My boyfriend has recently become the Head Marketing Campaigner for Slowness. Recent dispatches on the subject have extolled the virtues of both eating and – more controversially – reading slowly. I would however like to add my own suggestion to the list of Things Best Done Slowly, and that is the Valentino exhibition, which has just opened at Somerset House.
Go around it slowly. Perhaps not quite as slowly as, to borrow a phrase from comedian Mark Evans, a sloth on laudanum, but slowly nonetheless. The main bulk of the exhibition is in the catwalk room, in which 137 dresses from the 1950s to present day all vie for attention as they line up down a long a room set up to recreate a couture presentation.
With dresses on both sides of the aisle and the slightly pressing movement of the other gallery-goers, the temptation to walk too quickly through this room without really taking in the individual beauty of the gowns is certainly there. However, I fully recommend annoying all other visitors by positively dawdling. For this is a show dedicated not only to the exquisite beauty of the garments, but also the skilled handiwork of the couturiers who create them, and this takes as much time to appreciate as it does to make them.
First impressions of the room are of sensory overload. Similar to when I walk into Zara and immediately think: ‘I want everything!’ and only gradually begin to whittle it down according to shape, colour etc. Out of the 137, my post-whittled list came to include a modest nine. This, of course included my Achilles heel – black velvet and several dresses that extolled my maxim: backs are more sexy than cleavage. A whole section of predominantly cream creations with inevitable bridal connections also deserve special mention for making me swoon Victorian-style as my head filled with music box fantasies of dashing Darcys and invites to debutant balls.
The Valentino of very recent years with its distinctive aesthetic of high necklines and careful mixture of pretty primness with sexy womanliness, is almost entirely absent from this show, as the focus is on the original founder of the brand and not its recent success at the hands of Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri. However, all of the key features they have inherited are on display. So we get endless beautiful pleats, soft furs, layers of lace and fluffy ruffles – all the sugarplum components of feminine fantasies and yet, as with the brand’s current incarnation, the sweetness always stays away from being cloying and the finished dress always looks more beautiful than pretty.
If you do have time after slowly sucking up the display, another thing worth a gawp at are the visitors themselves, for I have never seen a more attractive group of gallery visitors. Aside from a generous splattering of Chanel, YSL and Louboutin, I also ended up walking behind a woman in a fur coat good enough to have been in the exhibition itself. A white princess-style body with an oversized deep brown hood, it was only really overshadowed by The Wedding Dress. I will try not to spoil this for anyone attending, but suffice to say that the audible gasps of ‘Oh Wow!’ didn’t come close to expressing how magnificent the train on the tiny Greek princess’s dress is. The special Slowly Does it Mention can definitely go to the butterflies embroidered into the lace – beauty is rarely this simple.
So firstly take a visit to Somerset House and then make sure you take your sweet time about it.