History and Fashion at Kensington Palace

At KPNicola here, with a “what I did last weekend” sort of a blog about my recent trip to the absolutely charming Kensington Palace. The Palace is small – by royal standards -and feels cosy and intimate, and the current exhibitions illustrate life there during the late Stuart and Georgian eras. There’s also a lovely exhibition about the family life of Queen Victoria and last but not least, a fashion exhibition with gorgeous gowns that were worn by the current Queen, her sister Princess Margaret and Diana, Princess of Wales.

But to start at the beginning…

In 1689, when William and Mary came to the English throne as joint rulers, they were looking for somewhere private to live outside London because William, who suffered severely from asthma, needed to escape the polluted air of the city. They chose Nottingham House in the village of Kensington, and transformed it into a palace. Nowadays Kensington Palace is in central London, adjoining Hyde Park, and is the official London home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (and Prince George!)

The Queen’s State Apartments are the oldest part of the palace and were designed by Sir Christopher Kensington Palace Wren between 1689 and 1694. Mary II is not a Queen who has left a great deal of an impression on English history so it was interesting to discover more about her.

The daughter of King James II, Mary had married her cousin William of Orange at the age of 15 and gone to live in the Netherlands. It was there that she developed an interest in collecting items from India, China and Japan, which were the result of the trade of the Dutch East India Company. When she came to England she brought these treasures with her to decorate her apartments; there was a huge amount of porcelain, Turkish carpets, wall hangings and lacquer furniture. Apparently Mary had so much china that it was piled from floor to ceiling in her chambers and her pet dogs and monkeys would climb all over it! The Queen’s apartments also included less grand rooms such as her closet and “the Queen’s eating room” where she and William would share a private supper of fish and beer (yum!)

OrangeryMary’s sister Anne succeeded William on the throne and her great contribution to Kensington Palace was the Orangery. This was designed as a greenhouse for Anne’s orange trees but also served as a venue for balls and ceremonies. With its long brick construction and high windows it’s a very good example of an early 18th century “greenhouse” in the style before glasshouses were introduced.

The Georgian Court

The King’s State Apartments were designed to be grander and more official than those of the queen (of course!)and are currently hosting an exhibition of life at the Georgian court including a “smell map” which was rather fun. The scents ranged from makeup and perfume with musk, jasmine and lavender in the long gallery where the courtiers mingled, to the smell of paper and ink made from oak galls and gum in the Queen’s Closet.

The approach to the exhibition is up the King’s staircase, which was the way that Georgian visitors to court The King's stair would also have entered the King’s apartments. The first room, the Presence Chamber, was where the Georges would receive their guests. Beyond that were the Privy Chamber, the Cupola Room and the King’s Drawing Room, which would all have been thronged with visitors. How far you could progress into the inner sanctum depended on how much influence you had at court or whether you could bribe one of the servants on the door, who acted much as bouncers do today!

It was clear from the displays that court dress was incredibly ostentatious. One could never be overdressed. Ladies had to wear the mantua, a coat like dress with a train that spread out very wide over petticoats supported by a hoop. The sleeves of the dress had to have three rows of ruffles and the best dressed ladies wore feathers in their hair, their best jewels (often rented or borrowed) and carried a huge fan. There were a number of mantuas in the exhibition including the very famous Buckingham Mantua made of silk brocade. I did take a photograph of it but it was too dark to come out well.

For gentlemen court dress included a wig, an embroidered suit, silk stockings, and court pumps with shiny buckles. If a man didn’t have his own sword he could hire one at the door so it was to be hoped that the royal guests were all too well bred to indulge in a brawl!

The delicate issue of how one relieved oneself during a reception was also addressed because if the Queen did not give you permission to “go” then matters could get difficult. As well as chamber pots the courtiers had cunning little items called “bourdaloues” which could be clenched between the thighs. Privacy was not… ahem… essential and one commentator at the court of George II referred to the French ambassador’s wife who annoyed everyone with “the frequency and quantity of her p****** which she does not fail to do ten times a day amidst a cloud of witnesses.” Evidently we live in more discreet times since that alone would be sufficient to make me keep well away from the court!

Young Victoria

Queen Victoria's gownDuring the later Georgian period Kensington Palace was unused but in the early 19th century it became the childhood home of Queen Victoria. There was a lovely and very poignant exhibition called “Victoria Revealed” focussing on her family life with Prince Albert and their children. It was very special to see all the different places in the palace that were so significant in her life – the staircase where she first met Albert in 1837 and the Red Salon where she held her first privy council meeting upon becoming Queen. (Yes, you are allowed to sit on her “throne!”) Victoria’s wedding gown of ivory Spitalfields silk trimmed with Honiton lace was also on display. The photograph came out surprisingly well! It also showed just how tiny she was! There were also some very affecting items of mourning dating from when Prince Albert died, including Victoria's silk handkerchief embroidered with black tears.

The Fashion Rules exhibition brought us almost up to date with a very glamorous display of gowns dating from the 1950s through to the 1980s. I adored the Queen's fabulous 1950s outfits by designers Hardy Amies and Norman Hartnell that were the epitome of elegance. The rules of royal dressing were fascinating – The gowns are pale in order Fashion rules to stand out in a crowd in black and white pictures. They also allow for the display of medals and other insignia and for royal visits abroad they would include some reference to the host country, which is known as "diplomatic dressing."

The Queen was required to be relatively conservative in her dress but her sister Princess Margaret was renowned for her fashion forward outfits and celebrity friends. Her dresses, from the 1960s and 1970s included mini skirts, ethnic clothing and bold colours. Finally we got to see the 80s styles worn by Diana Princess of Wales, and oh those shoulder pads! I remember those! And all that glitter and sparkle! I still have a soft spot of those dresses although I much prefer the understated elegance of the 1950s styles. There are more gowns on show here if you would like to see some of the other items in the exhibition.

What sort of costume interests you? Would you like to see the elegant gowns of the 50s, the daring trends of the 60s and 70s or the glamour of the 80s? Or would you prefer the Georgian exhibition or Victoria's wedding dress?

100 thoughts on “History and Fashion at Kensington Palace”

  1. It sounds as though you would be like me, Gram, wanting to visit all the different bits of the palace and see exhibitions from the different time periods. I wished my grandmother had still been alive to come with us; she was a skilled seamstress and it would have been fascinating to hear what she thought of the work.

    Reply
  2. It sounds as though you would be like me, Gram, wanting to visit all the different bits of the palace and see exhibitions from the different time periods. I wished my grandmother had still been alive to come with us; she was a skilled seamstress and it would have been fascinating to hear what she thought of the work.

    Reply
  3. It sounds as though you would be like me, Gram, wanting to visit all the different bits of the palace and see exhibitions from the different time periods. I wished my grandmother had still been alive to come with us; she was a skilled seamstress and it would have been fascinating to hear what she thought of the work.

    Reply
  4. It sounds as though you would be like me, Gram, wanting to visit all the different bits of the palace and see exhibitions from the different time periods. I wished my grandmother had still been alive to come with us; she was a skilled seamstress and it would have been fascinating to hear what she thought of the work.

    Reply
  5. It sounds as though you would be like me, Gram, wanting to visit all the different bits of the palace and see exhibitions from the different time periods. I wished my grandmother had still been alive to come with us; she was a skilled seamstress and it would have been fascinating to hear what she thought of the work.

    Reply
  6. Fascinating, Nicola! I’d be more interested in the Georgian and Victorian fashions, but all of it sounds wonderful. I’ve never heard of “diplomatic dressing, but it certainly makes sense. It’s also interesting that they made the dresses pale so they’d stand out. I’ve never been to Kensington Palace, but clearly I should go there!

    Reply
  7. Fascinating, Nicola! I’d be more interested in the Georgian and Victorian fashions, but all of it sounds wonderful. I’ve never heard of “diplomatic dressing, but it certainly makes sense. It’s also interesting that they made the dresses pale so they’d stand out. I’ve never been to Kensington Palace, but clearly I should go there!

    Reply
  8. Fascinating, Nicola! I’d be more interested in the Georgian and Victorian fashions, but all of it sounds wonderful. I’ve never heard of “diplomatic dressing, but it certainly makes sense. It’s also interesting that they made the dresses pale so they’d stand out. I’ve never been to Kensington Palace, but clearly I should go there!

    Reply
  9. Fascinating, Nicola! I’d be more interested in the Georgian and Victorian fashions, but all of it sounds wonderful. I’ve never heard of “diplomatic dressing, but it certainly makes sense. It’s also interesting that they made the dresses pale so they’d stand out. I’ve never been to Kensington Palace, but clearly I should go there!

    Reply
  10. Fascinating, Nicola! I’d be more interested in the Georgian and Victorian fashions, but all of it sounds wonderful. I’ve never heard of “diplomatic dressing, but it certainly makes sense. It’s also interesting that they made the dresses pale so they’d stand out. I’ve never been to Kensington Palace, but clearly I should go there!

    Reply
  11. It’s all fun to look at. I keep meaning to visit the Costume Institute at the Met in New York. But I love the old Tudor era fashions, the materials were so lush and the styles so ornate.

    Reply
  12. It’s all fun to look at. I keep meaning to visit the Costume Institute at the Met in New York. But I love the old Tudor era fashions, the materials were so lush and the styles so ornate.

    Reply
  13. It’s all fun to look at. I keep meaning to visit the Costume Institute at the Met in New York. But I love the old Tudor era fashions, the materials were so lush and the styles so ornate.

    Reply
  14. It’s all fun to look at. I keep meaning to visit the Costume Institute at the Met in New York. But I love the old Tudor era fashions, the materials were so lush and the styles so ornate.

    Reply
  15. It’s all fun to look at. I keep meaning to visit the Costume Institute at the Met in New York. But I love the old Tudor era fashions, the materials were so lush and the styles so ornate.

    Reply
  16. I imagine the Georgian section.
    BTW, I keep planning my 2017 visit. Is Kensington Palace a full day item, or could it be seen on a half day?

    Reply
  17. I imagine the Georgian section.
    BTW, I keep planning my 2017 visit. Is Kensington Palace a full day item, or could it be seen on a half day?

    Reply
  18. I imagine the Georgian section.
    BTW, I keep planning my 2017 visit. Is Kensington Palace a full day item, or could it be seen on a half day?

    Reply
  19. I imagine the Georgian section.
    BTW, I keep planning my 2017 visit. Is Kensington Palace a full day item, or could it be seen on a half day?

    Reply
  20. I imagine the Georgian section.
    BTW, I keep planning my 2017 visit. Is Kensington Palace a full day item, or could it be seen on a half day?

    Reply
  21. I love to look at old costumes at any time (I never fail to visit the “President’s Wives” collection whenever I’m near the Smithsonian in Washington, D. C.), but in general, I’m not very fond of fashion.
    What caught my eye was the picture of the Orangery. In St. Louis, Missouri, at the Missouri Botanical Gardens (more popularly know as Shaw’s Gardens) there is a building known as the Linean House. It looks remarkably like the Orangery. Henry Shaw was a rich St. Louis merchant who had come to the U S. from England. Perhaps he had seen the Orangery before he came.

    Reply
  22. I love to look at old costumes at any time (I never fail to visit the “President’s Wives” collection whenever I’m near the Smithsonian in Washington, D. C.), but in general, I’m not very fond of fashion.
    What caught my eye was the picture of the Orangery. In St. Louis, Missouri, at the Missouri Botanical Gardens (more popularly know as Shaw’s Gardens) there is a building known as the Linean House. It looks remarkably like the Orangery. Henry Shaw was a rich St. Louis merchant who had come to the U S. from England. Perhaps he had seen the Orangery before he came.

    Reply
  23. I love to look at old costumes at any time (I never fail to visit the “President’s Wives” collection whenever I’m near the Smithsonian in Washington, D. C.), but in general, I’m not very fond of fashion.
    What caught my eye was the picture of the Orangery. In St. Louis, Missouri, at the Missouri Botanical Gardens (more popularly know as Shaw’s Gardens) there is a building known as the Linean House. It looks remarkably like the Orangery. Henry Shaw was a rich St. Louis merchant who had come to the U S. from England. Perhaps he had seen the Orangery before he came.

    Reply
  24. I love to look at old costumes at any time (I never fail to visit the “President’s Wives” collection whenever I’m near the Smithsonian in Washington, D. C.), but in general, I’m not very fond of fashion.
    What caught my eye was the picture of the Orangery. In St. Louis, Missouri, at the Missouri Botanical Gardens (more popularly know as Shaw’s Gardens) there is a building known as the Linean House. It looks remarkably like the Orangery. Henry Shaw was a rich St. Louis merchant who had come to the U S. from England. Perhaps he had seen the Orangery before he came.

    Reply
  25. I love to look at old costumes at any time (I never fail to visit the “President’s Wives” collection whenever I’m near the Smithsonian in Washington, D. C.), but in general, I’m not very fond of fashion.
    What caught my eye was the picture of the Orangery. In St. Louis, Missouri, at the Missouri Botanical Gardens (more popularly know as Shaw’s Gardens) there is a building known as the Linean House. It looks remarkably like the Orangery. Henry Shaw was a rich St. Louis merchant who had come to the U S. from England. Perhaps he had seen the Orangery before he came.

    Reply
  26. I think you would like it very much, Mary Jo. It felt quite manageable for a palace! Sometimes these huge places overwhelm me but I did enjoy the lived-in feel to it. Plus the exhibitions were so well done.

    Reply
  27. I think you would like it very much, Mary Jo. It felt quite manageable for a palace! Sometimes these huge places overwhelm me but I did enjoy the lived-in feel to it. Plus the exhibitions were so well done.

    Reply
  28. I think you would like it very much, Mary Jo. It felt quite manageable for a palace! Sometimes these huge places overwhelm me but I did enjoy the lived-in feel to it. Plus the exhibitions were so well done.

    Reply
  29. I think you would like it very much, Mary Jo. It felt quite manageable for a palace! Sometimes these huge places overwhelm me but I did enjoy the lived-in feel to it. Plus the exhibitions were so well done.

    Reply
  30. I think you would like it very much, Mary Jo. It felt quite manageable for a palace! Sometimes these huge places overwhelm me but I did enjoy the lived-in feel to it. Plus the exhibitions were so well done.

    Reply
  31. Hi Sue. That is absolutely fascinating about the Orangery at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. I’ve just looked it up and it does indeed look very similar. And what a fabulous place the gardens are! I would love to visit.

    Reply
  32. Hi Sue. That is absolutely fascinating about the Orangery at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. I’ve just looked it up and it does indeed look very similar. And what a fabulous place the gardens are! I would love to visit.

    Reply
  33. Hi Sue. That is absolutely fascinating about the Orangery at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. I’ve just looked it up and it does indeed look very similar. And what a fabulous place the gardens are! I would love to visit.

    Reply
  34. Hi Sue. That is absolutely fascinating about the Orangery at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. I’ve just looked it up and it does indeed look very similar. And what a fabulous place the gardens are! I would love to visit.

    Reply
  35. Hi Sue. That is absolutely fascinating about the Orangery at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. I’ve just looked it up and it does indeed look very similar. And what a fabulous place the gardens are! I would love to visit.

    Reply
  36. I so envy you, Nicola having all these wonderful places to visit. I’m not terribly interested in fashion as such, but I do enjoy looking at costume displays, especially when they’re given some kind of context. Probably my favorite era for fashion is the edwardian and leading into the early 1900’s — Paul Poiret kind of thing.

    Reply
  37. I so envy you, Nicola having all these wonderful places to visit. I’m not terribly interested in fashion as such, but I do enjoy looking at costume displays, especially when they’re given some kind of context. Probably my favorite era for fashion is the edwardian and leading into the early 1900’s — Paul Poiret kind of thing.

    Reply
  38. I so envy you, Nicola having all these wonderful places to visit. I’m not terribly interested in fashion as such, but I do enjoy looking at costume displays, especially when they’re given some kind of context. Probably my favorite era for fashion is the edwardian and leading into the early 1900’s — Paul Poiret kind of thing.

    Reply
  39. I so envy you, Nicola having all these wonderful places to visit. I’m not terribly interested in fashion as such, but I do enjoy looking at costume displays, especially when they’re given some kind of context. Probably my favorite era for fashion is the edwardian and leading into the early 1900’s — Paul Poiret kind of thing.

    Reply
  40. I so envy you, Nicola having all these wonderful places to visit. I’m not terribly interested in fashion as such, but I do enjoy looking at costume displays, especially when they’re given some kind of context. Probably my favorite era for fashion is the edwardian and leading into the early 1900’s — Paul Poiret kind of thing.

    Reply
  41. My only wish in the linked website was that I could have enlarged some of the photos to see the detail. When my husband and I visited Kensington Palace a few years ago, there was an exhibit of Diana’s clothing. The dresses were on mannequins and displayed beside a photo of Diana wearing the dress. As beautiful as some of the dresses were on the mannequin, they were even more beautiful on her.

    Reply
  42. My only wish in the linked website was that I could have enlarged some of the photos to see the detail. When my husband and I visited Kensington Palace a few years ago, there was an exhibit of Diana’s clothing. The dresses were on mannequins and displayed beside a photo of Diana wearing the dress. As beautiful as some of the dresses were on the mannequin, they were even more beautiful on her.

    Reply
  43. My only wish in the linked website was that I could have enlarged some of the photos to see the detail. When my husband and I visited Kensington Palace a few years ago, there was an exhibit of Diana’s clothing. The dresses were on mannequins and displayed beside a photo of Diana wearing the dress. As beautiful as some of the dresses were on the mannequin, they were even more beautiful on her.

    Reply
  44. My only wish in the linked website was that I could have enlarged some of the photos to see the detail. When my husband and I visited Kensington Palace a few years ago, there was an exhibit of Diana’s clothing. The dresses were on mannequins and displayed beside a photo of Diana wearing the dress. As beautiful as some of the dresses were on the mannequin, they were even more beautiful on her.

    Reply
  45. My only wish in the linked website was that I could have enlarged some of the photos to see the detail. When my husband and I visited Kensington Palace a few years ago, there was an exhibit of Diana’s clothing. The dresses were on mannequins and displayed beside a photo of Diana wearing the dress. As beautiful as some of the dresses were on the mannequin, they were even more beautiful on her.

    Reply
  46. How wonderful to have seen the display of Diana’s outfits, Susan! But you are absolutely right, whilst an exhibition can look wonderful the clothing looks even better on the person it was intended for.

    Reply
  47. How wonderful to have seen the display of Diana’s outfits, Susan! But you are absolutely right, whilst an exhibition can look wonderful the clothing looks even better on the person it was intended for.

    Reply
  48. How wonderful to have seen the display of Diana’s outfits, Susan! But you are absolutely right, whilst an exhibition can look wonderful the clothing looks even better on the person it was intended for.

    Reply
  49. How wonderful to have seen the display of Diana’s outfits, Susan! But you are absolutely right, whilst an exhibition can look wonderful the clothing looks even better on the person it was intended for.

    Reply
  50. How wonderful to have seen the display of Diana’s outfits, Susan! But you are absolutely right, whilst an exhibition can look wonderful the clothing looks even better on the person it was intended for.

    Reply
  51. I think a lot of people think of Queen Victoria as an older woman. But even then she was a very small woman!
    Having grown up in a theatre family, I’ve been lucky to have worked with costumes from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era to everything in between! I do love the Victorian costumes. The first time I put a crinoline on it was so much fun!

    Reply
  52. I think a lot of people think of Queen Victoria as an older woman. But even then she was a very small woman!
    Having grown up in a theatre family, I’ve been lucky to have worked with costumes from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era to everything in between! I do love the Victorian costumes. The first time I put a crinoline on it was so much fun!

    Reply
  53. I think a lot of people think of Queen Victoria as an older woman. But even then she was a very small woman!
    Having grown up in a theatre family, I’ve been lucky to have worked with costumes from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era to everything in between! I do love the Victorian costumes. The first time I put a crinoline on it was so much fun!

    Reply
  54. I think a lot of people think of Queen Victoria as an older woman. But even then she was a very small woman!
    Having grown up in a theatre family, I’ve been lucky to have worked with costumes from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era to everything in between! I do love the Victorian costumes. The first time I put a crinoline on it was so much fun!

    Reply
  55. I think a lot of people think of Queen Victoria as an older woman. But even then she was a very small woman!
    Having grown up in a theatre family, I’ve been lucky to have worked with costumes from the Middle Ages to the Victorian era to everything in between! I do love the Victorian costumes. The first time I put a crinoline on it was so much fun!

    Reply
  56. Wow, Sonya, that sounds like an amazing experience! I envy you being able to try out all those costumes. It would be fascinating to see them but even more interesting to find out what it feels like to wear them.

    Reply
  57. Wow, Sonya, that sounds like an amazing experience! I envy you being able to try out all those costumes. It would be fascinating to see them but even more interesting to find out what it feels like to wear them.

    Reply
  58. Wow, Sonya, that sounds like an amazing experience! I envy you being able to try out all those costumes. It would be fascinating to see them but even more interesting to find out what it feels like to wear them.

    Reply
  59. Wow, Sonya, that sounds like an amazing experience! I envy you being able to try out all those costumes. It would be fascinating to see them but even more interesting to find out what it feels like to wear them.

    Reply
  60. Wow, Sonya, that sounds like an amazing experience! I envy you being able to try out all those costumes. It would be fascinating to see them but even more interesting to find out what it feels like to wear them.

    Reply

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