Rummage round the Queen's wardrobe in a new exhibition

Katharine Wootton

Senior news writer, Monday, 18 July 2016

As Buckingham Palace opens its doors to Fashioning a Reign – the largest ever collection of Queen Elizabeth's clothing, we chat to the lady behind the exhibition

Queen Elizabeth has been an icon of style for 90 years. From elegant ball gowns to a classy daywear, suits for state visits to hats for every occasion, there's no question that when it comes to fashion, the Queen gets it right every time.

Now a new exhibition – the largest of its kind – is opening at Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Queen's savvy sartorial style. 

The Queen always picks the perfect outfit for the moment

To give us a glimpse into what we can expect from the collection, Fashioning a Reign, and how it all came together, we spoke to Caroline de Guitaut, Senior Curator of Decorative Arts at the Royal Collection Trust and head of the team that put this beautiful exhibition together.

Fashioning a Reign

As we all know, 2016 marks the Queen's 90th birthday. And the Fashioning a Reign collection brings those 90 incredible years to life through fashion.

"We thought fashion and dress was such a wonderful barometer of time and a great way of illustrating this extraordinary life on such a momentous occasion as a 90th birthday," says Caroline. "What's more dress brings to life lots of different memorable occasions in the queen’s life because you’re looking at outfits worn on these spectacular different occasions."

Caroline arranges a pale blue and gold evening dress by Sir Norman Hartnell, worn by The Queen on a State Visit to The Netherlands in 1958.

And there's lots of iconic numbers throughout the exhibition that are certain to remind you of some pivotal moments in the Queen's life, from several Norman Hartnell gowns she wore on important state visits, to the dress suit she wore for the wedding of her grandson Prince William and bride, Catherine Middleton.

Left: Outfit and hat designed by Angela Kelly worn by The Queen to the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, 2011; Right: Sir Norman Hartnell, evening dress, 1967. Worn by Her Majesty The Queen in Ottowa to mark the centennial celebrations of the Confederation of Canada.

Stitching together almost a century of style

"When we were putting together the exhibition, the first thing was to think about how to illustrate all the different aspects of the Queen's life, so looking at her role as head of state – what kind of clothes are required for welcoming other heads of state – her job as head of commonwealth which involves lots of tours, and also her personal life at family occasions.

"We also wanted to look at the Queen’s support of British design and then millinery so there's a section dedicated to that. Another key thing was to cover all decades of her life right from childhood up to the modern day. "

Left: A Sketch of the Coronation dress, 1953, designed by Norman Hartnell; Right: The Queen's wedding dress, 1947, again designed by Norman Hartnell

"Once we established the different sections we then thought – what are the best examples to illustrate these points? So we picked out the finest pieces from the Queen's wardrobe, liaising with her dresser who's responsible for the Queen's wardrobe. But throughout the Queen is kept fully informed of what's going on. And she will get the clothes back once the exhibition's finished!"

Three palaces of fashion

While Buckingham Palace houses the biggest collection of this exhibition, there are also sister exhibitions running at two other official residences of the Queen, one at Hollyroodhouse in Edinburgh which is open now and runs until October 16, and one at Windsor Castle which runs September 17 until January 8 2017.

All three house spectacular examples of the Queen's couture, yet each have some special individual pieces. For example, the Hollyroodhouse exhibition showcases pieces with strong Scottish associations, including the Balmoral tartan that was invented by Queen Victoria and only the current monarch can wear it.

Left: Norman Hartnell evening dress of embroidered duchesse satin worn by The Queen with a sash of Royal Stewart tartan for the Gillies Ball at Balmoral Castle in 1971; Right: Mantle, hat and insignia of the Order of the Thistle

Many outfits across all three venues have also never been seen in public before, including Her Majesty's thistle robes and several Norman Hartnell designs. 

Having seen and studied all the numbers in great detail, Caroline of course loves them all. But she lets on that she does have one favourite. "My favourite in the Scotland exhibition is the outfit which the queen wore to her sister, Princess Margaret’s wedding in 1960. It’s taffeta king fisher blue long dress overlaid with this wonderful pure lace with a little bolero jacket. It's very much of it’s time and very fashionable but also incredibly elegant and the most wonderful colour."

A style in evolution

So can we boil down exactly what it is that makes the Queen's style so successful? Caroline thinks so.

"The Queen's style is something that has been carefully thought through across her reign.

"It’s a particular look that is a combination of things. Obviously stylish but in her role as leader of state, her job is not to be a leader of fashion, it’s about dressing in an appropriate way and using the best designers available in England.

"She’s acutely aware of her role which is clearly very public facing and has a deep understanding of what works in the public arena. So colour, embroidery, shape, things like skirt length, fabrics, things that work well and enable her to perform her duty. That cocktail of things goes into creating this signature look which is absolutely unmistakable."

A wardrobe of contrasts – Left: Pale blue and gold evening dress by Sir Norman Hartnell, worn by The Queen on a State Visit to The Netherlands, 1958; Right: Auxiliary Territorial Service overalls and cap worn by Princess Elizabeth whilst serving in the wartime ATS

And it's changed over the years.

"There's definitely been a style evolution and it’s easier to see that in evening wear. In the Forties and early Seventies, crinoline skirted gowns (so full skirts and very sumptuous fabrics, with lots of embellishment and embroidery) and strapless evening gowns were sort of daring but the height of fashion.

"Then in the Sixties the shape of the dress changed when the silhouette became much slimmer – you had this A-line skirt which became quite common in the Queen’s evening wear. Then eventually into the column dress in a very sleek silhouette.

"In Seventies, the Queen went through a period of wearing softer more floaty shapes, which in a way mirrored what was happening in fashion. But after that she again went back to that slimline elegant and pared down look that she still wears today.

"In terms of day wear obviously shapes, obviously in the Forties and Fifties there was very much the influence of the New Look so lots of tailored dresses and coats with fuller skirts. Then to more boxy shapes in the Sixties, ¾ length sleeves, hem lines just on the knee.