The strong interest in what female members of the British royal family wear continues with the latest addition in the person of the Duchess of Sussex. The coverage of her wedding gown and the ensemble she wore to her first official engagement demonstrates that this interest in royal fashion has not abated and is exacerbated by the presence of blogs, social media and the omnipresent 24/7/365 news culture.
This interest is not new however as demonstrated by an on-going exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath entitled Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style, featuring clothes worn by Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and Princess Margaret; each a wife or sister of a monarch. As public figures and being royal there are expectations to be met such as being above politics, so they should be seen and not heard. What royal women wear should be above fashion and be suitable for the occasion and the people they will meet: hence the bright colours in order to stand out, hats must never obscure the face, bags should never get in the way of shaking hands and accepting gifts from well-wishers. Even shoes are selected with comfort in mind.
The exhibition is a small one with the clothes drawn from the museum’s own collection and loans from the Royal Collection. What was interesting is the information regarding how the museum was able to acquire dresses with royal provenance. Some like Princess Margaret’s were donated to the museum by the princess herself, while others such as a gown worn by Queen Mary were given by one of her ladies-in-waiting. Displayed chronologically, the clothes are a mini-history of royal fashion from the 1860s to the 1950s as well as highlighting how the four royal women featured used fashion and clothes to create their image and assist in their performance of their royal duties.
The women featured fall into two headings. Trendsetters like Queen Alexandra when as Princess of Wales she popularised tailored separates for day wear and jewelled chokers (to conceal a scar brought about by scrofula) for evening, and later Princess Margaret whose fashion choices generated headlines and epitomised glamour, especially after the austerity of the Second World War. Or in the case of Queens Mary and Elizabeth, their style was an integral part of their identity and as such instantly recognisable. Queen Mary remained wedded to the Edwardian styles that went out of fashion even during her lifetime, while Queen Elizabeth, with the help of designer Norman Hartnell, became known for her sparkling evening gowns which were heavily embroidered and beaded and in the distinct crinoline shape.
One of the interesting highlights of the exhibition was how clothes were not only re-worn but even recycled. Queen Alexandra’s wedding gown is virtually unrecognisable in the photographs of her on her wedding day but this is not unusual, as wedding dresses during this period were worn more than once – first on the wedding day and then reworked. As the wedding dress was the most expensive outfit in the entire bridal trousseau, it made sense for the gown to be designed in such a way that it could be worn again and again.
A second example of this clothes recycling was the dress worn by Queen Mary for Princess Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947. Designed by Norman Hartnell and described as “gold lame and turquoise cut velvet”, it originally had long sleeves and a high neck. The gown was later altered with the neckline adjusted and the sleeves cut to create the floaty panels around the upper arms. Both gowns demonstrated how clever alteration can result into a new dress created out of an old one.
Another interesting highlight was with regards to the change in Alexandra’s wardrobe after 1892 which marked a turning point. The death of her oldest son the Duke of Clarence hit her hard and after a period of deep mourning, she decided to wear half mourning for the rest of her life in his memory. This was in marked contrast to her mother-in-law Queen Victoria who wore black for forty years following the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861. Her choice is reflected in two gowns in dusky blue and mauve – two popular colours associated with half mourning, and they give us a good idea of the colour palette in Alexandra’s wardrobe during the last three decades of her life.
While the clothes are well presented, it’s a shame that apart from a hat and two pairs of shoes that belonged to Queen Mary as well as a glove that belonged to Queen Alexandra accessories are absent, which prevents the viewer from getting a more rounded picture of each woman’s taste and look. However this is a minor quibble more than anything. What is disappointing was there is nothing on display from Queen Elizabeth’s famous “White Wardrobe” designed by Norman Hartnell for the state visit to France in 1938. More than anything, the “White Wardrobe” represented a crossroads in Elizabeth’s over all look that marked the beginnings of the popular and iconic images of her as queen consort and queen mother.
The exhibition closes with a surprise loan from the Countess of Wessex which brings the exhibition fully to the present and demonstrate that while fashion have moved on, the demands of royal dressing have not. There is also a film showing the four featured women out and about performing their public duties which gives us a glimpse of them and their clothes in movement.
Certainly this exhibition leaves me wanting more but while small it is packed full with interesting information and trivia and as the surprise loan demonstrates, the public’s fascination with what royal women wear continues.
Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style is on at the Fashion Museum Bath until 28 April 2019. Admission included in the ticket price.
For more information please visit: https://www.fashionmuseum.co.uk/
The bloggers visited the exhibition on 23 May 2018 and photos were taken by the bloggers.