Inside the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Hampton Court Palace
PUBLISHED: 14:33 01 April 2016 | UPDATED: 14:47 01 April 2016
Richard Lea-Hair, Historic Royal Palaces
Royal fashion is the focus of three special exhibitions celebrating Queen Elizabeth's 90th birthday this year, which draw upon an exquisite, Surrey-based collection of international importance. Claire Saul gets a glimpse inside the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Hampton Court Palace
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine March 2016
Among the thousands of people who visit Hampton Court Palace every year, few realise that, tucked away, just across the courtyard from the Tudor kitchens and housed in a former Grace and Favour apartment, is a 10,000-strong clothing collection of international importance. Spanning almost 500 years, the items in the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection are associated with some of the most famous names in British royal history, from Charles I to Henry VIII and Princess Diana to The Queen, as well as their contemporaries.
Hidden away from public view, in order to preserve these precious items in the best condition possible, the collection comprises everything from royal, ceremonial and court fashion to uniforms and accessories, as well as associated prints, sketches, letters and diaries. They range from personal, intimate objects, including underwear, right through to items of specific historical interest, formal dress worn for state occasions and even clothes that we’d recognise from media photographs.
Originally established in the early 1980s with the long-term loan of a collection of court uniforms, these were soon joined by items from the Museum of London, along with a number of pieces acquired over the years by Historic Royal Palaces, or donated to them. Today, while the collection has to be securely housed in state-of-the-art storage conditions, many items do temporarily leave the premises to populate exhibitions and displays elsewhere around the country, such as those taking place this year to mark the 90th birthday of The Queen (more of which later).
“It is a privilege to work on items such as these,” says curator Libby Thompson, as she carefully guides one relatively recent acquisition out of its special storage box. The striking ‘Bristowe Hat’ is said to have belonged to King Henry VIII. The red wool and silk hat features a silver button, an ostrich feather and evenly-positioned holes for the attachment of jewels, indicating that it was indeed worn by a very rich person of high status. It originally came into the possession of an ancestor of the Bristowe family at the surrender of French troops in the siege of Boulogne in 1544.
“The story that has been passed down through the family is that Henry threw his hat in the air and Nicholas Bristowe, his clerk of the wardrobe, caught it,” says Libby. “We do know that Nicholas was gifted objects from the royal wardrobe, so that link is quite strong. Also, the hat has been dated and the dyes and the wool are definitely late-medieval. It is difficult to establish whether it is definitely Henry’s hat, but it is still a very high-status hat from the period and a very rare survival. It has survived so well because the family has always looked after it as we look after things here – in a box, in the dark.”
Until the acquisition of the Bristowe Hat, the oldest item in the collection was a leather jerkin dating from around 1625, believed to have belonged to Charles I. It is remarkable for many reasons, not least because of its small dimensions, and because, at some point in its history, a large patch has been hacked from a back panel.
“Again, it is a really rare survival, even though someone has taken a big chunk out of it; textiles were re-used as they were so expensive then,” explains Libby. “It is quite a small item, as was Charles I. So it is a good indication that it was his but we cannot say for sure.”
Rather more magnificent are two courtiers’ outfits dating from the 18th century. One of them, a gentleman’s silk court suit, features stunning detail, embroidered with hundreds of precisely-placed, multi-coloured ‘rosebud’ spots. The heavy use of metallic thread on the garment is a clear indicator of wealth and status and was also designed to impress both ladies and other gents at court, at a time when male fashion was as much a prerogative as it was women’s.
The other, a beautiful court dress dating from 1780, originally belonged to Lady Mary Watson Wentworth, second Marchioness of Rockingham and wife of the Prime Minister. Made from muslin, quite a new material at the time, it features elaborate silver embroidery.
“It is Indian-style embroidery using very pure silver,” says Libby. “The stitching is exquisite and so uniform and must have taken a huge amount of time. Wearing this was quite an involved process, with the various skirts, panels, stomacher and so on, as at the time ladies would have been pinned or sewn into their dresses. This is one of my favourite items in the collection; it is just so beautiful and I love the shape of it. If I could put anything on, this would be my choice!”
Another item that holds special attachment for Libby is the wedding dress of Princess Charlotte, dating from 1816, which required 700 hours of preparation by Libby to prepare it for a recent exhibition.
“When you are working with an object such as clothing, you really get a sense of the person,” she continues. “Not only of their physicality but also their taste; how they wore things.
“Princess Charlotte’s wedding dress stands out for me, because she had such a tragic life and died quite early, in childbirth. I really felt a strong connection with that object. It is a silk net with very heavy silver lamé strips embroidered onto it. The silk was beginning to rip so I created a whole internal support system for it to be displayed.”
Fashioning a reign
Preparing such rare, historically important, valuable and often delicate items when they are required for display in an exhibition is just one of many challenges faced by the curators of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. Most recently, the curatorial and conservation teams have been busy preparing a range of items ready for the three special exhibitions being staged across Her Majesty’s residences, Holyroodhouse, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, in celebration of her 90th birthday. Entitled Fashioning a Reign; 90 Years of Style from The Queen’s Wardrobe, they will feature around 150 of her outfits (more details below).
Other items from the collection can also be seen in the revamped Fashion Rules Restyled exhibition at Kensington Palace, which features pieces from the wardrobes of The Queen, Princess Margaret and Diana, Princess of Wales. Also on loan from the collection are sketches of The Queen by couturier Ian Thomas, who designed for Her Majesty for 20 years (again, more below).
“These original drawings would have been presented to The Queen with a swatch of fabric,” says Libby. “She would then indicate what she liked and didn’t like and some of them have her annotations on them. Ian Thomas also made notes to her and the comments provide a nice insight into their relationship. He mounted the sketches and kept them, along with photographs of The Queen wearing the actual dress he created.”
The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection is an unrivalled and invaluable resource that throws a spotlight on new aspects of the personalities who have shaped our history and those who mingled with them. It’s a sublime reflection of ceremony, tradition and fashion tastes down the ages, each carefully-labelled box or bag holding a new story to tell.
• Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey KT8 9AU. For details on visiting the palace, call 0844 482 7777 or see online at hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/visit-us. For more information on the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, see hrp.org.uk/discover-the-palaces/our-collections
State-of-the-art storage conditions
Inside the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, the notoriously fragile nature of the textiles means that precise storage conditions have to be carefully observed.
“We have an isolation room for any new objects,” explains Libby. “Usually they are frozen initially, to eliminate any nasty pests, and then all items will be photographed, monitored and given a condition report and rating.
“Conservation of the garments is ongoing and it is a huge job with so many items in the collection.”
Acid-free boxes and tissue or semi- permeable and waterproof Tyvek bags are used and the storage rooms are all environmentally monitored.
Some items in the collection also require extra-special protection, such as the ermine-trimmed coronation robe of the flamboyant King George IV (1821), which lays encased inside an enormous, bespoke garment bag.
“This item is made from crimson silk velvet and measures 16 feet long,” says Libby. “It is embroidered in metal thread, most probably originally silver and gold but now tarnished so it is hard to say.
“The velvet of the robe is still quite a bright colour but the richly-embroidered trim has now faded to dull taupes and greys. It has been quite badly damaged over time due to environmental factors – particularly light and the bad restoration techniques it has previously been treated with in its long history.”
Happily, it’s a better story for most of the items in the collection – and thanks to the careful care and attention lavished on them by this expert team, they will be gracing special exhibitions and displays for many more years to come.
A peek through the royal wardrobe doors...
Celebrating The Queen’s 90th birthday this year, three special exhibitions will feature 150 of Her Majesty’s outfits and accessories, representing her childhood to the present day, with items from renowned designers such as Sir Norman Hartnell, Sir Hardy Amies and Ian Thomas.
Entitled Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen’s Wardrobe, they will be staged in three of her official residences and the content of each will reflect the location.
The first exhibition will take place at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh from Thursday April 21 to October (exact date to be announced), and will highlight the use of tartan in royal dress.
Next up, at the Summer Opening of the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace, from Saturday July 30 to Sunday September 25, visitors will be able to see the fashions of the 1920s to the 2010s, including ensembles worn at family weddings, the Coronation and wardrobes created for state visits.
Then, at Windsor Castle, from September to January (exact dates to be announced), day and evening wear worn at official events will be displayed as well as fancy-dress costumes worn by the young princess for family pantomimes.
In addition, the recently-opened Fashion Rules Restyled exhibition at Kensington Palace looks at the outfits of Princess Margaret in the 1950s, HM The Queen in the 1960s and 1970s and Diana, Princess of Wales in the 1990s, exploring how the women accommodated the ‘rules’ dictated by their royal duties in unique style.
Entry is included in the admission price for Kensington Palace. For more details, see hrp.org.uk/kensington-palace.
A tale of two tweeds
Among the best-known items in the collection is a distinctive tweed skirt suit that is immediately recognisable from photographs of the Prince and Princess of Wales at Balmoral on the last leg of their honeymoon in August 1981.
“This was Diana trying to wear the right thing, the traditional thing, and because she was in the country she wore a tweed suit,” says Libby. “It’s a blouson style of jacket with a skirt, made by Bill Pashley. Later in her life, we see her developing more of her own style.”
Elsewhere, a tweed jacket belonging to the sartorial Edward VIII, tells us much about the man himself. Determined to sideline the formality of his predecessors, he strived to make double-breasted suits acceptable daywear and wore this item in the City, causing a degree of outrage. Edward also had his jacket waists set high, to lengthen his silhouette, and hooks inside his trousers indicate that he might just have worn a girdle too.
“He was an incredibly stylish man and his clothes are really beautifully made,” adds Libby. “He liked the way the Parisian tailors cut trousers, but he preferred the way the English tailors cut jackets, so
he wore a bit of both.”