A note on the Valentino: Master of Couture exhibition at Somerset House

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I’m a huge Valentino fan and thought it really couldn’t get any better than spending an afternoon gazing at some of his most beautiful gowns. And it couldn’t. Could it?

Well the exhibition was quite small. Not tiny but not plentiful either. On the plus side it wasn’t very busy – there’s almost nothing more horrible than trying to peruse this month’s hot exhibition and finding yourself fighting your way though people, babies and bad smells.

The exhibition started with a small room which had letters to and from Valentino and things he had written himself. There were letters from Jackie O and a very pregnant Meryl Streep which were quite exciting.

When I saw a handwritten letter from Jackie O on her Fifth Avenue headed paper every bone in my body wanted to sneak a photograph. But photos were contraband and there were spies everywhere ready to pounce if you attempted to take one.

The wardens really did overdo it a little – you felt like a criminal just being there. Just being alive and in their space. Apparently you weren’t even allowed to touch the glass the letters were behind. My mother leaned forward for one moment to try to read some tiny writing on a letter and was told “please don’t do that”.

“What did you do?” I asked her, knowing my little mum certainly hadn’t snuck out an iphone to grab an illegal photo. She barely knows how to take a photo with it when it’s allowed, let alone subtly and sneakily.

“Lean on the glass I think” she replied slightly confused.

We had a look through all the letters and other paraphernalia but there’s only so much tiny writing you can read standing up while not leaning on the glass. Particularly as some of the handwritten stuff was bordering on illegible.

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We then went upstairs into a catwalk-esque room where over 130 of Valentino’s haute couture gowns from the 1950’s to the present day were lined up on either side on mannequins.

The mannequins all had blonde wigs and slightly strange sixties hairstyles which I thought detracted from the elegance of the dresses a bit (except for some of the weirder ones from the 60’s and 70’s) and from what I heard from the other visitors I wasn’t the only one who thought the wigs were a bit odd.

But the dresses were there. And there in their full glory.

People were clearly in a pickle about the best way to confront the situation. Should you walk down the catwalk and try to look at both sides equally or should you go down one side taking in those dresses then back round and down the other side?

I thought the latter required more effort and just walked down the middle trying to look on both sides at the same time. Which was tricky and made the numbers in the little booklet we had received on entering rather complicated as it threw them all out of wack.

Among the dresses were plush white chairs, which I can only assume were from his fashion shows or supposed to be as they had names of celebrities ranging from Penelope Cruz, to Jackie O, to HRH Princesse Grace of Monaco on them.

This made me feel sad. Sad that I had not married a President or a Crown Prince just so I could wear theses dresses and occasionally go to these fashion shows.

I left mourning the fact that I would probably never get to wear one. And thought that a trip to the Valentino shop in Bicester Village was almost equally satisfying –  there I could touch and even try on the clothes. But I’d obviously then have to look in horror at the price tag and leave straightaway.

Apparently either way I leave feeling blue.

Downstairs again we had a quick look at the wedding dress of Princess Marie Chantal of Greece, which had been hand sewn.

It was very similar to Grace Kelly’s and now Kate Middleton’s Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen dress in that it was predominantly lace on the upper body, had long sleeves and the same shape skirt.

It was very intricate and beautiful but I couldn’t help feeling it had come late to the party since the other two dresses that are just like it have both already been exhibited. Grace Kelly’s at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Kate Middleton’s at Buckingham Palace.

There was then a small screening room (which had no seats so people were sitting on the floor) which was showing a slightly odd film that felt like a video game going between lots of the dresses and occasionally people who had worn them like Julia Roberts, Anne Hathaway and Natalia Vodianova. It also had an interview with Valentino’s partner whose accent was so strong I could barely understand him.

On the way out there were a few more video installations showing Valentino’s seamstresses doing complicated techniques from some of his more unusual designs. Some people were pouring over these videos with the utmost fascination. Maybe they’re designers or tailors. I, on the other hand, couldn’t be bothered to push people out of the way to have a look and just carried on towards to the gift shop.

The gift shop is where I always excel at an exhibition. It’s the bit I secretly look forward to when I’m reading tiny letters from one famous person to another behind bits of glass. Or pushing my way forward to see a dress and then discovering that the person before me has left a very pungent smell.

I was hoping there would be the coffee table book of all coffee table books on Valentino to take home with me. No one makes more beautiful dresses. And page after page of them on one glamourous and elegant woman after another would be almost hypnotic.

But no. there were tote bags for £350. And one small book of Valentino’s own home photographs that really weren’t that great. Even I didn’t buy it.

So we headed to the coffee shop for tea and wheat free cake. Of which they had two kinds. Well done Somerset House.

Valentino: Master of Couture is on at the Embankment Galleries, Somerset House until 3 March 2013

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