Wednesday 13 February 2013

Valentino: Master of Couture at Somerset House


Last week I visited the Valentino: Master of Couture exhibition at Somerset House (half price ticket offer available on Groupon if anyone is interested!). I really enjoyed the visit and was overall impressed with the way such a large quantity and variety of garments were displayed. The first part of the exhibition was about Valentino's career and included many artefacts from throughout his life. I particularly enjoyed the opportunity to see some of his sketches from the 1960s/70s in this section.

The main bulk of the exhibition is in one long room and is were almost all the garments are on show. There is a lovely neutral tone to the whole exhibition space which I think worked to make the dresses the feature of the room (although it would be hard to detract from them!) and also to give the whole room a feeling of elegance and glamour. I really enjoyed the fact that there was a range of dressing spanning the whole of his long career and that the diversity of his designs was really clear to see from the items chosen. I half expected the exhibits to be displayed in chronological order but they were in fact mixed up and grouped more randomly by colour and style which worked really well in my opinion. Valentino's work has been so varied throughout his entire career it could have been too much of a mishmash in date order! To give you a good a quick indication of the date of each gown the mannequins are colour coded by decade; excellent idea! The curators also used a technique which I have not encountered before to provide attendees with written information about each garment. Each mannequin wore a disk on their wrist with a number which corresponded with a description in the exhibition guide book which is handed out free on arrival. I thought this was BRILLIANT as when exhibitions are quite busy (which this was) it sometimes can be difficult to pause long enough at a point where you can read a placard next to a display. However, as it was so easy to read up on each dress I would have liked a bit more information on each one. The write ups were basically just a visual description of each garment with a date, although some did describe particular techniques used and a couple included who wore them.


I loved the design of having the dresses exhibited as if members of the audience at a catwalk show, with the walkway for the viewers as the central catwalk. It gave the visit a real sense of occasion and I liked the idea of the garments being shown in the environment they originally would have been seen. The hand written name labels on the empty chairs with names of fashion icons and celebrities who have worn Valentino was also a lovely touch.

I did however wish it was possible to see more of the garments. It's difficult to achieve but I always go to fashion and costume exhibitions and wish I could see the back or sides of the dress (as well as the inside construction details but I think I might have to keep dreaming on that one!). The mannequins (which it has to be said didn't always fit the dress particularly well) were arranged in a variety of poses so some of the dresses you could see the back or side of, but then you couldn't see the front. These dresses are so unbelievable you want to see every inch of them because it is clear that careful thought has gone into the design of every inch of every item.

Credit: stylesight blog

This is the main thing that I picked up on during my visit, that I think Valentino's couture style can be described as using and designing every single part of the item. Every neckline, hem, sleeve incorporates and new and unique style or technique. The dart placement, hem length and shape, fastening, decoration, colour - every element of every single dress in that exhibition was completely different from the next. Plus I decided that he REALLY can design a back! The backs of the dresses that you could see were beautifully creative in their construction and decoration, which I think serves to prove his design of every inch further as this is so often a neglected part of design.


This dress in particular grabbed my attention as being beautifully and cleverly designed. I thought of it as a modern twist on a Tudor period dress (funny that it caught the costume girl's attention hey?!) The fabric has a really period feel which I think works beautifully with the style of the fitted bodice and underskirt visible through the open centre front panel of the overskirt which was a popular design feature during this time and also throughout the 18th century. The addition of the sable fur around the armholes is also a genius touch and nod to period details. The unusual neckline, wide decorative and sleeveless design bring it completely up to date in fashion as an evening gown though.

As they were all couture dresses I didn't find a lot of the dresses inspired my own sewing in terms of copying techniques or design (slightly too advanced for me perhaps!) but there were a few things which caught my attention and got the creative juices flowing. In particular there was a very wearable simple cream wool shift dress which had three tiers with a scalloped edge to each tier and the hem. I've seen tutorials online about how to create a scalloped edge and after seeing this dress I may well experiment with this style in future.

Credit: & Getty

The final section of the exhibition had a brilliant installation explaining some of the more unusual couture sewing techniques used in Valentino's designs. As well as a sample and written explanation of each technique there were 'how to' videos about most. You can imagine how fascinating I found this! Some of the techniques just seemed impossible even with a how to video but there were a couple which I might actually like to give a try - only if I've got A LOT of time on my hands though! The one which I really liked the effect of was 'Pieghe Voltate' as pictured above on a Valentino dress worn by Dita Von Teese. It involves folding back the ends of strips of the main fabric (usually silk) to reveal a contrasting facing.

Perhaps Julia Bobbin's Mad Men Dress Challenge No. 2 will provide me with the opportunity to make something a bit special and try something like this out!


  1. Is it ok for me to be a teeny bit jealous? ;-) So glad you had fun at this exhibition...thanks for sharing.

    1. Haha! Of course it is! I'm very lucky to be able to just decide to do these things I know!

  2. Hi Hazel! Thanks so much! I'm so pleased you enjoy reading my blog, it's lovely to know I'm not just waffling on to no-one!
    I'll get my own post about the award and some nominations up soon
    Thanks again!

  3. Wow the exhibition looks amazing, I have been meaning to go and I am extra determined to after reading this!
    I can completely relate to wanting to get to see more of each garment- I felt exactly like that at the Hollywood costume exhibition at the V&A.
    Have you ever been to the costume museum in Bath?- I went during my A-Levels and we were able to book to see some dresses up close so I was able to properly inspect a 1920s flapper dress (with little cotton gloves on of course!)
    Thanks for a lovely post! Ami x

  4. It's well worth a visit Ami!
    I have been to the costume museum in Bath but just for a general look around. I knew they had an archive but didn't realise there was the opportunity to look at things up close! How amazing, I didn't think anywhere offered opportunities like that! (I've ALWAYS wished you could look around the V&A archives!) I'm going off to look into that right now! Thanks for the tip! x


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