Fashion Rules: Frocks Fit for a Queen

A couple of weeks ago I wrote this article which was published on LUX Worldwide. To view it, click here.

From the elegance of a 1950s gown to the bold drama of a 1980s dress, Fashion Rules exhibits all the best from the wardrobes of three royal British fashion icons

As London embraces the chill of the season, Fashion Rules, at Kensington Palace, is a great way to get you out of the house and yet stay cosy having fun.

A grey silk organdie evening dress with pink and white floral embroidery worn for a banquet at the Nova Scotia Hotel, Halifax.

A grey silk organdie evening dress with pink and white floral embroidery worn for a banquet at the Nova Scotia Hotel, Halifax.

The exhibition showcases some of the best regal fashion in Britain from the 1950s to the 1980s, and it focuses on the three most celebrated royal style icons: HM The Queen, Princess Margaret and Diana Princess of Wales.

Fashion Rules demonstrates how these three women managed to don the trends of the time and make them their own despite the stifling framework of a royal wardrobe. “It’s long been the case that royal women have been scrutinised for what they wore,” says curator Cassie Davies-Strodder, and that’s not so hard to believe.

A case of dresses once worn by HM The Queen.

A case of dresses once worn by HM The Queen.

Indeed, the needs of those regal outfits were many: HM The Queen, for example, had to mostly wear white or ivory pieces which would stand out in black and white photography and on television screens just after the war. Then there were the diplomacy issues: she wore an ivory gown with emerald straps on a trip to Pakistan in order to mirror the country’s flag. Similarly, in 1991 on a state visit to Brazil, Diana wore a plain one-shouldered Catherine Walker dress. This neatly bypassed the football colours of both Argentina and Brazil, the latter having been beaten in an early round of the 1990 World Cup finals by Argentina.

Evening dress, worn by Princess Margaret, cream silk satin, designer unknown, 1951.

These three elegant women certainly did their fair share of work influencing the fashion of their times. Particularly when Queen Elizabeth II became queen in 1952 and fabric and clothing were no longer rationed. The Queen and her sister helped bring into vogue the famous ‘New Look’ of Christian Dior, its signature features being generous amounts of cloth from the waist down and feminine cuts, leaving behind austere dresses and military uniforms.

HM The Queen’s 1950s outfits were mostly signed by designers such as Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies. Exquisite splendour and grace were represented through delicate beading and lace, long gowns and evening gloves.

A visitor creates a fashion illustration using an interactive app with dresses worn by HM The Queen in the background.

A visitor creates a fashion illustration using an interactive app with dresses worn by HM The Queen in the background.

Then came the more liberal ‘60s and ‘70s, which see a Princess Margaret dressed in translucent fabrics, short skirts, halter necks and an unexpected fancy-dress kaftan, designed by Carl Toms – a definite favourite along with another British designer of the time: Marc Bohan. Her bold-coloured and slim-fitting dresses seem to be the most carefree, fun-yet-elegant pieces of the exhibition.

Finally come the ‘80s and Diana’s collection. Her outfits, mostly designed by Catherine Walker, Zandra Rhodes and Murray Arbeid, were rich in over-the-top glamour, garish colours, sparkles and shoulder pads. Not exactly the most understated ensemble of the exhibition, but very important nonetheless, due to the big influence Lady Diana had on the British fashion world at the time.

An Historic Royal Palaces member of staff examines a fancy-dress kaftan, designed by Carl Toms.

An Historic Royal Palaces member of staff examines a fancy-dress kaftan, designed by Carl Toms.

Curiously, despite the historic heritage nature of this show, the exhibition seems to be the Palace’s most techy one to date: free wi-fi is available; across the five rooms there are three short films that can be accessed via QR codes which show techniques used on some of the dresses such as embroidery and beading; in each room there is a stand with an iPad on it and a bespoke version of the Paper app was created by FiftyThree Inc., which allows you to sketch and colour the dresses until your heart’s content.

Conservators put the finishing touches to a Dance dress by Jacques Azagury 1985 as worn by Diana, Princess of Wales.

Conservators put the finishing touches to a Dance dress by Jacques Azagury 1985 as worn by Diana, Princess of Wales.

The dresses hang on invisible mannequins and are set in glass cases subtly positioned to avoid reflecting light, and on the walls can be found film projections, pictures and Vogue photographs to set the background of the three decades.

Fashion Rules is a beautiful and poignant exhibition, especially as we see Kate Middleton setting herself high amidst those royal style heroines.

Go and see it, even if the sun is shining.

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