What we wear matters: clothes have long been a means of displaying status and personality, and none more so than for royalty. Whilst today’s style icons in the Royal Family tend to support their favourite designers and styles, rather than be innovators themselves, in centuries gone by kings and queens were often at the cutting edge of fashion.
Then, as now, designers and styles favoured by royalty would be replicated far and wide. Relatively few pieces have survived the test of time: for much of history, fabric was expensive and highly valued, altered and worn until it fell apart. Many items worn by and associated with royalty that do still exist are now part of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, which is cared for by Historic Royal Palaces. Here are just a handful of these remarkable garments which illustrate a tiny part of the history of royal fashion over the centuries.
1. The Bacton Altar Cloth (c. 1590s)
Queen Elizabeth I had a legendary collection of dresses: over 2,000 were recorded in the royal wardrobe when she died in 1603. Many of these would have been made from sumptuous fabrics and embroidered with costly jewels or threads. Elizabeth was master of dressing to impress: her glittering wardrobe reinforced her status as queen.
Much of Elizabeth’s wardrobe is thought to have passed to Anne of Denmark, wife of her successor, King James I, where it would have been altered and reused, whilst during her lifetime, she was known for giving her ladies-in-waiting her cast offs as gifts. Her own dresses would have had sleeves, bodices and necklines altered in order to keep them a la mode.
In 2016, experts identified the Bacton Altar Cloth as originally being part of a 16th century dress: it’s thought it was a dress of Elizabeth’s that she handed down to Blanche Parry, her Chief Gentlewoman of the Bedchamber. After it left Blanche’s possession, it was transformed into an altar cloth. The rich exquisite embroidery and floral motifs suggest that it dates back to around the 1590s.
2. The Rockingham Mantua (c. 1760)
Mantuas were a style of formal 18th century court dress: they were extremely structured, featuring corsets and hooped skirts which left little room for movement. The aim of the dresses was to emphasis the waist through exaggerating the hip: the pannier hoops could span 6 feet wide, making it difficult for women to do anything – even sit down or walk through a doorway.
The sumptuous materials used (often elaborately embroidered silk brocaded in gold and silver) would have cost a small fortune for a normal dress, let alone in a dress which required so much material: the wider your dress, the more you signalled your wealth.
The mantua was closely associated with the French court, and following the French Revolution of 1789, this style of extremely expensive dress-making became increasingly outmoded.
This French silk mantua is decorated with silver brocade in Indian style embroidery and a silver lace trim and was thought to have been worn by Mary, Marchioness of Rockingham – the wife of the Prime Minister, Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham. As one of the leading statesmen of his day, his wife would have been required to wear a dress befitting his status, hence the elaborate and expensive material and the extremely wide panniers.
3. King George III’s waistcoat (c. 1820)
Royalty would rarely have dressed themselves: clothes could be extremely complicated, with hooks, ties and buttons to keep them in place before the advent of zips and elastane.
This waistcoat, belonging to King George III, had extra fabric inserted into the sleeves to make it easier to dress him. By this point George was deep in the throes of mental illness and so those around him needed to be able to dress him in appropriately regal attire but without relying on him to be able to get in to tight waistcoats or breeches.
The turquoise silk damask front of the waistcoat was a way of reinforcing George’s position as king – damask was an expensive silk fabric, and the colour would have been relatively sought after. At this time, blue was still a relatively expensive dye.
4. Privy Councillor’s full court dress suit (1936)
Court uniforms were just as important as those worn by actual royalty: particularly this 1936 Privy Councillor’s full court dress suit. Worn by the Rt. Hon. Malcolm Macdonald MP, Macdonald also held roles abroad as the High Commissioner to Canada, and Governor General of Kenya.
The suit is extraordinarily heavy: embroidered with gold, the metal in the thread cumulatively weighs a lot, and would have been far from easy or comfortable to wear. However, the quality of craftsmanship and expensive materials reflect Britain’s desire to present itself as superior on the world stage in the early 20th century.
5. The Duke of Windsor’s ‘Lord of the Isles’ tartan suit (1951)
Renowned for his indomitable personal style in the 1920s and 1930s, the Duke of Windsor (formally King Edward VIII), was at the forefront of men’s fashion for his day, championing a more relaxed style of dress than men had previously been permitted at court. He labelled this style of clothing as ‘dressing soft’.
His tartan suit put a material that was traditionally associated with the country firmly at the heart of sophisticated modern life. The Duke also favoured extremely well cut suits, using famous tailors of the day like Frederick Scholte of Savile Row, who was the master of a style known as ‘cut and drape’.
This particular tartan suit is a hybrid creation. The double-breasted jacket was made by Scholte, but the trousers were made in New York in a softer American style without braces, which Scholte refused to do.
6. Princess Diana’s wedding dress (1981)
One of the most closely guarded secrets of its time, Princess Diana’s choice of wedding dress would have the eyes of the world on it. She chose relatively unknown designers, Elizabeth and David Emanuel, who were around her own age, to create the taffeta and lace dress that would be one of the definitive moments in 20th century royal fashion.
Described by many as fairytale-esqe, it was hand embroidered with thousands of sequins and pearls, trimmed with antique Carrickmacross lace and featured a 25 foot train: the longest in the royal wedding history.
The dress established Diana’s fashion credentials and went on to inspire wedding dresses for much of the rest of the decade and remains iconic today.
With thanks to Matthew Storey, Collections Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and the HRP Press Team.