A trip to beautiful Kensington Palace is always a massive high point of the year for me as I love visiting it so much. It’s just such a beautiful old building and so full of fascinating history – I can’t resist it! Last week’s visit was especially amazing as it was to attend the press view of the brand new Fashion Rules display, which showcases outfits and accessories worn by the Queen and the late Princess Margaret and Princess Diana, all of whom resided within the palace at some point and have themselves become part of its immensely rich, occasionally scandalous and always interesting history. The exhibition promises to ‘take visitors even further into the wardrobes… expanding our glimpse into the era-defining style choices of these three royal women. From the ‘New Look’ glamour of Princess Margaret in the 1950s, the elegance of HM The Queen in the 1970s, and the tailored drama of outfits created for Diana, Princess of Wales in the early 1990s, the display will continue to explore how these women navigated the fashion ‘rules’ defined by their royal duties in unique style.’
The previous Fashion Rules display was absolutely amazing – a really sumptuous treat for the eyes that showcased some truly superb evening gowns worn by the three royal ladies over the decades including some amazing Hartnell dresses worn in the fifties by the Queen and her sister and some spectacular eighties evening gowns worn by Princess Diana. The latest updated display is no less wonderful and is perhaps even better as this time the gorgeous clothes are accompanied by a display of wonderfully beautiful original designs by the likes of Norman Hartnell, complete with notations about possibly jewellery accompaniments, notes by the Queen herself and swatches of fabric – a bit like a MUCH more upmarket version of the old Next catalogues ( remember them?) but much better, obviously.
If you’re anything like me then you’ll be making a bee line directly for Princess Margaret’s gorgeous couture outfits and super stylish accessories. She REALLY knew how to dress and as the Queen’s younger sister and therefore not expected to only patronise British designers she was free to indulge her passion for fashion with gorgeous dresses from the likes of Dior and Yves Saint Laurent. She was one of the very first to embrace Dior’s New Look style, which was an antidote to the frugal style deemed necessary during the war when fabric was strictly rationed and silhouettes therefore became necessarily more slim line and unfussy. Princess Margaret, who bore more than a passing resemblance to screen queen Elizabeth Taylor, had just the right sort of figure to carry off this new look and her clothes from this time are masterpieces of vintage glamour – from a Hartnell evening dress of pink silk covered in black lace, which she wore to the Coliseum in 1953 to a stunningly romantic Dior white silk chiffon dress and jacket ensemble worn by the princess in 1952. So beautiful.
Also on display is a dress that generated a little ripple of controversy when I included it in my Facebook page’s ‘advent calendar’ of gorgeous royal outfits last year. It’s a beautiful blue silk organza cocktail dress and jacket designed by Jean Dessès in 1951 and worn by the princess to Royal Ascot before being subsequently donated by her to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. A couple of commenters on my Facebook page were pretty adamant that the Victoria and Albert Museum’s provenance was totally wrong and that Margaret had never worn the dress so I was pretty pleased to find it on show in the exhibition along with a photograph of the princess wearing the outfit. Always nice to be completely vindicated!
Best of all though was an astonishing candy striped evening dress made for Princess Margaret in 1949 by Norman Hartnell, using a really quite extraordinary amount of material for the time and showing definite signs of New Look influence with its nipped in waist, neat lines and voluminous skirts which very definitely make the most of the recent relaxation of clothes rationing after the end of WWII. It’s a really lovely piece and shows off just what a bold and adventurous trend setter the princess was.
As might be expected, the dresses worn by the Queen are rather more formal and less flamboyant in style with more of an emphasis on solid blocks of bright colour so that Her Majesty can be seen from a distance or from the back of a crowd. Unlike her sister, Queen Elizabeth is expected to exclusively patronise British designers and her style is necessarily more conservative although I often think that she is quite adventurous in her own way – especially when it comes to her choice of colour. The Queen has been blessed with the most beautiful, clear complexion (possibly inherited from her mother?) which means that she can carry off all sorts of bold hues that most of the rest of us can only look at longingly. For instance, yellow is a notoriously unforgiving shade that is really difficult to pull off but the Queen always looks incredible in it.
The other difference between the clothes worn by the two royal sisters is that whereas Princess Margaret’s wardrobe was clearly designed for fun, that of her sister has an altogether more serious purpose and is intended to convey an altogether different ambience of regal elegance. Not that the Queen doesn’t sometimes have fun with her fashion choices but the overall effect is rather more grown up. I’ve said several times on here that in my view, the Queen is one of the best dressed women on the planet as she always looks absolutely right for every situation that she finds herself in and totally nails the whole ladylike thing of occasion appropriate dressing. The clothes that she wears on official state visits are particularly impressive examples of this as the Queen has to dress in a way that emphasises her own rank while at the same time paying tribute to the host nation and respecting their customs – all without looking like she’s wearing fancy dress.
Fashion Rules has some great examples of the Queen’s diplomatic dressing on display, including the rather iconic cream satin Hardy Amiss dress that she wore on a state visit to France in 1972 and also chose to wear in the official photographs taken to commemorate her Silver Jubilee in 1977, which means that it’s the dress associated with the imagery for ‘God save the Queen’ by the Sex Pistols. My absolute hands down favourite though is a gorgeously elegant and flowing 1979 evening gown by Hardy Amies in a rich peachy orange spangled with gold. It’s FABULOUS and I would LOVE one of my very own, perhaps in a more mermaid colour way though? I expressed my admiration to the curators at the event and heard that apparently there IS a pale blue version as well as a yellow one too so it’s clearly one of Her Majesty’s favourites as well and rightly so as it’s amazing.
Now, this is possibly a bit of a controversial point of view but I am not a huge fan of quite a lot of Princess Diana’s clothes as I don’t really find eighties style all that flattering and think that she dressed in a way that was way too old for her age, which is a pity as she was so pretty. On the other hand, the whole Sloane Ranger look of the early eighties always looks pretty matronly to modern eyes so I don’t think we can entirely blame her royal position for this but rather the style of the times. She would have looked amazing in the sort of clothes that the Duchess of Cambridge wears nowadays, which usually strike just the right balance between fresh up to dateness and discreet elegance with a touch of glitz in the evenings.
Having said all that though, some of Princess Diana’s evening dresses were pretty amazing and there are some cracking examples on display at Kensington Palace now, including a gorgeous white satin and lace dress by Bruce Oldfield, which the princess wore to the Courtauld in 1990, an amazing Catherine Walker black velvet and tartan dress worn by the princess to balls at Balmoral Castle and the famous bottle green velvet ‘smoking jacket’ dress familiar from some of Mario Testino’s iconic1997 photographs of Diana before her death.
It’s a seriously stunning display, complimented by the gorgeous designs on the walls (which are works of art in their own right) and rolling video footage of the royal ladies wearing their fabulous clothes. Any fan of royal fashion will absolutely adore this and I can’t, to be honest, think of a more perfect way to spend a lazy afternoon than wandering around this incredible collection. I do hope that there will be more changes to come – having been inside the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, where the royal clothes are housed, on a couple of occasions, I know that there is an absolute WEALTH of gorgeous and glamorous clothes tucked away and can’t wait to see more on public display! Perhaps one day we might even get to see some of the Duchess of Cambridge’s beautiful evening gowns up close – although that may not be for quite some time!
Fashion Rules: Restyled is on display at Kensington Palace and is included in normal admission prices to the site. If you can’t make it in person then there’s an incredible new Historic Royal Palaces book Modern Royal Fashion: Seven Royal Women and Their Style
which charts royal fashion from the always super style conscious Princess Alexandra down through the decades to the Duchess of Cambridge and which features lots of lovely photos of the ladies in question and their clothes! I was lucky enough to be sent a copy by the HRP press team and definitely recommend it!
I don’t have adverts or anything like that on my blog and rely on book sales to keep it all going and help pay for the cool stuff that I feature on here so I’d like to say THANK YOU SO MUCH to everyone who buys even just one copy because you are helping keeping this blog alive and supporting a starving author while I churn out more books about posh doom and woe in the past! Thanks!
As the youngest daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, Marie Antoinette was born into a world of almost unbelievable privilege and power. As wife of Louis XVI of France she was first feted and adored and then universally hated as tales of her dissipated lifestyle and extravagance pulled the already discredited monarchy into a maelstrom of revolution, disaster and tragedy. Marie Antoinette: An Intimate History is now available from Amazon US and Amazon UK
Set against the infamous Jack the Ripper murders of autumn 1888 and based on the author’s own family history, From Whitechapel is a dark and sumptuous tale of bittersweet love, friendship, loss and redemption and is available NOW from Amazon UK, Amazon US and Burning Eye.
‘Frothy, light hearted, gorgeous. The perfect summer read.’ Minette, my young adult novel of 17th century posh doom and intrigue is available from Amazon UK and Amazon US and is CHEAP AS CHIPS as we like to say in dear old Blighty.