Historic Royal Palaces' collection of royal, ceremonial and court dress, housed at Kensington Palace, has been Designated as a pre-eminent collection of national and international importance by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA). The prestigious Designation scheme awards collections based on their quality and significance to the nation.
Comprising 12,000 items worn by royalty and courtiers from the seventeenth century to the present day, the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection is an unparalleled resource offering insight into the story of the British monarchy, life at court and the ceremonial tradition of the UK. Items of clothing worn by some of the country’s most charismatic royals - including George III, Queen Victoria, Princess Margaret, the Queen, and Diana, Princess of Wales - all form part of the collection, together with prints, sketches, historic photographs, letters, diaries and scrapbooks.
Selected highlights from the collection include:
• Queen Victoria’s undergarments. The most recent addition to the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection - a set of undergarments belonging to Queen Victoria at the end of the 19th century. The set comprises a pair of ‘split drawers’ and a chemise made from fine linen, embroidered with a small crown and the initials ‘V R’ on the waistband. There are a few examples of royal underwear in the collection but they are rare. This set is thought to have survived as the Queen’s clothes were divided up after her death and distributed amongst her staff as mementoes.
• Safari suit worn by Edward, Prince of Wales (reigned as Edward VIII, 20 Jan – 11 December 1936, later known as The Duke of Windsor). This outfit, worn by the UK’s shortest reigning monarch during a visit to Africa around 1926, when he was still the Prince of Wales, is a unique example of royal sporting dress. The Duke of Windsor was renowned for the great interest he took in his wardrobe and was a young fashion icon in his day, travelling with up to 40 tin clothes trunks. This particular ensemble, made of thick khaki drill, features the famous adjustable shorts designed by the Duke himself that could be worn long or buttoned above the knee depending on the terrain. The sleeves of the jacket could also be detached to keep the wearer cool in the heat. A matching khaki helmet and brown leather boots complete the look.
• Tweed sports suit created for Diana, Princess of Wales. This outfit is one of a pair created by Bill Pashley in 1981 for her honeymoon. He made two copies in slightly different sizes, and the Princess of Wales chose the bigger one, with more room in the shoulders, in case they went shooting. The suit was worn for a famous photo shoot by the river at Balmoral. The Princess of Wales asked Mr Pashley not to make the design for anyone else. He kept his word and stored the smaller unworn suit in a cupboard in his studio, only rediscovering it during a clean-out earlier this year. The designer generously donated the ensemble to Historic Royal Palaces. It is rare to find an informal outfit created for the Princess of Wales in a public collection – most are evening dresses.
• Queen Mother’s coronation dress toile. This item is the full size working pattern for the Queen Mother’s coronation dress, made of cotton with the embroidery design marked out in gold paint. It would have been used to fit the Queen for the final dress, and was also sent on to the workshops at the Royal School of Needlework to show how the embroidery design was to be realized. The dress Queen Elizabeth wore on 12 May 1937 was described in contemporary press as being of ‘princesse’ style with a square décolleté and slashed sleeves trimmed with old lace. It was embroidered in gold and diamante with emblems of the British Isles and the Dominions – roses, thistles and shamrocks.
• Queen Ena’s wedding confetti. This beautifully decorated silk and gilt cone of rice confetti is thought to have belonged to a bridesmaid at the dramatic wedding of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Queen Victoria Eugenia (known as Queen Ena) to King Alfonso of Spain. An anarchist threw a bomb at the royal carriage, killing an outrider, the bride’s wedding dress became spotted with blood as they were ushered into another carriage. The assassination attempt meant that this confetti was never thrown.
• George III’s waistcoat. A turquoise silk damask waistcoat, probably one of the last items of clothing King George III wore before his death in January 1821. It was first acquired by the Rev William Monsell, a chaplain to King George IV for his friend Rev James Drake, a few months after the King’s death. Monsell wrote “… you expressed a desire to be in possession of some article worn by the late King. I am now happy to inform you I have procured you a part of his attire which I consider rather interesting as I have no doubt it was the last article he wore in this world”. It is one of the earliest examples of costume adapted for illness; in the last months of his life, George III was very ill and pieces of fabric were inserted into the waistcoat sleeves to give more mobility to them and make dressing the king easier.
• William III’s stockings and vest. This is a rare survival of 17th century royal dress – a pair of stockings knitted from a fine bright green silk, and a red silk vest belonging to the first royal resident of Kensington Palace, King William III (reigned 1689 - 1702). The stockings are embellished with a little flower, surmounted by a crown worked in at the ankle, and a ‘W’ in the cuff. William III is generally known as a serious and rather taciturn monarch, but these brightly coloured stockings suggest a more flamboyant sense of style. The vibrant red vest, was worn next to the skin and was not likely to have been seen, unlike the stockings, but it gives a good indication of the king’s diminutive stature.
• Princess Patricia’s coronet. Princess Patricia (Victoria Patricia Helena Elizabeth, later Lady Patricia Ramsay), Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, wore this coronet, supplied by royal jewellers Garrard, to her uncle King Edward VII’s coronation in 1902. It consist of a purple velvet cap and a hall marked silver gilt circlet with two crosses patees, two strawberry leaves and four fleurs de lys. Princess Patricia was named Colonel-in-Chief of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry on 22 February 1918, she personally designed the badges and colours for the regiment, and took an active role until her death. She married a commoner rather than a husband of royal blood, marrying naval Commander (later Admiral) The Hon. Alexander Ramsay, and voluntarily relinquishing the style of Royal Highness and the title of Princess of Great Britain and Ireland on her wedding day.
• Silver court mantua. This rare and exquisite 18th century dress is made from French silk brocade, an enormously expensive fabric dated to the early 1760s. Woven with a design of stripes and scrolling garlands in silver and trimmed with sparkling silver lace, the dress would have left onlookers gazing in awe and wonder at its unparalleled beauty and splendour. It is believed to have belonged to Mary, Marchioness of Rockingham, who was married to Charles, 2nd Marquis of Rockingham, and it is believed it may have been worn when her husband was sworn in as Prime Minister in 1765. The dress was featured in a 2007 sale of art and costume at Bonhams, London, and was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who outbid Historic Royal Palaces curators. Following a temporary export bar by Culture Minister David Lammy, The Art Fund charity, keen to see the mantua secured for public enjoyment in Britain, stepped in and purchased the mantua outright for £80,275, before presenting it to Historic Royal Palaces for display at Kensington Palace.
• Herald’s tabard. This tabard was worn by Sir Gerald Woods Woolaston, who was appointed Richmond Herald in 1919, and in 1930, Garter Principal King of Arms – the highest office in the College of Arms. In design and shape, the herald’s tabard has changed very little since the Middle Ages. The front, back and sleeves are embroidered with the royal Coat of Arms: the three gold lions on a red background of England, the red lion of Scotland on a gold background, and the stringed harp of Ireland on a blue background. The original function of a herald was the special duty of making royal or state proclamations, including announcing tournaments, and since 1484, they have been part of the Royal Household. They are still responsible for organising the procession and service of the Sovereign and the state opening of Parliament.
Visitors to Kensington Palace can see around 3000 items from the collection on permanent display, as well as the exhibition 'Diana, fashion and style' – featuring the largest collection of dresses belonging to the Princess of Wales ever to be displayed at the palace.
The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection will be opened up further through a £12 million major project at Kensington Palace which will transform the palace by 2012, improving accessibility, introducing new education and community facilities, reconnecting the palace to the neighbouring park with new public gardens inspired by the area’s historic landscape, and realise Historic Royal Palaces’ ambition to open up the Kensington’s rich and varied stories to the widest possible audience. The project will be financed by independent charity Historic Royal Palaces, with grants and donations from donors, sponsors, trusts and foundations. The fundraising campaign is already underway.
Historic Royal Palaces' curator Alexandra Kim commented: “We are delighted that the MLA has recognised the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection as part of the Designation Scheme. Fine fabrics, sumptuous dresses and pretty wasp-waists aside, this unrivalled collection is an invaluable resource which can tell us much about the social history of high society. We look forward to making it more widely accessible to visitors and researchers over coming months, as part of the major project to transform Kensington Palace by 2012.”