Royal Ceremonial Dress, Kensington Palace

7 July 2011

The original purpose of my trip to London was a visit to the Royal Ceremonial Dress collection, which is kept behind the scenes at Kensington Palace. Thanks to Desmond Shawe-Taylor, I was very very fortunate to be able to make contact with the Collections Curator, Deirdre Murphy who is a fount of information and enthusiasm and she very kindly allowed me to visit the collection to have a look at a few pieces and photograph them for my blog.

Kensington Palace is undergoing intense renovation work at the moment so quite a lot of the building that would usually be open to the public is currently closed. There is a temporary exhibition, The Enchanted Palace which highlights the often tragic lives of some well known and not so well known princesses who have lived at the Palace, on while the work is ongoing but sadly I didn’t have enough time to go around, although it has been on my Wish List of things to visit for quite some time! I promise to go next time I am there!

I’m not particularly familiar with Kensington Palace, but the almost doll house like little terracotta brick structure never fails to enchant. Edward VII is said to have dismissed it as an ‘aunt heap’ due to its internal warren of grace and favour apartments that are traditionally home to the wider reaches of the Royal family but I think that any aunts who got to live there were fortunate indeed as it really is a charming spot.

Before my appointment, I spent some time walking around the beautiful gardens and visited the fence lined with eerily sun faded pictures of Princess Diana; the shop filled with Royal books and replica crowns and tiaras and also the Orangerie, where Blair Waldorf wannabe American girls queue up with Chanel handbags to enjoy a cream tea on the sunny terrace.

I was greeted at the foot of the Queen’s Staircase, which Mary II used to sweep with her ladies from her sumptuous rooms upstairs to the sunshine and birdsong filled gardens beyond, by Deirdre and her very sweet assistant, Caroline who escorted me through a series of corridors, stairs and courtyards into the behind the scenes bowels of the palace. As we walked, Deirdre explained that all the doors had to be shut as the renovations on the ground floor (which looked to be highly extensive) are causing serious dust issues that could threaten the priceless collections kept within.

I was taken up a flight of stairs to Princess Margaret’s former apartment on the first floor – I couldn’t take photographs of course but I was looking all around me, taking it in and marvelling at all the history and amazing unseen art that surrounded me. As you all know, I am a big fan of Princess Margaret so it felt really weird to be inside her former home with its huge bathroom and teeny tiny kitchen. On the other hand, it seems fitting that the apartment of a famously fashion conscious princess should now be used to home a vast collection of Royal clothing, some of which dates from as far back as the eighteenth century.

Inside the apartment was a series of rooms, each one neatly piled high with boxes (some of which are ENORMOUS) all containing clothes and accessories from the Royal Ceremonial Dress collection, which carefully conserves and looks after 12,000 items.

Each box had a photograph of the contents and a brief description attached to the outside and I was absolutely agog as I wandered around the rooms, looking at the pictures and marvelling at the amazing contents inside. Among the treasures that I spied were Queen Alexandra’s wedding dress; amazing and familiar evening dresses worn by the Queen and Princess Diana (including a gorgeous pale blue robe embellished with fabric cherry blossoms which Elizabeth II wore on a visit to Japan in the 1970s, a pale lilac blue silk dress that I’ve seen pictures of Princess Diana wearing shortly after her wedding and a halter neck black or navy blue gown with buttons down the front that I think dates from the late 1990s); Queen Victoria’s heavy embroidered yellow Coronation robe (which is apparently in excellent condition within its huge box); a tiny regal ermine robe worn by a Royal baby at their christening; matching Highlands tartan outfits worn by Queen Victoria and the Princess Royal and an eighteenth century style fancy dress outfit worn by Princess Margaret.

I also found a box containing the small flounced dark dress worn by Queen Victoria at her first ever Privy Council meeting (not the shimmering white depicted by Wilkie in his painting of this auspicious scene), the morning after she became Queen. How amazing. It must have been black once but had clearly faded over the decades to a deep rusty brown. Deirdre told me that she is currently working on a permanent installation about Queen Victoria, which is due to open at the Palace next March and promises to be wonderful. It sounds like there will be even more items on show once the renovated palace reopens next year, which is excellent news for everyone interested in the clothes worn by the Royal court over the centuries.

As Deirdre showed me some of the pieces, she explained about the conservation process which involves painstakingly wrapping each piece in acid free paper and carefully entombing it inside a box. Each piece can only be handled wearing gloves to ensure that they don’t come into contact with acid from hands or other contamination. The result is that most pieces are in an astonishing state of preservation and look as good as new.

Deirdre very kindly selected some pieces and allowed me to take photographs of them to share with you all. First of all there was a gorgeously embroidered waistcoat from an 1850s court suit – gentlemen of the court were required to dress very formally until the outbreak of the Second World War put a stop to such things. Such a shame.

Secondly, I was allowed to view a rather gorgeous suit worn by a nobleman at the Coronation of George IV in 1821, which he had decreed should have an Elizabethan theme. As I remarked at the time, it adds a whole new complexion to the story about George’s wife, Caroline hammering on the door of Westminster Abbey to gain admittance to the ceremony if one imagines everyone inside dressed up in Elizabethan fancy dress.

After this, I saw a beautiful and apparently incredibly heavy jacket worn by a Royal postillion. The insignia on the arm belongs to the current reign, but the jacket is actually much older. It’s an incredible piece of work. Can you spot the label with the original wearer’s name written on it?

We really admired the safari boots of the Duke of Windsor, which he wore when he was still the dashing and fashion conscious Prince of Wales. I may be vegan but I can still appreciate a really handsome leather, which these are. I also saw the matching Pith hat, which I thought rather dashing. Safari gear is so becoming isn’t it?

Next was something very special – the bodice from one of Queen Victoria’s mourning outfits. I’d always imagined her mourning clothes to be profoundly black and very plain indeed but this was a gorgeously detailed piece of work – clearly the mourning Queen was still partial to a lovely piece of feminine lacework and flounce. Just look at the exquisite detailing at the front of the bodice and the soft, floaty tulle of the sleeves…

There’s even a pair of teeny tiny pockets at the waist. What do you think she kept in them?

Last of all, we looked at the coronet worn by a Viscount at the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902, with its enormous gilt balls that denote the rank of the wearer. Sadly, I wasn’t allowed to try it on…

Many many thanks to Deirdre Murphy and Caroline (good luck with the rest of your placement!) at Kensington Palace for allowing me visit and for all their help yesterday. Thank you!

I’ll be returning to London at some point in the next two months to revisit Kensington Palace and also visit Hampton Court, Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace, where hopefully I’ll catch a glimpse of the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding gown for you all!

Photographs by permission of Historic Royal Palaces – please don’t reproduce without asking me first, thanks!

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