History, art and culture

Power dressing for the people: Fashion Rules at Kensington Palace

The Fashion Rules exhibition at Kensington Palace is a great way to delve into the lives of three of the most influential women of the 20th century, and learn how power dressing has always been key to promoting public image. Take a tour of the classic collections of HM Queen Elizabeth II in the 1950s, check out her sister Princess Margaret’s exotic taste in the 60s, and discover the late Princess Diana modelling high-end fashion, in the 80s. In the five rooms of the exhibition, hosted within the notable Kensington Palace, you will find 21 unique couture dresses and learn how dressing for the people was an important element in promoting a royal’s public image. Princess Diana, for example, would always ask herself what a particular outfit communicated, before choosing to wear it, and you’ll learn about the unspoken royal ‘rules’ of dress that she was expected to follow. The Fashion Rules exhibition at Kensington Palace explores three of the most influential decades in fashion, brought to life by three of the most popular women in the public eye. Starting with HM Queen Elizabeth II, you’ll discover that her ‘brief’ was to remain classic, conventional and classy at all times, with nipped-in waists and full floor length skirts. Accessorised with long evening gloves and fine jewels, HM Queen had to appear demure but well dressed, and avoid anything extravagant or over-the-top. Unlike her ancestors, who battled to achieve a balance of dressing for both power and majesty, Elizabeth II triumphed in diplomatic accoutrement. The theme of ‘power dressing’ dates right back to the 16th century. Elizabeth I was known for eccentric and overt symbolism, as you can see from her famous rainbow portrait in which images of eyes and ears are in the pattern of her dress. You can find out more about Elizabeth I’s elaborate wardrobe (and more on ‘Tales from the Royal Wardrobe’ as shown recently on BBC4) on Dr Lucy Worsley’s blog. The royal monarchs were experts at propaganda and their clothes played an essential part in the PR machine. Power dressing was crucial for maintaining status – especially after the invention of the printing press. In many ways, not much changed from the 1500s to the 1950s. The royals were still very much in the public eye, although now having to contend not only with the press, but with (national and international) television and the dreaded paparazzi. In short, the royal wardrobe has always spoken volumes. Although the royal family nowadays meets expectations (they are well-dressed symbols of power), there have been a few that strayed from convention. Princess Margaret wasn’t heir to the throne and therefore not expected to perform as many royal duties as her older sister, HM Elizabeth II. In the 1960s, Christian Dior’s new influence on cosmopolitan culture and fashion was immense and this exotic French designer became one of Princess Margaret’s main inspirations. With a natural flair for fashion, she was the more adventurous of the two sisters and was allowed to experiment with her style in a way her elder sister couldn’t. In the 60s and 70s Princess Margaret showcased the figure-hugging ‘slim look’ dresses, in bold colours – a world away from the floor length full gowns of the previous decade – echoing the more liberal years and a significant move away from the conventional dress of her royal peers. Princess Margaret wasn’t the only rebellious royal in history. Before her, there was a stream of others so extravagant that for one, his excess led to his execution. Charles I’s lack of control in the clothing department went some way to provoking the Civil War and eventually his death. He is a prime example of a ruler who used power and wealth poorly when it came to choosing his wardrobe. Instead of dressing for the people, he dressed for himself and his courtiers – immediately turning any supporters against him. What our three women in Fashion Rules have shown us is that you can express yourself, your power and your personality as a royal – but make sure you follow the (albeit unspoken) rules. Princess Diana was a champion of loud 80s fashion, and even more daring than Princess Margaret. Her wardrobe was full of shoulder pads, sequins and velvets and it’s not surprising that the ‘People’s Princess’ helped popularise the brave looks of the 80s. She elicited the sympathy, love and support from the public and dared to break a few rules along the way. She also helped revive the British fashion industry, with her support for UK designers. HM Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana embodied a huge milestone in royal dressing, and redefined the symbols of power. It’s amazing to think that only 200 years prior, mantua-clad ladies paraded around State Apartments with 6ft wide hips to demonstrate their wealth. Even crazier is the demand that 800 freshwater pearls be sewn into one of Elizabeth I’s 1,326 dresses! The royals once used their monarchic status to wield unnecessary luxuries in order to demonstrate their power – now, it’s about being underrated, conventional and even mainstream, in order to garner respect. The monarchy learnt from their mistakes (unpopularity, the Civil War – even execution) and understood over time how best to manage their public appearance, with one of the main lessons being – keep the public on your side. HM Queen Elizabeth II was (and still is) an expert in power dressing, while her sister Princess Margaret exhibited status with her flawless taste. Remember Princess Diana’s green velvet dress that sold for over £222,000 at Christie’s? Clearly, her fashion rules weren’t a bad thing either. Learn more about the history of royal dress at Kensington Palace: Fashion Rules. Entry with no further payment with The London Pass.

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