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Fashioning a Reign

Fashioning a Reign

Most of us will amass a fairly substantial collection of outfits over the years, but perhaps none quite like that of a monarch. ‘Fashioning a Reign’, an exhibition at Buckingham Palace to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday, displays only a small selection of clothes from her time on the throne, but it’s enough to give a taste of what a royal wardrobe entails.

EMBARGOED UNTIL 00:01 BST FRIDAY, 22 JULY 2016 A display of dresses from Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen's Wardrobe on show at Buckingham Palace. Images for use only in connection with the exhibition Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen's Wardrobe at the Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace, 23 July - 2 October 2016. Images must not be archived or sold-on. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016. Single use only; not to be archived or passed on to third parties.

The exhibition is part of the annual summer opening of Buckingham Palace, so to get there, you first must wander its labyrinthine halls and dodge the crowds gawping at the ornate décor. As a major landmark on the tourist trail, you’ll need to book ahead and be prepared for it to be busy – stopping to take in the fashion in your own time is simply not an option.

Despite this, it’s a must-see for anyone with an interest in history (either of the royals, or of fashion more generally). Naturally, you start with Elizabeth’s christening gown – first used in 1841 and donned by myriad royal babies since – and the beautifully crafted dresses she and Margaret wore to their father’s coronation. But it is only with the first Sir Norman Hartnell item, a simple black silk and velvet dress from 1948, when the future Queen was just 22, that the glamour begins.

EMBARGOED UNTIL 00:01 BST FRIDAY, 22 JULY 2016 A display of The Queen's hats from Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen's Wardrobe at Buckingham Palace. Images for use only in connection with the exhibition Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen's Wardrobe at the Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace, 23 July - 2 October 2016. Images must not be archived or sold-on. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016. Single use only; not to be archived or passed on to third parties.

The rest of the exhibition is a whirlwind of silk and satin in every colour imaginable, eye-popping diamante and beading, and exquisite lace and chiffon creations. Ballgowns jostle for space with prim suits, party dresses and military garb; there are dozens of jackets and coats and plenty of accessories to boot. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of hats, a selection from the 11 official milliners the Queen has had in her reign. The exhibition is dotted with other memorabilia, including the duplicate of a silicon disk placed on the moon by Neil Armstrong – but in truth, it’s the clothes that are the main draw.

The designers’ names are familiar; Sir Norman and Hardy Aimes most of all. My runaway favourite was an evening dress from 1961 designed by the former, worn to a royal performance of West Side Story. A classic gown with a pinched-in waist, made from gold lace and lame, with pearls, sequins, diamante and metal thread, it is so resplendent perhaps only a queen could pull it off. Sir Norman, who received a Royal Warrant in the 1950s and was for years the Queen’s couturier, is well remembered for his elegant, feminine designs. The creations of his included in the exhibition don’t disappoint, from a green and while summer frock you can imagine perfectly suiting a garden party, to the royal blue structured coat the Queen wore to Princess Anne’s wedding.

EMBARGOED UNTIL 00:01 BST FRIDAY, 22 JULY 2016 A display of dresses from Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen's Wardrobe on display at Buckingham Palace. Images for use only in connection with the exhibition Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen's Wardrobe at the Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace, 23 July - 2 October 2016. Images must not be archived or sold-on. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016. Single use only; not to be archived or passed on to third parties.

Moving through the ages, you get a glimpse of the Queen as an elegant princess and solemn young monarch, and see her transition from this to smartly-dressed mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. Although never a victim of fashion, her wardrobe naturally reflected the styles of the times; a plum-coloured Hardy Aimes suit from the 1980s screams power-dressing; the silhouetted gowns worn to state events early in her reign bring to mind the perfectly coiffed women of Mad Men. And there is plenty to remind you that being Queen is not all pretty frocks and tiaras: one look at the heavy gowns used for formal ceremony and you realise just how uncomfortable power can be. Likewise, the drab woollen Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform may not look fit for a princess, but it was worn by Elizabeth when she was one and became the first female royal to join the forces.

There are some star exhibits, perhaps not least the pink Angela Kelly dress she wore for that James Bond stunt during the Olympic opening ceremony. There’s also her wedding dress, resplendent in its own glass case next to a screen showing a photograph of Elizabeth, young and vibrant, on her wedding day. But the less ‘famous’ dresses – the ones designed for state banquets, meetings with dignitaries and foreign tours – are just as sumptuous, and so diplomatic too: demure black lace for a visit to the Vatican, long sleeved yellow chiffon for a Middle Eastern trip.

EMBARGOED UNTIL 00:01 BST FRIDAY, 22 JULY 2016 Crystal and lace peach beaded cocktail dress by Angela Kelly. The dress and headpiece were worn by The Queen when she appeared in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics with James Bond. Images for use only in connection with the exhibition Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen's Wardrobe at the Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace, 23 July - 2 October 2016. Images must not be archived or sold-on. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016. Single use only; not to be archived or passed on to third parties.

As exhibitions go, this is as light and fluffy as candyfloss. But the clothes are gorgeous, mesmerisingly so, and it’s wonderful fun to play imaginary dress-up; would you have worn this if you were a royal? Most of all, these eye-catching but unshowy outfits are a reminder of a time when dressing meant dressing up and dressing well.

‘Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen’s Wardrobe’, Buckingham Palace until 2nd October. Tickets £21.50.