unpressed. In the 1970s, my mother made me one just like it, from a paper pattern by Butterick or Simplicity. It was yellow with silver sequins, and hung just as badly as the one worn by HRH. I had to wear it when I was a bridesmaid at my cousin’s wedding, and I look as awful in the photographs as I felt. I’m also standing on one leg in some of them: it was a long dress, so I thought it wouldn’t matter, but my mother noticed and was extremely upset.
‘In the love stirred by Photography (by certain photographs), another music is heard, its name oddly old-fashioned: Pity,’ Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida. He associates this love with ‘the punctum’, the detail that pierces to the heart. I’ve looked at those pictures of that wedding lots of times without feeling anything in particular. But when I saw that Princess Anne dress, I could almost feel the pins.