The much-trumpeted Valentino exhibition draws to a close this weekend. Armed with the mantra "better late than never", I headed down to Somerset House yesterday morning to check out the scene with a new friend from my course also keen to see what was going down. Valentino is a living fashion legend, whose bridging of couture and ready-to-wear has set a precedent in glamour. Working over six decades, he has dressed the most glittering of A list stars right from the earliest living memories of Hollywood as we know it today.
We're going to see much more of Valentino in the near future, and this blockbuster is part of the branding to cement him as a household name. In 2012, the Qatar royal family bought the brand; appazza they want to turn the brand into the "Italian Chanel". Yeah, I know. No big ask, right? This blockbuster is just a part of that branding exercise. Valentino retured from designing in 2008, but the cult of his personality is an obvious thing to play on.
Starting out with key letters, photos, show invites and sketches, the first room covered the designer's personal life. There was notes from Jackie O, Meryl Streep, and in surprisingly large handwriting, Anna Wintour. A bizarre photo Christmas card from Princes Charles, William and Harry; snapshots of the designer with his beloved pugs, who feature in the exhibition's promo image, alongside the iconic red dresses. Valentino was a man who loves life, and his tenure at the house, which ended in 2008, was all about dressing the jet set. He himself lives the archetypal extravagant life, al yachts and art collecting. It is made profitable by his savvy business partner Giancarlo Giametti, whose foxlike work behind the scenes ensured the party always pays for itself.
In the upper gallery, couture gowns were arranged in aesthetic order not chronologically, meaning we played a kind of guessing game matching the designs to the era they came from. Some designs were great, elegant and beautifully crafted; others just seemed an exercise in opulence, too garish to really merit the word stylish. But then, when your day job is dressing the world's richest people, there's going to be a bit of bling overload along the way.
It's pretty clear, too, what the meaning of "glamour" is - all these bejewelled dresses reminded me of gilded cages in a way. Traditionally, the role of women is to sit around and look pretty. The eternal femme is one who sits around oozing sensuality, usually dripping with jewels and beautiful dresses as a kind of symbol of wealth and prowess. Couture serves that purpose; clothing of breathtaking craftsmanship that have been worked on by an army of invisible workers to adorn the body of one beautiful woman. It's a passive take on femininity; the power of allure, the power of beauty. Right from the courtesans of old, this has been a defining feature of female "power" in the oldest sense.
So, what of Valentino? He is clearly "drawn to" or "inspired by" this traditional kind of womanly grace, and what of it? Fair play to him. He has made a lot of women happy along the way. As the exhibition suggests, he is a master of his craft. In the final part of the exhibition, Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece’s pearl-encrusted ivory silk wedding gown which the New York socialite wore to marry Crown Prince Pavlos of Greece in 1995 made Sarah Burton's effort for The Duchess of Cambridge look minimalist. A room displaying some couture techniques used in his atelier was fascinating. Such workmanship is an art form we should treasure. That I'm sure of.
The past half-century has seen the development of female identity in lots of different ways, and the role of the gay male designer is an interesting one. There is an accepted link between overtly camp male fashion designer and women's clothes. From Unkle Karl to your gay best friend, these people are supposed to know these things, right? What does this say? I wonder if women trust a gay man more than they do a woman as to what works on a female body. There is this idea that this is a man who understands women better then they do themselves.
This is where I think a gap opens between real women and idealised womanhood. With all due respect, some of the Valentino gowns looked trannyish. Is the idea of womanhood in a gay man's mind really all that relevant to women? Is it what "true" womanhood looks like, or an exaggerated costume for a role that we put on? Judith Butler said something along the lines of, "gender is a script which the actors have come to believe". Do we care? It all looks frankly fabulous.