Review: Valentino: Master of Couture at Somerset House by Tory Turk

“Congratulations on your 30th anniversary. You have been an inspiration to me growing up and you still are. You are the great maestro.” (Note by Isabella Rossellini on display at Somerset House).

The charming Somerset House venue has been blessed with another show that will bowl you over, and I am not talking about the ice-skating rink. If you aren’t satisfied with the magical Tim Walker, an exhibition you can quite literally find yourself in (it’s free, so no need to do the unexciting ‘paying bit’), then surely Valentino will tantalise your fashion taste buds.  If visiting the work of either of these two very different modern masters leaves you feeling indifferent, then you can of course choose to get cold and injured on the ice…Somerset House is like a cultural theme park.

So if Tim Walker is the master of putting the eccentricity into fashion photography then Valentino is, as Somerset House have quite rightly put it, ‘The Master of Couture.’ In 1959 Valentino Garavani left Paris, and with all its grand influences engrained, opened a fashion house in Rome.  It is during this period that Valentino became known for his red dresses; a reputation that the exhibition does well at shaking-off.
The exhibition display doesn’t fit the 1992 W Magazine headline of ‘It’s all blazing sirens and flashing red lights’. However, one example of a ‘Valentino Red’ design on show is the red tulle evening dress from his Spring/Summer 1959 collection. This was worn by Jennifer Aniston at the 2004 UK  ‘Along Came Polly’ premiere.

Far left - Jackie O's 1968 'White Collection' Wedding Dress

 This brings us neatly to Valentino’s luminary love. The celebs adore him and I’m sure he returns the favour. Jackie Kennedy fell in love with Valentino’s designs 3 years before her marriage to Onassis. It was from Valentino’s 1968 ‘White Collection’ that she chose her wedding dress. Jackie O was one of many important people who insisted that she was protected sartorially, by Valentino, in preparation for the attack of the spotlight.

 From Audrey Hepburn to Julia Roberts to Iman, Valentino reigns supreme. The exhibition celebrates this fabulously. The main section features a long catwalk that stretches down the centre of the arched gallery space, either side a two tier spectator space features 137 couture gowns. Where there is no mannequin there is a seat with a handwritten note card, including the names of the famously stylish women who would frequent his shows. To the left of a beautiful autumnal coloured evening dress, with sequin and chiffon drappeggio   detailing, would sit Elizabeth Taylor, once seated, Gloria Guinness might turn around and admire the wonderful monochrome satin evening dress with jet and rhinestone embellishment. The showcase is magnifico and you definitely get a lot of evening dress for your euro.

1992 1993 Fall Winter HC Black velvet evening dress white ribbons -Worn by Julia Roberts to the 73rd Academy Awards in Los Angeles, 25 March 2001, at which she won Best Actress for Erin Brockovich

If Valentino’s 50-year career was a film it would have an impressive cast, but what must not be ignored is the craftsmanship behind the couture. Taking the glittering lights, celebs and glamour aside what you are left with is unmistakably beautifully handmade garments.  The exhibition is a ‘fashion show’ in its truest form and although there is a playful nod to the shallower side of fashion this could be considered as being cleverly ironic. Really the Italian maestro needs no celebrity endorsement as the anonymous mannequins on display exemplify half a century of fashion at its pinnacle.

Photo credit: Peter Macdiarmid

Tory Turk for FAD

About Tory

Tory Turk is an exhibition curator, specialising in Style and Popular Culture. Past exhibitions include: ‘Mods’ at Northampton Museum; ‘Sneaking into Fashion’ in Covent Garden Piazza, 'Legends of the Martini' at the Royal Academy and 'Moving Mountains at Somerset House. She is Creative Lead of THE HYMAN ARCHIVE, ‘The World’s Largest Private Magazine Collection’.

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