Inside the Regal Wardrobe – A Review of Royal Women at the Fashion Museum Bath

Over the weekend I got the chance to visit Royal Women, the latest temporary exhibition held at the Fashion Museum. For international readers, or for those who have never had the chance to visit the museum before, the Fashion Museum can be found in Bath, a British UNESCO city known for its famous Roman Baths and Georgian architecture. The Fashion Museum is located within the city centre, a close walk from Circus, the Royal Crescent, and the main shopping district. Tickets can be purchased for £22.50 (a single adult ticket – student discount and concessions are available), and this includes entry to both the Roman Baths and the Victoria Art Gallery. You will encounter the Royal Woman exhibition halfway through the Fashion Museum’s permanent exhibition, ‘History of Fashion in 100 Objects,’ a collection consisting of a variety of delightful Victorian dresses, robes à la française, and men’s Regency garments.

royal fashion museum exhibition

Image: Brochure of the Fashion Museum, Bath. Bath and North East Somerset Council. Photograph taken by author.

Royal Women comes at a good time; programmes such as Netflix’s award-winning The Crown portraying HRH Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret has proved extremely popular amongst viewers, as well as the BBC documentary The Coronation, which allowed viewers an intimate insight into the life of HRH Queen Elizabeth II. One cannot forget that there will be the Royal Wedding of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry taking place, and another addition due to be born into the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s growing family later this year. The growing interest in the history and future of the British royal family has undoubtedly helped and will help to popularise Royal Women.

Although other attractions such as Kensington Palace have curated blockbuster exhibitions such as Fashion Rules: Restyled, the Fashion Museum sets Royal Women apart from other museums who have curated royal garments, by emphasising, and to quote the Fashion Museum’s brochure:

‘Wives and daughters, sisters and mothers; none of the royal women featured in the exhibition was monarch – yet each played a key role in the British royal family.’[1]

This clear curatorial concept is made clear from the start of the exhibition. It was refreshing to see the histories of other royal women told through the display of dress, who, as far as my knowledge goes, have not had many opportunities to have their lives explored within a museum space before. Individuals include Alexandra, Princess of Wales, Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret, spanning four generations of the royal family.

royal fashion exhibition

Image: Beginning of the Fashion Museum’s Royal Women exhibition. Photograph taken by author.

royal fashion exhibition tree

Image: Display showing the British Royal family members included in the Fashion Museum’s Royal Women exhibition. Photograph taken by author.

I enjoyed the display of dresses in front of storage boxes which the Fashion Museum has uniquely used in order to allow visitors a peek ‘behind the scenes’ of the museum store. As curator Rosemary Harden explains within her chapter, From Museum of Costume to the Fashion Museum: The Case of the Fashion Museum in Bath, this innovative display invites visitors to find themselves within the midst of the collection, among acid-free boxes of stored material piled high.[2] Not all visitors may appreciate this concept however, especially if they are accustomed to more conventional and traditional displays. Despite this, I personally thought this complimented the exhibition, as boxes peeped through from behind exhibition posters/banners depicted within the images below.

royal fashion 1910 alexander dress

Image: Photograph of Alexandra, Princess of Wales evening gown. Doeuillet, Paris, c1910. Silk chiffon embroidered with metal thread, bugle beads and diamanté. Gift of Louis Young. If you look closely you can see the storage boxes in the background of the display case. Image taken by author.

The chronological display of the dresses made sense, making the exhibition easy to navigate and follow. Two or three cases were dedicated to each royal family member, beginning with Alexandra, Princess of Wales, and ending with a surprise outfit loaned by HRH The Countess of Wessex. Text panels were clearly displayed at the side of case windows, and the curators were careful not to overload text panels with complicated and technical terminology. It was therefore accessible for non-professional or non-academic individuals (such as my partner, Tom), to read, understand and interpret. A film played at the end of the exhibition, presenting the royal women included in the exhibition conducting royal duties and visiting state events, showing garments in motion and within the time period from which they belong.

royal exhibiton 1863

Image: Wedding dress worn by Alexandra, Princess of Wales. Mrs James, re-modelled by Madame Elise. c1863. Silk and silver thread Honiton lace. Lent by HRH Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Image taken by author.

Garments throughout the Fashion Museum are displayed on Stockman-style figures. They can emit an anonymous feel if the original wearer is unknown to curators and conservators and contextual information cannot be provided.[3] Within the Royal Fashion exhibition, text panels discussed the heights and fashion tastes of women, with mannequins visibly padded and moulded in order to recreate the silhouettes of the wearers to whom these garments originally belonged to. Alexandra, Princess of Wales for example, was revealed as being ‘unfashionably slim’ during a period where a ‘full figure was the preferred silhouette.’ For me, this created a personal connection between the viewer of the clothing (myself and other visitors), and the previous owner of the item in question. It highlighted and emphasised that clothing is made to be worn and traces of royal family members mentioned throughout the exhibition can be felt and seen, reminding us of their presence despite no longer existing in the present, physical world. This was an emotive part of my visit which added to my overall experience of the exhibition.

royal exhibiton 1870

Image: Evening dress worn by Alexandra, Princess of Wales. Madame Elise. c1870. Red, green and cream silk satin tartan. Gift of Louis Young. Image taken by author.

There was an obvious emphasis on royal couturier Sir Norman Hartnell, most notable for his creation of HRH Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding and coronation gowns. It was nice to see that the Fashion Museum highlighted how Hartnell was patronised by both Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret whilst serving HRH Queen Elizabeth II. It demonstrated that he was a reliable and respected designer who was entrusted with producing garments which reflected the tastes of royal women and popular fashions of the period, whilst simultaneously designing in accordance with royal protocol and etiquette. One dress designed by Hartnell was worn by Princess Margaret in 1953 after her romance with Captain Peter Townsend was exposed in the British press. Garments such as this indicate how they can represent monumental periods of change during an individual’s lifetime, providing museum visitors with a glimpse into how women such as Princess Margaret negotiated and adapted to these moments.

royal fashion exhibition 1950s

Image: Cream silk chiffon evening ensemble by Christian Dior, worn by Princess Margaret. c1950s. Gift of Princess Margaret. Image taken by author.

Other stand-out garments for me which must be seen include the Queen Mother’s Norman Hartnell 1952 ball gown, Alexandra, Princess of Wales’ 1863 wedding dress, and Queen Mary’s 1947 Norman Hartnell ivy-leaf design gown worn to the wedding of Princess Elizabeth, now HRH Her Majesty The Queen.

Above Images: Norman Hartnell ballgown worn by the Queen Mother. c1952. Oyster grey silk satin with beadwork, embroidery and Swarovski crystals. Lent by HRH Her Majesty The Queen. Image taken by author.

royal fashion exhbiition alexandra

Image: Evening dress worn by Alexandra, Princess of Wales. Morin Blossier. c1893. Lilac silk with velvet and cream lace. Gift of Evelyn Davey. Image taken by author.

My one qualm – and this is a personal one – is that I simply wanted to see more! I understand that this would be an almost impossible task for the Fashion Museum to achieve; the exhibition space is small, and the curators are obviously limited as to how many items they are permitted to display due to space and conservation regulations. Furthermore, too many garments would make the exhibition too crowded. Perhaps, in order to combat my greediness for more garments, extra accessories could have been displayed, or a larger catalogue produced to compliment the exhibition, although I know that publishing something on this scale can be extremely expensive.

royal exhibition 1950s queen mother

Image: Norman Hartnell evening gown. c1950’s. Machine lace with fine net tulle, gold thread and sequins. Gift from HRH Her Majesty The Queen. Image taken by author.

In conclusion, I thought that this was a well presented exhibition which successfully conveyed factual and biographical information about the lives of the royal women in question. The exhibition achieved its main aims and educated me as a visitor about royal dress, and provided me with a springboard to research the dress of these royals myself. It is well worth the visit and I advise all fashion history lovers to attend!

You can visit the exhibition from 3 February 2018 to 28 April 2019.

If you are interested in the history and collection at the Fashion Museum, you can read curator Rosemary Harden’s chapter ‘From Museum of Costume to the Fashion Museum: The Case of the Fashion Museum in Bath’ in Fashion and Museums: Theory and Practice by Marie Riegels Melchior and Birgitta Svensson.

References

[1] Brochure published by the Fashion Museum, 2018.

[2] Rosemary Harden, ‘From Museum of Costume to the Fashion Museum: The Case of the Fashion Museum in Bath,’ Fashion and Museums: Theory and Practice. Eds. Marie Riegels Melchior and Birgitta Svensson. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print. 134.

[3] Harden, ‘From Museum of Costume to the Fashion Museum,’ 134.

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