Royal Style at Kensington Palace – fairy tale dresses up close and personal

Kensington Palace has happily reopened its illustrious doors to welcome back visitors with a new temporary exhibition, exploring the unique relationship between fashion designer and royal client.

The display features never-before-seen items from the archives of Madame Handley-Seymour, Sassoon, the Emanuels and Hartnell who created gowns for Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, Princess Margaret and Diana, Princess of Wales.

Using original sketches, fabric swatches and unseen photographs from the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection – a treasure trove of over 10,000 items of dress and design history cared for by Historic Royal Palaces – Royal Style in the Making considers the unique attributes each couturier brought to the royal wardrobe, set alongside examples of their most famous work.

Kensington Palace – The Orangery where the Royal Style exhibition is based © HRP

Madame Handley-Seymour for the Queen Mother

A plain-speaking Lancastrian, who became an acclaimed court dress-maker in the 1920’s and 30s, Handley Seymour was the go-to couturier for those invited to an event at Court, and well versed in the rules of dressing for royal ceremonial occasions.

Depending on the occasion, she knew the correct height and angle of a feather in the hair or whether a train should be worn from the waist or the shoulder.

It was for this reason that she was chosen by the Queen Mother to design three of the most important dresses of her life: her debutante dress, her wedding dress (which had won praise with its fashionable drop-waisted 1920s silhouette) and the dress worn for the Coronation.

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The exhibition features the calico toile of the Coronation Dress reminding us of the Queen Mother’s diminutive stature. Handley-Seymour used this toile – a prototype garment created in calico – to refine the shape and fit, an essential step in the design process.

The painted design for the embroidery represents the emblems of the UK, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. You can see overlapping lines as the design and layout was tweaked, showing the importance of such a preparation piece.

The coronation toile is the practice dress by Madame Handley Seymour (©HRP, Jackie Cowperthwaite)

Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother’s coronation gown toile, by Madame Handley Seymour as can be seen at Kensington Palace (© HRP)

The Emanuels for Diana, Princess of Wales

The Emanuels were fresh out of college when Diana collided into their world with the commission for the Royal Dress. Both parties were newcomers to the worlds they had recently inhabited and they leant on each other as they collaborated to dress Diana to represent the best of British fashion.

Without a doubt the star of the exhibition is Diana’s wedding dress. When you see Diana’s clothes in real life the first thing you notice is how tall she was, but the drama and romance of this dress detracts from her height with its flounces, bows and mutton sleeves with the latter looking bigger in real life than anything you have seen on TV!

The Princess of Wales’ wedding dress is the focal point of the Royal Style in the Making exhibition at Kensington Palace © HRP

The dramatic train of Diana’s Emanuel wedding dress © HRP

Love it or hate it, it truly is the dress of a fairytale princess come to life and its layers of tulle, taffeta, lace and sequins pays more than a passing nod to the 80s love of the New Romantic look.

The TV cameras and endless photos we have ever seen of the dress cannot begin to do justice to how much it sparkles. Sequins, iridescent pearls and mother of pearl are sewn around the spectacular 25ft train that filled the aisle of the St Paul’s Cathedral, the hem of the dress and the front and back panels of the bodice.

The Emanuels designed Dianas wedding dress ©HRP

Fabric samples and work from the Emanuels, as well as Garrards drawing of Dianas engagement ring

A look at how Dianas wedding dress came to be © Jackie Cowperthwaite

The team at HRP took an astonishing seven hours to lovingly arrange the dress into place at the exhibition.

The Emanuels wanted the dress to look like Diana had been sprinkled with fairy dust and they certainly achieved it.

The marriage may not have been the ‘stuff of fairytales’ as the Archbishop of Canterbury stated in the ceremony, but the dress certainly was and as The Queen likes to say about herself, this dress ‘needs to be seen to be believed’.

Hartnell for The Queen and The Queen Mother

Norman Hartnell was born to two landlords of a Streatham pub, named – in an ironic twist of fate – the Crown and Sceptre.

Little could he have known that he would end up dressing two Queens as well as Princess Margaret…!

One of the most surprising additions to the exhibition is a dress that was worn privately by the Queen Mother but looks like it is straight out of Wallis Simpson’s wardrobe. The evening dress of black velvet, trimmed with white lace and beads, was only ever worn privately and sadly, no pictures of the Queen Mother in it exist. The piece is on loan from her two grandchildren, The Earl of Snowdon and Lady Sarah Chatto.

The Queen Mother’s black evening dress by Norman Hartnell (© HRP, Jackie Cowperthwaite)

The cut, shape and style of the dress give the proportions of someone more lean and lithe than the Queen Mother is remembered.

The dress represents a departure from the silhouette so closely associated with his work for the Royal Family, and is accompanied by original sketches for day and evening wear he submitted to both Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother and The Queen for approval.

Hartnell worked closely with our current Queen designing clothes in shapes and palettes to suit her silhouette. The notes The Queen sent him are a testament to their close (but still formal!) working relationship.

Sassoon for Diana

An atelier that has worked with all the royal ladies, Sassoon was entrusted with creating Diana’s ‘going-away’ outfit. Here we are back to the sleek, lean and long silhouette, synonymous with Diana’s style. She had a hand herself in the design of the dress with David Sassoon adapting an existing design that the Princess admired to create this bespoke outfit for her.

First worn on her wedding day, it was part of the Princess’s working wardrobe. She wore it in Australia in 1982, and to open a hospital in Grimsby in 1983. Two jackets were created, one with short sleeves and one with long, in case of bad weather.

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Diana’s peach ‘going away’ outfit, by Belville Sassoon is on display, alongside the design sketches. (© Jackie Cowperthwaite, HRP)

Another iconic dress designed by Sassoon for the Princess is the blue floral print dress she wore countless times, mainly for her encounter with children. This dress became known as her ‘caring dress’ because she often wore it on visits to hospitals or to meet children, knowing that they loved the bright, colourful pattern.

She decided not to wear the large matching hat that was designed to accompany it, as she said you couldn’t cuddle a child in a hat. She would also sometimes wear chunky jewellery when she knew that she was going to meet children, as they would enjoy playing with it. This really illustrates just how carefully she considered the people she would meet when selecting outfits for her many public engagements.

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A sketch of Diana’s blue dress (© Jackie Cowperthwaite)

Oliver Messel for Princess Margaret

Another star is an 18th-century style gown designed for Princess Margaret by Oliver Messel, most-famously known for his work on theatrical productions. On show for the first time since the event for which it was made – a costume ball in aid of St John Ambulance at London’s Mansion House in July 1964 – the glittering blue and gold dress with lace trimmed sleeve and decorated bodice is finally being reunited with Messel’s original design sketch.

Margaret’s life-long admiration of Messel’s work started when she was a young girl and he designed the clothes for a theatre production she attended of Cinderella.

Princess Margaret’s 18th century fancy dress ball gown designed by her ‘uncle’, Oliver Messel (© HRP, Jackie Cowperthwaite)

In a bizarre coincidence, she was to become related to Messel when she married his nephew, Antony Armstrong-Jones, with the Princess affectionately referring to him as ‘my beloved uncle’.

Their collaboration did not end with fashion and he went on to design her much loved home in Mustique.

For all those who are currently unable to visit the display in person, Historic Royal Palaces will be hosting an exclusive online evening event from 7pm (BST) on 9 June. Join a panel of experts as they discuss everything from designing coronation gowns to royal wedding dresses, and discover the considerations of creating outfits with a truly global impact.

In this special one-hour talk, Chief Curator Lucy Worsley will be joined by Matthew Storey – curator Royal Style in the Making, legendary designer David Sassoon – whose designs have graced everyone from Diana, Princess of Wales to Audrey Hepburn – and Lydia Slater, Editor in Chief of fashion bible Harper’s Bazaar.

Royal Style in the Making opens at Kensington Palace today, and will run until 2 January 2022. It is run in partnership with Garrard and supported by the Blavatnik Family Foundation. Book tickets here.

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