Jessica Hope delves into the royal wardrobe at the Fashion Museum’s latest exhibition to discover how the public duties of four generations of royal women impacted on their style
Cameras flashed incessantly, people squeezed their way to the front of the gathering crowds, and photographers jostled to get the perfect shot of the royal appearance. All eyes were on Princess Margaret as she stepped out in front of the crowds surrounding the London Coliseum in the summer of 1953. Looking effortlessly glamorous in a strapless evening dress by British fashion designer Norman Hartnell, Margaret was attending a production of Guys and Dolls with her sister, The Queen, and Prince Philip – but you wouldn’t have guessed that her sister and brother-in-law were in attendance that night as all the cameras were pointing at Margaret. This public event took place just weeks after stories were leaked in the press regarding Margaret’s relationship with the supposedly unsuitable Peter Townsend, and everyone wanted a photo of Margaret for their front page.
“Everyone was so determined to get a photograph of Margaret on that night that there’s barely any photographic evidence of The Queen or Prince Philip even being there,” says Elly Summers, curator of the new Royal Women exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath. “I think Margaret stepping out in this dress just shows how she was determined to put her royal duties first and wasn’t going to hide away about her personal life.” This dress, covered in an elegant black lace in a rose pattern, with a detailed sweetheart neckline, has become almost synonymous with the media frenzy that occurred after this gossip was made public, and is now on show in Bath.
The recently opened exhibition showcases items that were all once worn or owned by the wives, daughters, sisters and mothers of monarchs, and draw on the museum’s extensive collection of royal clothing as well as some remarkable donations by members of the royal family and the Royal Collection. The exhibition follows four generations of royal dress from the mid-19th century with Alexandra of Denmark, through to 20th-century icons Queen Mary of Teck, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, finishing with a recent addition worn by Sophie, the Countess of Wessex. Whether they were making a statement to the media after a personal scandal, affirming their position as a queen, or seen as a symbol of hope during the dark days of austerity, these royals took great care in considering the cut, style and practicality of their dress at all times.
The exhibition begins by exploring the style of Queen Alexandra, the wife of Edward VII. The Fashion Museum boasts one of the largest collections of her clothing, both formal and informal, in the world.
Princess Margaret’s black lace evening dress, 1953, and one of Queen Alexandra’s coronation gloves, embroidered in gold and metal thread and red silk thread, 1902
Just three days after arriving in Britain in March 1863, Princess Alexandra of Denmark married Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, and became the first royal to be photographed wearing her wedding dress in British royal history. The dress, made by London dressmaker Mrs James of Belgravia, was covered in details of orange blossom and Devonshire Honiton lace, depicting the emblems of the British Isles, with layers of flowing material and a large, wide skirt which was typical of mid-19th century style in Britain. It could be argued that the symbolism of Alexandra’s wedding dress may have been Queen Victoria’s way of showcasing the princess as a member of the British royal family, in an attempt to mask Alexandra’s Danish family connections following the recent conflict between the Danes and Germans over the rulership of the regions of Schleswig and Holstein in Europe.
The dress in question is the first piece on show in the exhibition and is on loan from the Royal Collection, and yet it looks rather different to how Alexandra wore it on her wedding day. Just days after her marriage, she had the dress remodelled – the oversized crinoline was removed, the skirt was shrunk down significantly and the lace was stripped off, apart from on the neckline and sleeves, leaving a shimmering cream, more streamlined, skirt underneath.
But why would a young princess have, of all things, her wedding dress redesigned? “When Alexandra moved to Britain, she may not have had many possessions with her,” says Summers. “She may have needed more evening dresses to wear to all of the parties and events she would be invited to following her wedding, so remodelling her wedding dress into an evening wear dress seems likely.” Who knew that Alexandra was a modern-day up-cycling icon?
Another key piece on display is a silk satin dress covered in intricate beadwork and Swarovski crystals, previously worn by Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother in 1954. This ball gown, which was made by Hartnell (one of the The Queen Mother’s favourite designers), was worn when she was on tour of New York in November 1954. The Queen Mother donated this dress to the museum when she officially opened it to the public in the 1950s when it was initially based in Kent, before it moved to Bath in 1963.
There are charming extracts on display from letters between the museum’s founder, Doris Langley Moore, and The Queen Mother following this donation. As this dress became such a hit with visitors, Langley Moore was thrilled when The Queen Mother agreed to donate another ball gown years later, expressing that it was an “admirable piece” for the museum’s collection, perfect for showing off The Queen Mother’s style and representing 1950s fashion.
Arguably not as well known for her dress sense compared to the other royals featured in the exhibition, Mary of Teck’s style was almost formulaic and didn’t change a great deal despite the substantial shifts in fashion in the 20th century. During the First World War, Mary and her husband, George V, needed to realign themselves with the British people, especially owing to the royal family’s connections with Germany. In this sense, it is understandable that Mary’s dress became very tailored to reflect the popular feeling at the time, suggests Summers.
A silk satin evening dress designed by Norman Hartnell for The Queen Mother, 1954. Image: Royal Collection Trust/ Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018
Nevertheless, Mary wasn’t afraid to show off her more glamorous side. One dress in particular from the 1930s, heavily beaded and covered in black sparkles with hints of deep purple, with elegant black fur on the collar and cuffs, catches the light and oozes the more regal side of Mary’s style. Another dress donated by The Queen Mother is the one that Queen Mary wore to the wedding of the then Princess Elizabeth to Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947. This gold lamé and ivy-leaf design velvet dress originally had long sleeves (ideal for a cold November wedding), however only when putting the exhibition together did Summers and the curatorial team discover that the dress had been altered at a later date to create a short sleeved dress with caped sleeves.
The final piece in the exhibition brings royal fashion into the modern day with an ensemble chosen by Sophie, the Countess of Wessex. The ecru dress and matching clutch bag, designed by British designer Bruce Oldfield, with wonderful intricate beadwork, and a Jane Taylor hat (a favourite milliner among current royals), was worn to the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011.
The display finishes with a film of extraordinary British Pathé footage of all of the royals featured in the exhibition and, for a local touch, there’s a collection of photographs of these women on past visits to Bath – a personal favourite being a shot of The Queen Mother, with her characteristic beaming smile, stepping out of a helicopter onto the grass of the Royal Crescent.
With two royal weddings planned for the coming year, we suspect that the public interest in royal women’s clothing shan’t be wavering anytime soon. Who knows, maybe Meghan Markle or Princess Eugenie’s wedding dresses will be on display in the Fashion Museum in years to come?
Royal Women is on at the Fashion Museum, Bath until April 2019. Exhibition included in admission to the museum, free for Discovery Card holders. Elly Summers will be giving a talk on Queen Mary’s fashion on Thursday 15 March, 6.15pm, and Deirdre Murphy, curator at Historic Royal Palaces will showcase dress worn by royal men on Thursday 29 March, 6.15pm, at the museum, tickets: £10/£8 concs.