The “Fashion Rules” exhibit at Kensington Palace presents a 20th century social and cultural look at the lives of three royal women, Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret and Diana, Princess of Wales. Through the dresses they wore over a span of four decades, it offers an insight to their duties, personalities and their individual tastes, all within the realm of being royal figures with very pubic roles.
Before entering the exhibition space, visitors are given the option of listening to a docent give a brief verbal introduction of these women. I attended the session and personally found it to be very helpful, as visitors from other countries, especially, may not be familiar with British royal culture and the various roles (and rules) required of duty. The talk lasted approximately 10 minutes, after which the doors were opened to the exhibit. There is also a text panel next to the Gallery space entrance doors which gives a brief summary. No pamphlets are given to visitors, and all outfits are displayed on dress forms. Unfortunately, the dresses are not accessorised with shoes, handbags or jewellery.
What is well explained in the preliminary introduction talk and what is reinforced throughout the exhibit are “The Rules” for dressing when you are member of the Royal family.
There is a Rule of High Impact, which simply put, means that as a Queen or Princess, you need to command the room with your outfit. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, either by wearing a monochromatic outfit- dressing head to toe in one color – a habit most consistently used by Queen Elizabeth, or wearing a gown with a distinctive element – such as a one shoulder dress – a look often worn by Princess Diana. High impact dressing is a way of setting the Royals apart from the rest of the crowd and reinforces their Royal roles. I imagine this may perhaps serve as a sort of security measure as well.
The first thing you see upon entering is the exquisite ballgown made for a state visit for Queen Elizabeth by Norman Hartnell. It is spectacular and is clearly the “centerpiece” of the exhibit. The Rule of High Impact was definitely achieved with this gown, made of ivory satin and Swarovski crystals to catch the light. It is showcased, along with other, less ornate gowns, in a tall glass vitrine. All exhibited garments were shown in seamless glass cases, lit from above and below by small built in track lights. These display cases were either rectangular, square or circular. This was extremely effective because it let the viewer see all angles of the garments. It also allowed many people to view the dresses at the same time, thus contributing to the easy flow of visitors throughout the show. The exhibit is not arranged in a chronological manner, but cards were available for each garment showing the year, designer, a brief description of the gown, and of course which woman wore it. Several cards also contained a photograph of the royal subject wearing the gown shown.
Moving into the next room, is a vitrine dedicated to Princess Margaret and her accessories. Scarves are beautifully displayed on square cut out boards and hung mid-air. Visitors can appreciate the full detail of these as well, as several were personalized “to HRH Princess Margaret” from Christian Dior – one of her favorite designers, and Karl Lagerfeld, among others. The vitrine also showcases her wardrobe of sunglasses. It was said she had a new pair for every occasion and was famous for constantly changing her look with her sunglasses. It should be mentioned also that Princess Margaret was also highly criticized at the time, for wearing European designers. Though frowned upon by the Palace for not supporting British designers, she loved the ateliers of Paris and would not be easily “told” what to wear. Consequently, in this exhibit we see many of her “renegade” looks from the Europeans.
Although known as the “Royal Rebel”, her taste in clothing was exquisite and certainly not inappropriate of her status.
Another rule is “On Trend”. The Royals had to be up to date with the current styles. This could mean modifying a hemline, as such with many of Queen Elizabeth’s more conservative clothes, or taking a fashionable chance with a sleeve or body hugging garment, as Diana was famously known for doing. It was and still is, important for the Royals to keep up with fashion trends, while using discretion as to the extent by which their clothing is trendy. Diplomatic Dressing is another rule, well documented through displays of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana’s garments. Because their royal duties required travelling to foreign countries, clothes were specifically designed to consider the customs and traditions of the host country. There are wonderful examples of 60’s, 70’s and 90’s clothing from visits to India, New Zealand and Scotland.
Another element of the exhibit, and added visual benefit, were the framed designer fashion illustrations displayed along the ivory gallery walls. These original drawings were submitted to the ladies by their designers. They depicted ideas for her proposed dresses, including style, coloUrs and fabric choices. They serve to reinforce the “Rules”, because if approved, they were custom made. These beautifully rendered fashion plates serve as important works of art, often shown with swatches of fabric, as they give the visitor an insight to the process by which the Royals chose their clothes.
The purpose of the exhibit was to explain the fashion choices of these women, given their lack of freedom of choice. The mandatory following of the Rules, offered clear limitations to dress, but at the same time, it gave these women opportunities to express themselves through these Rules in a variety of ways. Each of their personalities is evident through their fashion choices on display. In this way, the exhibit achieved its goal of exploring and explaining its contents. The world of the haute couture was available to Royalty. Working closely with designers such as Hardy Amies, Norman Hartnell and Zandra Rhodes, these couturiers had to conform to the Rules as well. However, the resulting collaborations between the Royals and their couturiers is nothing short of sensational. The exhibit is sponsored by Estee Lauder and is on display until January 3, 2017.
Submitted by: Susannah Shubin, MA Fashion Curation 10/18/16