Royal Fashion Rules at Kensington Palace

I visited the Fashion Rules exhibition, which is currently being presented at Kensington Palace to complement its permanent collections on Queen Victoria, and the King’s and Queen’s State Apartments.

The exhibition consists of five bijou rooms, with around twenty dresses and jackets chronologically representing each decade from the 1950s up to the 1990s. As journalist Zoe Craig put it, “Fashion Rules is a display of dresses worn by The Queen, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana, bringing a modern element to the Palace, part of which is currently being renovated for the arrival of the next royal clothes horse, the Duchess of Cambridge.”

Craig’s unflattering description essentially summarises the exhibition for me. The dresses are, of course, beautifully made items, but I didn’t feel inspired or informed. I kind of wish they’d put more emphasis on the designers. I suppose the main story was that a great deal of thought goes in to what should be worn for what occasion. For example, the first room, filled with gorgeous designs by Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies, show how, as a rule, the Queen’s dresses were generally light in colour, so she stood out in the black-and-white film footage of the time. Similarly, a beautiful ivory dress with wide emerald straps was worn by the Queen in Pakistan, echoing the country’s flag. Further on, an asymmetric Catherine Walker column dress, belonging to Princess Diana, was the result of her not wanting to reflect any of the colours from the Brazilian or Argentinian football teams as she toured Brazil during the 1990 World Cup finals.

Text on the wall introduces each decade, summarising the culture and fashion of that period. However, these fashions aren’t then represented in the room. Basically, you’re not going to see a mini-skirt the Queen wore in the 60s! Fashion Rules shows how these women reflected the fashions of the period by negotiating the rules of dressing fashionably with the rules of a royal wardrobe.  For me, the exhibition portrayed the complex relationship Royalty has with clothing, they must be neither too fashionable nor outmoded, while at the same time conveying a sense of majesty and position.

These ideas were debated at the three-day conference “The Making of a Monarchy for the Modern World”, which offered the opportunity for a scholarly contribution to the debates on monarchy. As Kensington Palace is well known as the home of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection it was important that this conference should consider the essential role played by dress in forming the image of a modern monarchy.

In her keynote speech at the conference, “Clothing Monarchy, Fashioning Royalty”, Professor Aileen Ribeiro, Emeritus Professor of History of Art at the University of London argued for a re-examination of the importance of the sartorial and the visual in the creation of a sense of monarchy. Through a detailed exploration of images depicting rulers in both ceremonial and fashionable clothing, Ribeiro demonstrated the complex relationship that monarchs often have with fashion

Similarly, as milliner Stephen Jones’ comments about the Duchess of Cambridge suggests, fashion for monarchs can be a double-edged sword: “Does one really want the future Queen of England to be fashionable? No. You want her to look like a princess”. However, as my lecturer, Agnes Rocamora, argued, “Let’s face it, I don’t think Kate Middleton wakes up and thinks, ‘I need to wear Rei Kawakubo today!’ anyway.”