Fashioning a Reign – Viewing Her Maj’s wardrobe

posted in: History of fashion | 17

I wanted to see Fashioning a Reign, an exhibition of the clothes worn by Her Majesty the Queen during her long – 90 year – royal, life. Buckingham Palace is only ten minutes from my home, by bus, and I wanted to see the dresses and hats close up.  But at £20 the tickets seemed steep, even with the slight “over 60s/student discount”.

Buckingham Palace is run day-to-day by Anthony Johnstone-Burt, who introduces himself to visitors on the audio guide. (Included with the ticket, and in several languages). He runs a tight ship. All the staff – from the security team who take you through airport security, to the charming youngsters who see that you don’t accidentally wander off the path on your way out, are excellent. Smiley, engaging, diverse and enthusiastic. The tour includes the state rooms, a selection of priceless art, the royal garden (where the Queen’s garden parties occur), and the exhibition of clothes. And, if you gift aid the entrance fee at the end of your tour, you are entitled to come again, for free, as many times as you like for a year.  There are nice cafes, toilets and opportunities to take photographs once outside. And a shop if you fancy hand towels embroidered with “Buckingham Palace”, or guardsman pyjamas for your kids. At first I thought it was pricey. By the end I thought it was a bargain!

If you love clothes and hats you will not be disappointed. If you have a visitor from abroad, or are local, there is plenty to interest you beyond the exhibition. An absolute hidden gem (despite being so obvious that neither Nick nor I had been to look around before.) There are three exhibitions of the Queen’s clothes in the UK this year – additionally in Edinburgh and Windsor.

So what about the clothes?

The Queen is the most photographed woman in the world and she has a lot of clothes. Often she will have to change two or three times a day to be suitably attired for her engagements. Sometimes she has to conform to other people’s cultures and rules – witness the “modest” dress and turban hat worn in Saudi Arabia, or the black dress and mantilla for an audience with the Pope. Some of her dresses include Australian Wattles, Canadian Maple leaves, and a dress for Africa with elaborate beading at the neckline. The exhibition includes an outfit typical of each decade, with relevant photographs and objects, and they quickly show the impact of age and lifestyle on the queen’s body shape.

The most important dresses on show are the Queen’s wedding and coronation dresses – heavily embellished, light reflecting silk satin – they are no-expense-spared garments designed to make the monarch look as large, important and as fabulous as possible. And they are successful. The photographs below are all from the Royal Collection website, so you can enjoy the photographs even if you cannot make it in person.

The Queen’s Christening gown is now too fragile to display – it was reproduced for the Christening (you can see the room too) of Prince George and Princess Charlotte. Made from Honiton lace, and English silks, it was nice to see – as were the dresses and crowns worn by Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret when their own father became King.

My main criticism of the exhibition is that the mannequins used were not very flattering. Although the Queen has filled out considerably as she has aged she always looks considerably better than the dresses on display may imply. They appear deflated at bust level, with the darts too low for the form. In real life all the Queen’s clothes are tailor-made and impeccably fitted and generally rather flattering. There are also some nice examples of her military and ceremonial dress. Here are three outfits I loved. The military jackets are designed so the Queen can ride side-saddle. The khaki uniform of the Auxiliary Territorial Service was worn by Princess Elizabeth in 1945 when she learned to drive and carry out vehicle maintenance.

There is a truly great selection of hats – this is a woman who always wears one, not least to ensure the public can pick her out in a crowd. I will do another post on her hats in due course.

All in all a good day out. We had tickets for when it opened (9.15) and stayed until 11.30, but I really rushed the state rooms. A good excuse to go back. If you are thinking of going let me know as I would happily go again.

17 Responses

  1. Rosalie

    Would be a great exhibition to bring down under. By the way what happened to the beautiful dress with 8 metres in the skirt challenge?

    • fabrickated

      Good idea. The “Napoleon Six” dress is complete (I am relieved to report Rosalie). I got photographs this weekend. I will post it by the end of the month. I am really pleased with it.

  2. Vicki

    Wow, how wonderful. I have the book about her wardrobe that came out a few years ago. And it was great to read that she has a “stash” of fabric too!

    • Fabrickated

      Ha ha ha! Now that is interesting Vicky. I was wondering if she ever does a bit of knitting for the babies….

  3. Jay

    This sounds like a really good day out. Thanks for the information. I love the way the Queen’s various outfits are put together with co-ordinating millinary and accessories, and the impeccable construction and fit.

  4. Carolyn

    I’ve been reading about this exhibit since it first debuted and am extremely jelly that you got to see it! Thanks for the wonderful review and I hope you get to see it again!

  5. Stephanie

    Kate you brought back memories of my grandmother taking me to the Royal Ontario Museum when I was little, to see the beautiful dress she wore on her state visit to Canada in 1957, complete with glittering green maple leaves (or at least a replica of it). Sounds like a terrific exhibition.

    • fabrickated

      I have such funny feelings about the monarchy. I am always star struck when I meet them, and I think they are actually nice, interesting people. But on the other hand I don’t really agree with empires, aristocracy and am a republican at heart.

  6. Joyce Latham

    Thanks for sharing your visit. I would love to see it in person!
    Looking forward to the hats post and the N.6 dress!

  7. Sue

    I nearly bought a ticket a few weeks ago but ended up meeting an old school friend instead & getting sunburnt in Trafalgar Square! If I can get another reasonable train ticket deal I will come down again & see this. I did see the “Undressed” exhibition at the V & A, & like you, I was a little disappointed in it. But then I only had the Indian textiles one to compare it with & that enthralled me!

    • fabrickated

      Oh dear! Sorry to hear about the sunburn. Do let me know if you would like to go FaR – I am keen to go again. And yes the Indian exhibition was for weavers, dyers, embroiderers, and dress makers. The underwear one was really for voyeurs.

  8. Hila

    I didnt realise you live so close to where my hubs grew up. When we come to London we stay with my mum in law and its about 15 min walk to Buckingham Palace. The next time I am in London I will have to let you know and would love to meet up. Hila @saturdaynightstitch

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