John Galliano’s Elvira evening dress


John Galliano’s Elvira evening dress was one of the final garments to appear on the catwalk of the 2003 autumn-winter ready-to-wear collection that was described by fashion critic Sarah Mower as ‘fetish queens in Kabuki face paint, going crazy in multicolour Asian-slash-18th-century clothes’. Galliano summarised the collection as a combination of hard-core romance and Sex Robots. This collection was developed following Galliano’s three-week trip to China and Japan in late 2002 and trumpets his vivid imagination and signals the eclectic approach to design that has become his signature.

In the world of contemporary fashion John Galliano is the most renowned enthusiast of design sampling (the mixing of diverse sources in one work). He was appointed designer-in-chief at the House of Christian Dior in 1996, where his seasonal collections have frequently combined a number of seemingly disparate themes with the traditionally glamorous styling of Dior. His first collection juxtaposed Edwardian silhouettes and Dior’s 1947 New Look with the striking indigenous clothing of Masai warriors. His subsequent collections continue to compound historical and cultural quotations and motifs that often result in designs of extreme proportions, coupled with precise and inventive tailoring.

Elvira evening dress pairs images of fish from Chinese kites with a chunky black-on-white chevron pattern that becomes a parody of comic-book glamour. Curves and dashes in devoré velvet mimic a Chinese character and the exaggerated collar, composed of horizontal planes with vertical sides, can sit on the shoulders like a box or be pushed down and positioned asymmetrically to form a strong diagonal line that dominates the curved silhouette. An additional drape at the right hip falls to a blunt horizontal line, creating a second diagonal element. The shiny synthetic pile of the wide black collar and vertical side panel stresses the dress’s artificial and fetishistic qualities — as did the red latex gloves that were worn with the dress for the runway presentation. Galliano has combined these diverse features into a stylish and unforgettable garment.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s Elvira evening dress was originally purchased by Mrs Bobbie Irvine (1932–2004). Thirteen times world professional dancing champion, she received an MBE in 1967 for services to ballroom dancing. Bobbie Irvine was highly influential within the ballroom dancing milieu and her aspiration to dress as well as she danced established a legacy for ballroom dancers worldwide. She wore this dress in 2003 to adjudicate the International Ballroom Dancing Championships held annually at the Royal Albert Hall, London.

This gown enhances the Gallery’s holdings of works by Galliano for the House of Christian Dior, one of the most significant partnerships of designer and traditional fashion house in contemporary fashion.

Paola Di Trocchio, Assistant Curator, International Fashion and Textiles, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2006).