Conservation and heritage charity Historic Royal Palaces has just completed a major project to conserve five beautiful historic royal wedding dresses. The work was undertaken by six of HRP’s specialist textile conservators and took 1000 hours to complete. The dresses that were given the ‘royal treatment’ included the exquisite, 195-year-old silver embroidered gown worn by Princess Charlotte (the only daughter of King George IV) in 1816, as well as stunning creations worn by Alexandra of Denmark (1863), Princess Mary of Teck (1893), Princess Margaret (1960) and Princess Alexandra of Kent (1963).
Along with nearly 10,000 other items of royal clothing dating from the 17th century to the present day, this unique collection of wedding dresses are usually kept in carefully controlled storage conditions at Kensington Palace, enveloped in many layers of protective and supportive packaging materials. However, the forthcoming royal wedding provided a timely opportunity for Historic Royal Palaces to conserve and treat these extraordinary dresses. And whilst the dresses will not be on public display, Historic Royal Palaces have offered the world’s media an exclusive opportunity to view, film and photograph them so these beautiful dresses and their fascinating stories can be enjoyed online, on television and in print. Historic Royal Palaces’ own website www.hrp.org.uk, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channel will all carry content about historic royal weddings including the royal wedding dresses.
The conservation process began with a general condition assessment of each dress, which in the case of Princess Charlotte’s dress involved microscopic surface examination of its silver lamé embroidery. An audit of how previous conservation treatments have fared and whether they are due for removal or replacement was also carried out. The conservation team aims for any new treatments to last around 50 years when the technology allows, avoiding over-handling of these delicate textiles.
The treatment stages involved for the conservation varied according to the materials and condition of the dresses. Princess Charlotte’s dress, the oldest in the collection, required the most conservation treatment. In contrast, Princess Alexandra’s 1963 dress required no treatment at all but still required a specially designed bespoke mannequin mount to safely support the delicate lace fabric and its impressive train.
A few of the dresses had weak points which required strengthening, either because a splash of champagne at the wedding had left an invisible mark that over time has chemically degraded the fabric leaving a stain or hole, or simply because the fabrics are so old that their original materials have degraded over the years, leaving damaged areas at points of weakness in the structure of the dresses, for example around pockets, under arms, petticoats or corseted bodices.
The materials used in treatment conservation are often prepared by the conservation team in-house to ensure they are of the correct type and quality. The fabrics and threads used to patch and repair the dresses were all dyed to match the original fabrics by Historic Royal Palaces’ conservation dye technician.
Conservation case study – Princess Charlotte’s wedding dress (1816)
Miriam Langford, Treatment Conservation Manager at Historic Royal Palaces, explains the process involved in caring for Princess Charlotte’s 195 year-old wedding dress:
“Princess Charlotte’s dress is an elaborate empire-line dress made from cloth-of-silver, a silk net with an embroidered silver lamé spot motif and scalloped borders of silver embroidery in both floral and shell patterns. The conservation treatment to this dress involved removing a previous adhesive treatment from over 40 years ago which was beginning to fail and release where it had previously provided support and re-treating the frail and worn areas with linings, and in some cases facings, of conservation grade nylon tulle, dyed to match the silk. The treatment chosen for the current condition of the dress was an array of supportive stitching in ultra-fine mono-filament silk threads, almost invisible to the naked eye, which help take the weight of the very pure and heavy silver embroidery out of the weakening original silk net fabric.
“One of the glorious aspects of this particular dress is that the silver does still glitter and shine after nearly 200 years. When we display the dress we have to ensure that we eliminate the possibility of pollutants landing on the silver surface and causing tarnish when it has survived for so long without succumbing to this dark fate. Our textile conservators have worked closely with our preventive conservation team to ensure that the dress is protected in both its storage and display environments, keeping it safe for generations to come.”
A sixth royal wedding dress in the collection, belonging to Queen Victoria, will shortly undergo conservation work before it goes on public display next year in the forthcoming Victoria Revealed exhibition at Kensington Palace (from March 2012).
Wedding dress conservation in numbers
• 1000 hours were spent on treating and mounting the dresses (500 hours on Princess Charlotte’s dress alone)
• 6 expert textiles conservators with…
• …100 years combined textiles conservation experience
• 195 years – the age of the oldest royal wedding dress in the collection (Princess Charlotte’s dress)
• 12,000 – the number of items in the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace, cared for by independent charity Historic Royal Palaces
• 2012 – the year when Queen Victoria’s wedding dress will be publicly displayed at Kensington Palace in new permanent exhibition Victoria Revealed
For more information, please contact Ruth Howlett in the Historic Royal Palaces press office on 020 3166 6338/6166 or email email@example.com