22/02/2013

Valentino: Master of Couture, at Somerset House



Valentino: Master of Couture is a temporary exhibition at London's Somerset House, celebrating the career of Valentino and including 137 haute couture designs in its impressive main display.

After paying for your ticket and collecting your accompanying booklet, you proceed into a room containing a giant lightbox, onto which is projected some pictures and a quote either about or from Valentino. I have forgotten which. It looks good, and I certainly felt impressed when I entered the exhibition, but the size of the introductory room felt excessive compared to the rest of the exhibition.

Walking through the doorway to the second room, the first thing I noticed was the giant rose on the opposite wall, and the timelines on the two adjacent walls, which show important points in Valentino's career. Below these, around three edges of the room, are cabinets that look as if they have chairs behind them, like desks. The first cabinet I looked at contained original sketches by Valentino. I don't know if any of the outfits in the sketches were on display in the catwalk, because I don't have a photographic memory. If so, I think they would have had more value if they were presented beside the dresses, but there is nothing to stop you leaving the catwalk and going downstairs to look in the cabinets again, if you chose to do so.

The second cabinet contained photos of solo models and celebrities, some wearing Valentino, some posing with the man himself. I wasn't sure what the point of the photos of celebrities with Valentino was, and would have liked to see more photos of the outfits from the exhibition being worn. The third cabinet contained a mixture of letters, faxes, and telegrams that Valentino had received from various other well-known figures in the fashion industry, royalty, and other celebrities, congratulating him on his anniversary. There were also some copies of invitations to the celebrations and shows. Honestly, I thought this section was quite pointless. The invitations from Valentino were interesting from a graphic design standpoint, but I didn't think that the notes from celebrities added anything. Is anybody going to see this exhibition without knowing that Valentino is a celebrated designer? Do we really need to be shown an array of evidence?

After viewing the cabinets, you turn to the fourth wall, the one with the doorways through which you walked earlier, and go up the stairs, to the catwalk, or perhaps reverse catwalk, because the visitors walk down the centre, with the dresses on either side. It's a nice idea, and the clothes are displayed beautifully, but I couldn't help thinking that if the dresses had been in the centre, I would have been able see to them from both sides. Sometimes the description of a dress would mention details that we couldn't actually see because the mannequin was sitting or otherwise turned so that we couldn't see it properly. Most of the dresses were facing forward, some were backwards if that side was particularly beautiful but I would have liked to have had a 360-degree view of every dress. Well-placed mirrors in the catwalk section would have been excellent!

Minor niggles, but there are a lot of dresses on display in this room, and in that respect it's good value for money, but compared to the first room, the catwalk seemed quite cramped. Some visitors were drawing or taking notes and I had to wait for them to finish before I could get a proper look at the dress. Also, we found ourselves having to switch sides or flick forward and back in the booklet to find each dress's description, they weren't very well aligned. The V&A's Ballgowns exhibition is displayed less creatively, but at least you can walk at least three quarters of the way around the majority of the most spectacular dresses, although due to space some of them are only displayed front-on.

Faults in display aside, the dresses and other outfits on display are beautiful works of art, and the mannequins are colour coded by date so that you can see with a glance at your exhibition booklet when the clothes were made. Most of the clothes have a timeless elegance and even those that have details that mark them out as being 'of' a particular decade look fresh and interesting.

Down the stairs at the other end, and we found ourselves in a room with the wedding dress worn by Princess Marie Chantal of Greece. The wedding dress is impressive (though not my taste) but it is the only thing in the room, so most visitors seemed to walk around it briefly then carry on.

The exhibition concludes with a room in which display cabinets and screens are arranged in a rectangle. Here we can see small pieces of detail work, and videos of techniques used by the couturiers. I was actually quite impressed by this area, and there were a fairly large number of visitors watching the videos and taking notes. The exhibition booklet contains a glossary explaining terms, which was quite useful when in the catwalk area, and it was interesting to see Valentino's unique techniques close-up.

Finally, of course, the gift shop. You know I love a good museum gift shop and I do like the Somerset House book shop, but the Valentino pop-up shop was quite limited. There are some designer scarves and bags for sale as well as the exhibition book, which isn't really about the dresses in the exhibition, being a behind-the-scenes look at the career and workshops of Valentino.

If you are a Valentino fan, or are interested in couture techniques, you'll probably enjoy this exhibition. If you're just interested in looking at pretty dresses, visit if you can, however, you might find it a bit expensive at £12.50 for a full-price ticket, or £9 concessions, especially considering the flaws in the display. Groupon have had a few deals on recently for half price tickets, so it is worth checking there.

While I was at Somerset House, I was also lucky enough to see the Tim Walker: Story Teller exhibition before it closed, which was free (and more fun...shh!). Make sure you find out what other displays and exhibitions are on if you plan to visit, so that you can get the most out of your time.

Valentino: Master of Couture opened on the 29th November 2012 and will close on the 3rd March 2013.

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