Exhibition Review: Fashion Rules, Ok!

by Sarah Harrison Before even entering the Fashion Rules exhibition at Kensington Palace, the visitor is first introduced to various members of the British Monarchy both living and deceased. Their portraits hang in an eclectic manner around a small anti-chamber, giving the impression of relatives from across time meeting for a hypothetical dinner party. Whilst Kensington Palace in itself is no doubt sufficiently decadent and glamourous to attract visitors, the Historic Royal Palaces have made a great effort to bring to life the history of the palace’s inhabitants; with a strong emphasis being placed on the fashionability of the Royal Family. This can be seen in the three portraits which most stand out, those of Princess Margaret, Princess Diana and the family portrait of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge cradling their young son Prince George. Amongst their captions, Princess Margaret is titled, “THE GLAMOUROUS HOSTESS”, whilst Diana is the “FASHION ICON” and apparently the Duchess’ outfits are “copied by women across the country”. This sets the scene for the Fashion Rules exhibition, which attempts to present the female members of the royal family as both trend setters and icons of fashion. Beginning with the Queen in the 1950s, the exhibition categorises the collection by decade in an attempt to align the styles shown with a traditional and discretely ordered understanding of fashion by era. From there, each piece in the collection is further categorised as being representative of a certain ‘Fashion Rule’, which range from fashionable trends such as ‘Embellishment’, to social rules specific to dressing in a role of authority such as ‘Diplomatic Dressing’.  As part of this discourse on the relationship between fashion and the Royals, the exhibition focuses in particular on the history of fashionable silhouettes. Before even entering the main display, a projection of moving silhouettes is displayed on the wall outside, with characters displaying the traditional outlines of fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties dress. These characters then continue inside the exhibition, stencilled on to the walls strategically to reinforce for the viewer which fashionable silhouette is associated with which fashionable decade and garment. As a categorisation, this one of neatly defined decades of silhouette is rather simplistic and would be far better considered if any material actually demonstrating popular fashions, or their direct relationship with royal dress through the ages were presented as evidence. However, the best the visitor gets is a brief section of written overview on the general history and typified fashion history of each period. All of the dresses displayed are also examples of custom made and haute couture pieces, only representative of a very specific and formal selection of royal fashions in each age. The lack of any research into the less formal attire, accessories or even hairstyles of the royals leaves the exhibition underdeveloped. Whilst popular fashion may have been a consideration for these royal women, this is not evidenced directly, suggesting that the link itself may have been tenuous and the real attraction of the exhibition for many is simply to marvel at the elaborate garments on show. This is further apparent in some of the tools used in curating the exhibition. Positioned statically behind glass, the viewing of each garment is limited and although mirrors have been used to provide glimpses of various angles of the dresses, outfits with more than one layer are impossible to examine closely. However, the fact that the mannequins used are not always immediately visible, particularly underneath the floor length gowns, does create the impression that the garments on display are floating, assuming bodily silhouettes of their own accord. This is very effective in creating a sense that the garments were perhaps inherently fashionable in their construction, or that they could have been inhabited by any woman at the time, interchangeably. Most examples are also accompanied by a photo of the garment being worn, however this provides little extra insight other than invoking a sense of glamourous nostalgia in the viewer. The exhibition’s other major theme is the connection between authority and fashionable dress. For example, the relationship between power and dress is clearly demonstrated in garments such as the Queen’s 1959 dinner gown by Hardy Amies, which was worn by Her Majesty on a Commonwealth visit to Nova Scotia. The dress is made of a grey silk organza, featuring a beaded floral embellishment described as a “mayflower motif”, the provincial flower of Nova Scotia. Comments on Amies as a designer are combined with an explanation of the gown’s political significance as it was worn by the Queen on a royal visit. Sadly, not all garments in the exhibition have this relationship analysed as fully, and questions regarding the links between female royals, fashion and political dress are mostly left unanswered. More scrutiny of this theme could have perhaps taken place, with the exhibition giving the overall impression that the aesthetic beauty and the royal glamour of the garments on display is justification enough for the public to pay a visit to the palace. Fashion Rules runs 28th February 2015. Catch it while you can!

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