Where better to see the gowns worn by the queen, her sister and Princess Diana, than the elegant surrounds of Kensington Palace. A stone’s throw from the high street and set in glorious gardens, the palace itself is perhaps an overlooked treasure, and for history and art enthusiasts well worth a visit in and of itself. But on the rain soaked morning I visited, it was for the Fashion Rules exhibition; a modest but engaging display revealing some of the secrets of the royal wardrobe.
Billed as “a nostalgic glance back at recent decades”, it is essentially all about gawping at the dresses; the glorious, glamorous gowns worn to great events of state by royalty and now probably forgotten by those very same individual. It’s perhaps the best and worst kind of window shopping; the gowns are fabulous, but also forever off-limits. Still, it’s always fun to imagine oneself in a turret wearing a tiara.
And some of the gowns are truly breathtaking; startling in their detail and beauty. As you enter you cannot but stare at an evening gown from 1963, a Norman Hartnell number that the queen wore to visit the New Zealand parliament. The oyster coloured duchess silk, the beading, the elegance of the cut, and perhaps most of all, the tiny waist; it really is something to behold.
Of course, it’s one of many. There’s a gorgeous grey silk satin gown from 1958, worn at an event at the German Embassy, with detailed beading and embroidery. Other dresses from the early decades of the queen’s rule remind of how long she has been on the throne; spectacular as they are, these formal, unwieldy dresses seem like something from a fairy-tale, not relatively recent history.
And there’s a subtle reminder that while the queen was very much constrained by the fashion rules of the time – much like the Duchess of Cambridge today, one might say – the pressure on Princess Margaret was much less. She was an earlier adoptee of full skirts, as the exhibition shows, and was not expected necessarily to wear only British designers. Still, she was not short on glamour; a 1951 cream evening dress – this too with an unbelievably tiny waist – makes her impeccable taste clear.
We go from the fussy glamour of the 1950s to the more outré looks of the following decades; the clothes less magical, but still undoubtedly much-considered choices. And while the royals could only stand on the edge of the Swinging Sixties styles, they could still embrace the new trends, as you see with a military coat worn by Princess Margaret, or a more streamlined evening dress from 1972, when nipped in waists and full skirts were but a distant memory.
A few rooms in, you move on to the fashions of Princess Di; rather less novel, given the endless column inches that were dedicated to her wardrobe choices in her lifetime. It’s all big shoulders, angles, bows and sequins; mainly serving to remind you how much styles have moved on since.
There are only three rooms – presumably royal dresses are tough to get one’s hands on – which the curator makes up for by adding a potted fashion history and reflecting on the style influences of each decade. We are reminded of the journey from the 1950s, when rationing ending and woman across Britain were apparently inspired by their beautiful and fashionable new queen, to the 1980s: the era of yuppies, ‘Dynasty Di’ and the New Romantics. And the transformation is well illustrated by the series of magazine covers on display; Harper’s and Vogue for the 1950s, with cover girls dressed to the nines in capes, scarves, hats and all the accoutrements you would expect, a far cry from the big haired, dark eyebrowed models in later years.
It’s a snapshot exhibition, worth visiting as part of a wider day out in the area, but certainly entertaining. And these days, as we (or at least our fixated media) obsess over Kate’s clothing choices, and retailers sell out of anything she wears within minutes, it’s a nice reminder that royal women have always had to think about their wardrobe.
Fashion Rules at Kensington Palace is open until summer 2015. Tickets are included in Kensington Palace admission.