Ballgowns at the V&AFloral ballgowns on dummys, displayed at the V&A

By Steph Cutler

When I heard about Ballgowns, an exhibition of ‘British glamour since 1950’ currently at the V&A, it’s no surprise that I was keen to pay a visit. Ballgowns showcases around sixty ballgowns in total and includes stunning dresses, red carpet evening wear and catwalk showstoppers…


As I have delivered visual awareness training to V&A volunteers in the past, I know that they are very mindful of accessibility – this includes lots of information on their website about access for people with various disabilities. After sending an email explaining that I was visually impaired and that I wanted to visit Ballgowns, I received an email letting me know that a guide could be arranged to take me around the exhibition. This was great, as I had not been expecting such a quick and positive response! The following day, I met my guide and was admitted, at no charge, into the exhibition. Having Penny (my lovely guide) was brilliant – by chance Penny had just come from a curator’s talk and so had plenty to pass on to me about the exhibition! – She was able to describe the detail and colours that I would otherwise have missed and read out any displayed information about the dresses.

The Exhibition:

The stories behind the dresses are as interesting as the dresses themselves, including information on how the role of the ballgown has changed over the decades. The dresses range in shape and silhouette and include the sleek and elegant and the slightly outlandish. They are all super glamorous and you can’t visit Ballgowns without wondering what it must feel like to wear at least one of the exhibited pieces.

Most of the dresses are couture pieces and have been handmade for particular clients.  The ballgowns are created by various designers – not all of the designers are British born, some came to the UK to learn their trade and stayed. Penny told me about the people who had worn the dresses and in what situations. There were quite a few famous dresses on display, even some which had been worn by royalty. There was a beautiful dress worn by Elizabeth Hurley in an Estée Lauder advert. The dress had been designed by the same designer who created Princess Dianna’s wedding dress – the similarities were obvious. The exhibition continues upstairs and the space is as elegant as the dresses.  Predominantly white with a domed ceiling, there are four projected images of the ballgowns rotating within the dome.

The dresses upstairs are all contemporary and are not kept behind glass; this means that while you can’t touch them, you can get closer to them – making it much easier to see them. Beyoncé’s dress can be found on this floor. Beyonce wore this particular outfit when invited by President Barack Obama to sing at a state reception. It has a daringly high side split and is covered in Swarovski crystals, gorgeous!

I would recommend the exhibition and I would certainly advise that you contact the V&A ahead of your visit if you have any access requirements; my appreciation of the exhibition was vastly improved by doing so.


Ballgowns is on at the V&A until 6th January 2013

10.00 – 17.45 daily

10.00 – 22.00 Fridays

For any assistance during your visit contact a member of staff or the Disability Officer on telephone +44 (0)20 7942 2766, text phone +44 (0)20 7942 2002, or email in advance.

Assistance dogs are welcome.

Nearest tube: South Kensington (5 minute walk)

South Kensington is on the Piccadilly, Circle and District Lines. It is a five minute tube journey from Victoria, ten minutes from Covent Garden and Leicester Square and 15 minutes from King’s Cross.