In 2001, Julia Roberts picked up her Oscar for Best Actress for the movie Erin Brockovich wearing a black and white vintage Valentino Haute Couture gown, originally worn by Christy Turlington for Harper’s Bazaar in 1992. In 1968 Jackie Kennedy wed Aristotle Onassis in a Valentino dress from his iconic White Collection, while four years previously she had ordered six black pieces to mark her mourning for JFK.
Each Valentino dress tells a story, representative of an era and the beautiful and inspiring women who wore them, from Princess Diana and Elizabeth Taylor, to Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. And today a number of key Valentino dresses, jackets and cocktail dresses, spanning the past sixty years, have been collected together to go on show at Somerset House. Housing 130 garments, the exhibition reveals the elaborate (and notoriously secret) techniques adopted by Valentino, such as the intricate roses bound, stitched and twirled onto gowns, ornamental and recurring motifs devised by Italian seamstresses known as the Regazze girls. Another technique is budellini, where long strips of sheep’s wool are hand rolled into tubes, wrapped with silk and stitched together. “It is ironic that it is called couture, which means 'seam', when in most of Valentino's work, the seams are concealed,” explains curator Alistair O’Neil. From Marie Chantal of Greece’s wedding dress, constructed from 10 different kinds of lace and noted as “a symbol of the ultimate couture dress”, to a pink organza cape usually held in the Louvre, pivotal moments in fashion and history are caught within the fold of a georgette silk or the voluminous frill of chiffon ruffle.
"Pivotal moments in fashion and history are caught within the fold of a georgette silk or the voluminous frill of chiffon ruffle"
Combined with original sketches and personal photographs, the exhibition is a demonstration of the intimacy of the Valentino family, built from a close-knit group of ateliers who have worked within the house for over thirty years. The exhibition chronicles Valentino from his early days as a young Italian designer backed by his father, to launching Paris couture in 1989 and being presented with the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur by the French president Jaques Chirac in 2006, recognizing his contribution to fashion for nearly half a century.
“It is also impressive to note that Valentino’s breakthrough came in an era of psychedelia and flower power,” notes O’Neil. His works of grandeur and sophistication were a far cry from the youth-quake occurring around him. It is clear that Valentino did not follow fashion trends, he followed his instinct. As Valentino himself said, “I am like a freight train. Working on the details, twisting them and playing with them over the years, but always staying on the same track.”
Valentino: Master of Couture is at Somerset House until 3 March 2013.
Text by Mhairi Graham