Fashion queens and royal scenes at Kensington Palace

The most important ‘rule’ in the sovereign guidebook to fashion is reconciling the conventions of fashion with the principles of royalty. The exhibition showcases the dresses of three royal ladies: the Queen, her sister Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana. Despite the uniting thread of royalty, the three led very different regal lives and the exhibition reflects this in the way it has been curated.

There are three separate sections of the exhibition, each one a distinctive era. In the first, Elizabeth II’s diplomatic dresses are showcased against a background of post-war fifties optimism, whereas in the second, Margaret’s more glamorous costumes are stitched in front of the swinging sixties, and lastly in the third, Diana’s bold styles are modelled amidst the extravagant eighties.

The transition from austerity to affluence, epitomised by the ending of clothes rationing in 1949, led to the contemporary self-perception, and historical reputation, of the fifties being a decidedly more fun and exciting decade than its predecessor. The Queen’s clothes from this era however tell a subtly different story. Admittedly the beautiful and bejewelled collection does portray an instantaneous tale of glamour, but it is the duties of royalty, not the jewels, that sparkle most brightly.

The Queen was a powerful patron to British Fashion designers. Although her dresses’ ultra-feminine shape of nipped-in waistlines and exaggerated full skirts were in keeping with Dior’s ‘New Look’, the Queen nonetheless endorsed British designers. These included Norman Hartnell, Edwin Hardy Amies and Ian Thomas. The elaborate beading was often conceived of as being a characteristic showcasing of both British talent and taste.

Princess Diana also endorsed British designers such as Bruce Oldfield and Catherine Walker. Indeed Diana even popularised them on a paradoxically international scale so that she has subsequently been heralded as responsible for revitalising the fading British Fashion Industry.

The intricate details of Princess Margaret’s dresses however had been stitched not by duty, but by Dior’s chief designer; Marc Bohan. Bohan created his dresses for the glamorous crossover world of Hollywood stars, politicians, and royalty, such as Princess Grace of Monaco, formerly the actress Grace Kelly, Brigitte Bardot and Jackie Kennedy. Princess Margaret’s dresses show more freedom that Elizabeth II’s and Diana’s as they are less duty bound and more aesthetically loud.  

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Margaret’s dresses evoke a regal theatrically, an almost mythical romanticism, devoid from the other clothing at the exhibition. Because she was under little obligation to patronise British designers, Margaret cultivated a ‘hippy’ image which was in keeping with the 1970s counter culture.

Margaret had also married into fashion royalty rather the monarchical kind. In 1960 she wed Anthony Armstrong-Jones, a renowned fashion photographer. In this decade Margaret was an embodiment of the swinging sixties and donned shorter skirts, slim-lined dresses and the bright and bold colours of Mary Quant’s ‘Chelsea Set’. She was also dubbed a ‘royal rebel’ because images of her smoking dressed in risqué halter neck dresses scandalised the national press.

Taking the three different sections of the exhibition together, it appears that Princess Margaret’s clothing has an edge of Hollywood glamour that made her dresses appear more as costumes of, rather than the reality of, royalty. This is understandably in relation to the different regal positioning of Margaret, as the Queen’s sister, to Her Majesty the Queen, and Diana, married to Prince Charles.

However, when perusing an exhibition, it is always worth thinking about what is not in the display cabinets, but safely under lock and key in the archives. Museum exhibitions provide only partial histories. Because the exhibition was held at Kensington Palace, where the Queen and Prince Philip had spent time together as newlyweds, and where both Princess Margaret and Princess Diana had started their families, an emphasis is given to the ‘Royal Family’.

The exhibition was a presentation of the stability of the Royal Family. The lacunae of the exhibition are notable. Little mention was made of Margaret’s inability to marry Peter Townsend, the comptroller of her mother’s household, because of a Church of England ruling. Rather, the decade of the swinging sixties was emphasised in both her clothing and eventual marriage to an artist of this era. Similarly, the ‘revenge dress’ of Diana’s was absent because the exhibition extended little beyond her marriage. This was the infamous little black dress that attracted overwhelming international attention because Diana wore it the same day her husband, Prince Charles, admitted his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles.

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Fashion Rules tells the intriguing narrative of the Royal Family. It is particularly interesting to draw the distinctions between the three different royal ladies and moreover, to see how in this exhibition, both they and their clothes have been used as insignia of their eras. For me, what was most fascinating was to revisit the historical character of Princess Margaret and use her wardrobe as the entrance to the world of a more mythically romantic royal milieu.

Fashion Rules is open now at Kensington Palace until Summer 2015