Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 - An Interview With David Sassoon

18/07/2013 18:46 | Updated 22 May 2015

ballgowns v and a

What better way to christen the V&A's redesigned fashion gallery than with Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950 - an exhibition of the most spectacular British ballgowns of the last six decades? MyDaily attended the show preview (verdict: both renovation and show were scrumptious) and had the chance to speak to designer David Sassoon, whose work as one half of design duo Bellville Sassoon saw him creating fairytale gowns for the likes of Princess Diana and Audrey Hepburn. Read on to find out his take on the Duchess Kate/Princess Diana style comparisons, why he thinks Victoria Beckham is to be "highly respected" and, of course, why he loves this exhibition...

Is it strange seeing the dresses so static when they're designed to move?

"It's strange seeing them anyway because I haven't seen them for a very long time. I didn't actually remember that one at all [points at a black and gold gown with a train]. I remembered the dress for Princess Anne (image below, far right) because it was the first dress I ever made for her but since then I've made a lot of other dresses including a dress last year for her sixtieth birthday which is in the official pictures."

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"I'm one of the very few designers around to day that's dressed practically every female member of the royal family except the Queen. I made an awful lot of clothes for Princess Diana - more than 70 pieces over the years. She was a joy to dress, particularly with eveningwear.

"I made a very glamorous dress for her to wear here [at the V&A] because they had a wonderful Gonzaga exhibition here. She appeared in this fairytale 1982 ball dress.

"We also do ready-to-wear which is designed by my partner Lorcan Mullany and that sells all over the world. Also we have a licensee in America with Vogue [for dress patterns] and so that is really good for the home dressmakers. In america a lot of girls make their own prom dresses so they buy our pattern and make the dress themselves."

That tradition seems to have all but died out here...

"Yes, it's a great shame. In my generation every home had a sewing machine but it doesn't happen today. Young girls want to go out and buy instant fashion - walk into a store and find a dress off the peg.

"The thing you have to remember about ballgowns is they're very elitest. They're for a very special occasion. They're not in the normal stream of a woman's wardrobe. You have to understand it's for a special occasion - an occasion where you might have a special piece of jewellery you're going to wear with it. It's an exciting thing for a woman to dress up."

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Did you select the three Bellville Sassoon dresses for this show (above)?

"No - the one over there [points at a yellow silk organdie dress] was a gift from Princess Anne to the museum so it was already in their collection - we only gave [the black and gold]. The pink beaded one was a gift [to the museum] - it's very Audrey Hepburn."

You dressed Audrey at one point didn't you?

"We made dresses for her in the sixties. I've dressed a lot of wonderful stars, like Liz Taylor."

Did you have a favourite?

"Audrey Hepburn."

She seems to embody the Bellville Sassoon spirit.

"Yes. I love romantic clothes and love a period feeling about fashion as well. I love the glamour of eveningwear, I have to say."

Which of the other designers in the show are you most excited about seeing?

"I have to say what's very interesting about the exhibition is that it features not just the well known names but the lesser known names who still have a very strong hand with eveningwear. It's nice to see they have a place here. So, although you have names like Alexander McQueen and Galliano and Zandra Rhodes and all the others, there are a lot of little names tucked away - it's wonderful to see them in the same context."

We write a lot about Kate Middleton (now the Duchess of Cambridge) and her style. Given you worked so closely with Diana, do you see any similarities between the two?

"I think the difference is that Kate is much older than Princess Diana at the period she first became well known. You have to remember that Diana was probably 20 - she was 19 when she got married. She was still a young girl feeling her way about clothes while Kate has got that maturity behind her. They belong to two different decades.

"Clothes are much more overtly sexy today. A royal lady can never go quite that far - it always has to be ladylike at the end of the day. Although the skirt may be short it can't be too short, the necklinne can be low but not too low - all those things have to be taken into consideration. There are also set things about royal dressing that you have to adapt to . For instance on a very formal occasion when you wear an order or decoration you have to learn how to incorporate that into the design."

Kate wore a very beautiful teal Jenny Packham dress recently - did you see that?

"Yes! I know Jenny Packham very well and I'm a big fan - lovely clothes."

You've seen a lot of changes within the fashion industry - what do you make of the rise of celebrities as fashion designers?

"Well it's interesting because you don't succeed unless you have a certain talent. I think Victoria Beckham has proved she does have [that]. The clothes that she does do are particularly interesting, I have to say.

"People were very quick to criticise in her early days but in fact she has proven herself. She has obviously got good help behind her and she's got a very strong team because it's not just her sitting and designing all day. She kind of comes in with a mood she will discuss with her team and they will interpret it, but the clothes that she turns out are to be highly respected."

You recently decided to retire from the business - was that hard?

"I have retired but I'm having two retrospectives - one in the Fashion and Textile Museum in Bermondsey and the other in Bath. They have all my archives. [Businesswise], my partner Lorcan Mullany who also helped design [the black and gold] dress over there is carrying on the collection and with our licensee in America."

It must be a joy to go back through your archives.

"Yes! I'm very happy."


Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950, 19 May 2012 - 6 Jan 2013, V&A


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