Monday, 12 August 2013

Of royal frills and furbelows

Fashion inspiration
I've had a passive interest in historical fashion for a long time and it was very much cultivated by my marvellous step mother, who remains one of the most elegant people I know. Therefore to lure her down to London, I told her I'd booked tickets for the Fashion Rules at Kensington Palace and In Fine Style at the Queen's Gallery. It worked, for the first time in years she came down and on Saturday we did both of the exhibitions.

We started in the modern times with dresses from the wardrobe of the Queen, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana, obviously covering the 1950s-80s. It was a fine selection of frocks which reflected the public role of the figure head/royal representative and the uniform that they have to wear - they have to be seen in a crowd, reflect the interests of the country they are visiting, and yet be utterly bland in a non controversial way.

This dichotomy of fashion leader and fashion follower is an interesting one; it worked rather well for the Queen in the 1950s because fashion was very much in her favour. In a time of austerity and rebuilding industries, she was able to kick start the British fashion industry by encouraging home grown talent and wear their wares to market, as it were. She was also lucky in that in those days, a queen was supposed to look regal. If you turned up for an event in anything less than satin and diamonds, it would have been unseemly, despite the grinding post war poverty.

He sister had a lot more freedom to indulge in foreign designers and turned to more exotic influences. But this made her far less interesting in some ways; she was not constrained by being a figurehead and yet royal family protocol and convention in the 1950s and 60s prevented her from being more flamboyant and experimental. She was still expected to conform to a certain glamorous type, yet not tread that far from the path; hemmed in by the stays, but not the price tag. Which actually sums up the Queen's sister quite well - still, her bottle green velvet military style coat/dress made me long for a replica and the autumn.

Princess Diana's dresses left me rather melancholy. When I was growing up she was the epitome of style and grace but now I look at these frights of 'classic 80s fashion' with dropped waists, frilly bows, lurid colours and shudder. The Queen's designers seemed to know exactly what was timeless and yet of the time; Rhodes et al., seemed to impose time on the Princess making her 'of the moment', rather than timeless. This is why these dresses will always sit apart from the rest of the royal wardrobe and perhaps belong in a museum of fashion, rather than in a museum of royalty.

Leaving whimsical Kensington Palace, we headed for the Queen's Gallery. Firstly I need to commend them on their above and beyond customer service - there is a lady there to whom I am much indebted. The exhibition is a fashion parade of the Tudors and the Stuarts and yet it is so much more. It covered not just Henry Tudor and the codpiece, nor just the painted ladies of the Stuart Court but an entire record of materials, design, accessories, foreign influence...everything.

The golden threads which held the two exhibitions together, and I think it is good to see them as one, was how the head of state sold themselves abroad - the massive influence of foreign trade and exchange - as well as how they presented themselves to their immediate public, i.e., the rest of court and other royalty abroad.

Whilst the Tudors saw a narrow blending of provincial Spanish and French influences, the Stuarts embraced Europe and even the New World as one massive familial melting pot of fashion ideas - French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian. The clothes you wore were designed to tell others who your allies were, what religion you were, what you read and perhaps said more about your personality than the impersonal gaze of the portrait.

I've already mentioned the bottle green velvet military style coat/dress and what really interested me was the cross dressing tendencies of one Lady Frances Stewart. She appears in her golden/brunette beauty in one portrait and then in the next, she is an extremely well dressed yet plain man, complete with wig and impassive stare. What was going on here? There is doubtless many books on the subject which I may come back to because I like her style.

Still, these are just a few notes that have stayed with me and I have jotted them down as an aide memoir for later use. Get along to both exhibitions if you want to admire the detail and sheer artistry of the needlework, jewellery, and portrait painters of their respective eras.


  1. Hi Clareangela, thanks for the link! Do tell me if you stumble across any more info about the redoubtable Frances Stuart - and I'll do the same, as I was amused to see she fascinated you as well. Delighted to have come across your blog - I'll be following you from now on. Give me a shout next time you see something Tudorish you'd like to go to - maybe we can compare notes :-)

  2. Thank you - was pleased to find yours too! I certainly will - was obsessed with Elizabeth Tudor when I was small, now I appear to have moved on to the Italian renaissance which is an improvement in villas, gardens, despotic tendencies and weather!

    1. So true. And food and wine, of course. All the best people love the Renaissance :-)