Kensington Palace visits wardrobes of The Queen, Princess Diana and Princess Margaret

By Jenni Davidson | 15 July 2013

Exhibition review: Fashion Rules, Kensington Palace, London, until summer 2015

A photo of a conservator laying out a golden royal dress
Queen Victoria's Privy Council Dress is one of the highlights in a major exhibition at Kensington Palace© Photo: Nick Wilkinson / Newsteam
The Queen is always immaculately turned out and has an immediately recognisable personal style, but who decides how she should dress and is she a follower of fashion?

This new exhibition at Kensington Palace answers this question. It takes a look inside the wardrobes of the Queen, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana and sums up the fashion rules they have lived by – and the key designers who dressed them.

Twenty-one of the most iconic royal frocks are on display – some for the first time, covering the period from the 1950s to the 1990s.

These dresses show the delicate balance between following the fashion trends and cutting the cloth to match the occasion.

The Queen’s penchant for single-colour, pastel dresses and coats can be traced back to a 1950s rule that royal ladies must always wear pale colours, a necessity at the time to stand out in a crowd, particularly in the age of black and white television.

A photo of a dark red and dark blue dress
Princess Diana wore this fuchsia and purple silk chiffon sari style dress, by Catherine Walker, for a Royal tour in Thailand in February 1988, completed with orchids and bougainvilaea flowers in her hair. It sold at Christie's charity auction in 1997 and has never been on public display in the UK before (lent by the Museo de la Moda, Chile)© Nick Wilkinson /
Five couture gowns by the Queen’s two favourite designers, Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies, follow the 1950s trend for nipped in waists, full skirts and feminine detailing, while retaining a conservative modesty suitable for the reigning monarch.

The dresses were specially designed for the occasion they were to be worn. Some incorporate a subtle reference to the event; Norman Hartnell’s white silk gown, for a trip to Pakistan, has a waterfall train in the national colours of that country, while a grey silk organza by Hardy Amies, for a royal tour of Canada, is embroidered with mayflowers – the provincial flower of Nova Scotia.

As the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret could get away with being edgier than the Queen herself, and she broke the mould of the way a royal woman dressed.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a cream satin halter-neck evening dress with a plunging neckline and a tiny waist, worn by Princess Margaret in the 1950s.

More film star than Royal Family, it marked an exciting turning point in perceptions of the Royal Family – particularly when she was photographed smoking a cigarette while wearing it.

Princess Margaret continued to push the boundaries of royal couture throughout the 1960s and 1970s, both inspiring and being influenced by the fashion trends of the period.

Other items on show include a Mary Quant-inspired mini dress, a glamorous Christian Dior fur coat and a kaftan and turban worn by Princess Margaret to a fancy dress party in Mustique in 1976.

While the arrival of colour TV meant Princess Diana could be freer with colours, she still had to obey the rules of diplomatic dressing.

Bruce Oldfield’s sparkling red gown for a tour of Saudi Arabia looks elegant but is suitably modest with its high neckline and long sleeves and floor length skirt, while an asymmetric evening dress by Catherine Walker, for a trip to Brazil, tactfully avoided the colours of Argentina, who had recently beaten Brazil at football.

All dropped waists, big shoulders and giant bows, Princess Diana’s 1980s excess style is perhaps a bit too in-your-face for 21st century tastes, but it’s hard to be unimpressed by the sheer dazzling, colourful spectacle of her dresses.

Murray Arbeid’s midnight blue strapless evening gown with a fishtail tulle skirt and a covering of diamante stars seems to encapsulate Diana’s image as the fairytale princess. It must surely have been every little girl’s dream dress at the time.

For those who fancy having a go at designing their own dream gown, Fashion Rules on Paper, an app to accompany the exhibition, allows visitors to draw their own illustrations using 16 templates from the different eras featured in the exhibition.

Perhaps the next Norman Hartnell or Zandra Rhodes will be inspired to create the dresses that will clothe the next generation of royals.

  • Open 10am-6pm (5pm November 1  - February 28).  Admission £11.40-£15 (free for under-16s). Book online. Follow Historic Royal Palaces on Twitter @HRP_Palaces.

More pictures:

A photo of people taking photos of a white royal dress inside a case
Photographers take a look at Queen Victoria's Wedding Dress
A photo of two conservators working on a cream and a black dress within a gallery
Conservators installing two of Princess Diana's dresses: a classic formal dinner dress of ivory silk crepe, by Catherine Walker, and a black silk taffeta gown, by Emanuel© Nick Wilkinson /
A photo of a dark lacey dress on a mannequin
Also borrowed from Chile, Diana wore this number on several occasions, including the London Symphony Orchestra's 85th Anniversary Concert at the Barbican Centre (1989) and a gala performance at the London Coliseum (1991)© Nick Wilkinson /
A photo of a black dress
This black ribbed silk shift evening dress, by Gianni Versace, was Diana's attire at the London premiere of Apollo 13, at UIP House in Hammersmith in September 1995. The Princess also owned a version of the dress in white. It has been lent by Suzanne and Jess King© Nick Wilkinson /
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