When Christian Dior brought his ground-breaking New Look across the channel for a London showing at the Savoy, Princess Margaret’s interest was piqued. So intrigued were the 17-year-old Margaret, the then-Princess Elizabeth and their mother the that a private viewing was organised, the collection smuggled out the back of the hotel and taken to the French embassy, where the trio of royal women were able to examine Dior’s designs up close. For the younger Princess, this marked the start of a close association with the Parisian fashion house, which would persist throughout Margaret’s twenties. ‘She was a real fairy-tale princess, delicate, graceful, exquisite,’ Dior would later say.
This tale, which surely deserved its own sub-plot in season one of The Crown, is just one of the fashionable stories to be unpicked in Royal Women. The latest exhibition at Bath’s Fashion Museum explores the sartorial legacies of four successive generations of women in the Royal Family, from Queen Alexandra to Margaret, via Queen Mary and the Queen Mother.
‘We wanted to take a look at how the roles of royal women who are not the reigning monarch are reflected in their dress,’ explains curator Elly Summers. For royal rebel Margaret, being second in line to the throne allowed her a little more leeway when it came to playing dress up. ‘She had more freedom in what she was able to wear,’ adds Summers. ‘She was very interested in fashion, certainly in a different way to the generations before her. Both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother very much chose to buy British, and while Margaret was also a great patron of Norman Hartnell, who designed a suite of dresses for Princess Elizabeth’s wedding, she could also go to Paris and wear Parisian couture, and that was OK.’
Of the 20 or so exhibits that make up Royal Women (the majority of which belong to the Fashion Museum’s impressive collection of royal dress, which served as a research aid to The Crown’s costume designer Michele Clapton), four are gowns worn by Margaret. Dating from 1949 to 1953, they provide a snapshot of a Princess at the height of her sartorial pushing power. in a prelude to the so-called ‘Kate effect,’ clothes photographed on the young royal would be much admired, even copied, and gaining Margaret’s seal of approval could launch a brand to British audiences. ‘She crystallised the whole popular frantic interest in royalty,’ said Dior, the main beneficiary of Margaret’s fashionable ascendancy.
Of this quartet of dresses, three are Hartnell designs, and two of those are evening gowns. ‘The full skirt with the nipped-in waist and the sweetheart neckline was something that was hugely fashionable in the early 1950s,’ explains Summers. ‘Margaret would wear strapless styles with a fur stole and gloves.’ While the personal styles of the two royal sisters would eventually diverge, ‘looking at the Queen’s dresses at this time, you might see those same elements,’ she adds. ‘All of Margaret’s dresses in the exhibition have this air of glamour. We have a black lace dress over pink silk, which she wore to the Coliseum to see Guys and Dolls in 1953, and it’s very beautifully made.’
It’s the one Dior design in the exhibition, though, that perhaps best encapsulates Margaret’s eye for couture. ‘We’ve got this fabulous 1952 Dior dress which the Princess wore to Ascot,’ says Summers. ‘It’s a plain cream but if you look at the collection that it came from, which is called Rose Pompon, the dresses are made from a similar fabric but covered all over in a spotted rosebud design. I think this is probably testament to Margaret’s interest in fashion: she’d have chosen the style of dress that she liked then asked for it to be made in simple cream, specifically for her.’
Of course, Margaret’s dresses only form part of the exhibition’s story. Her mother’s style is represented in two dresses which she herself chose to send to the museum in the ‘50s and ‘60s (founder Doris Langley Moore was certainly a well-connected woman). Both are by go-to royal couturier Hartnell, and are heavily embellished with beads, sequins and lace. ‘They really encapsulate her style. They’re full of sparkle and a certain element of fun. [The Queen Mother] was such a warm, generous character; I think that really shines through in her dresses.’
With current discussions of royal style dominated by one particular question – what Meghan Markle will wear when she walks down the aisle of St. George’s Chapel? – it seems particularly timely that the exhibition should feature a royal wedding dress. The gown in question, which was worn by the then-Princess Alexandra in 1863, demonstrates how fashion has long been wielded by the royals as a diplomatic tool. ‘Princess Alexandra’s dress was made by Mrs. James, the court dressmaker, and was decorated with swathes of Honiton lace [made in Devon]. That was absolutely a way of displaying the fact that, though she was a Danish princess, she was coming over to become British, to be their princess.’
With its layered lace frills and dramatically full skirt, Alexandra’s dress epitomised mid-Victorian style, but the gown’s afterlife was surprisingly modern.‘This was certainly a fashionable silhouette, but we believe that the Princess wasn’t hugely keen on those huge crinolines. Very quickly after the wedding, the dress was taken away and re-modelled by Madame Elise,’ Summer reveals (Madame Elise was not, as the name might suggest, a French dressmaker, but a pseudonym for design duo Mr and Mrs Isaacson, who capitalised on the vogue for all things Parisian. It seems the ‘French girl’ style phenomenon is hardly a recent one.) ‘The size of the skirt seems to have been reduced and the lace has been removed. We think it was remodelled more to Alexandra’s liking, so she could wear it as an evening dress as part of her wedding trousseau,’ she adds. With its nods to upcycling and cost-efficiency, it’s a move that could be straight out of Kate Middleton’s fashion playbook.
Royal Women opens at the Fashion Museum Bath on February 3rd, and runs until 28th April
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