Fashion Rules

Open now until 3 January 2017

New dresses, new rules

Discover the ‘New Look’ glamour of Princess Margaret in the 1950s, the elegance of HM The Queen in the 1960s and 1970s, and the tailored drama of outfits created for Diana, Princess of Wales in the early 1990s. Photograph Snowdon, copyright Armstrong Jones with thanks to Camera Press

Fashion Rules Restyled

Fashion Rules Restyled continues to explore how three royal women, HM Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Margaret and Diana, Princess of Wales navigated the fashion ‘rules’ defined by their royal duties in unique style and set their own rules, which in turn overtly lead fashion and taste.

Bruce Oldfield for Diana, Princess of Wales, 1990 Evening dress, silk satin and lace

Lent by Wendy Rogers-Morris. Worn by Princess Diana for a reception at the Courtauld Gallery in London, 1990. The influence of Diana the Princess of Wales’ early romantic style is illustrated in this off-white satin dress with frilly lace blouse by Bruce Oldfield. The wide shoulders are a remnant from the 1980s power look that the Princess was fond of, yet the unusual soft design, colour and fabrics of the dress give the impression of the fairy tale Princess image that she came to embody. Diana wore this dress first to a private view at Somerset House, London and later to a state banquet held at Buckingham Palace. As Oldfield commented it was her relationship with key designers that helped her ‘eventual transformation into one of the best-dressed, most glamorous women in the world.’

Exhibition talks and debates

Exhibition talks and debates



Diplomatic dressing

The designer Norman Hartnell referred to the challenge of designing for varied climates and local customs when he wrote ‘the task for the designer of a wardrobe for a state visit is indeed a responsible one.’ Royal designers have considered national colours, the wearing of insignia and local ideas of modesty in the execution of their designs. Her Majesty the Queen is the most widely-travelled monarch in history. During lengthy royal tours, she has maintained the long tradition of diplomatic dressing – her designers have considered the customs of the host country, the climate, the setting and any ceremonial dress her hosts might wear. Some designers have made reference to the host country through their choice of colour or embroidery. Diana, Princess of Wales made an equally considered choice when she wore tartan in Scotland.

Catherine Walker for Diana, Princess of Wales, 1990

Evening dress, silk and gold braid. Lent by Fundación Museo de la Moda. Worn by the Princess of Wales to a private event. The Princess adopted a pared-back, sophisticated look from the mid-1980s through the 1990s. Catherine Walker helped her to adapt current trends to suit her style. Here, an understated, single sleeve echoes the fashionable asymmetric silhouette of the day without going to extremes. The dress is trimmed in nautical style with three rows of gold braid at the neckline and cuffs. In her autobiography, Catherine Walker described the challenge of designing this streamlined look: ‘I realised that focussing on the silhouette meant that designing was as much to do with the space outside the design as it was to do with the design itself.’

Block colour

Colour has many symbolic associations and can reflect a variety of emotions. Royal women have used colour to make a strong visual statement and to communicate specific ideas. They have worn black for sombre occasions or mourning, national colours for state visits abroad or ivory, silver and gold for special events such as the state opening of Parliament. The designer Norman Hartnell said ‘unusual and light clear tones are the favourite colours for ladies of the Royal Family, for they must stand out, yet be distinguishable in a subtle and dignified way.’ Used in this way, colour could set the scene. Princess Margaret looked every inch a fairy tale princess in white silk chiffon. Diana, Princess of Wales lit up a red carpet in a startling green gown by Catherine Walker. The overall impact of colour became even more important from 1960s when newspapers such as The Sunday Times began to print colour supplements.

Catherine Walker for Diana, Princess of Wales, 1993

Evening dress, silk with beaded embroidery. Lent by Fundación Museo de la Moda. Worn by Diana, Princess of Wales in 1993 to the Savoy Theatre for a gala charity evening of ballet. Diana, Princess of Wales was a keen supporter of the arts. She was Patron to the English National Ballet from 1989 until her death in 1997. The Princess wore this off-the-shoulder salmon pink evening dress with a long tunic-style bodice to a charity gala performance of the ballet at the Savoy Theatre in July, 1993. Several months later, she wore this gown once more for a performance of La bohème at the London Coliseum. This intricately beaded and embroidered dress with simulated pearls and clear paste stones complimented the dancers’ costumes as they lined up to meet the Princess after the performance.

Attention to Detail

Detail is an essential part of fashion design. It can be highly decorative or hidden and purely functional. Lace overlays, jewelled embellishment, decorative stitching and fastenings or eye-catching print can make a garment truly unique. Details such as these not only allow the designer to define their work, but can become trademarks of the wearer that are as instantly recognisable as the whole outfit itself. Adding often subtle and imaginative details to a dress can discreetly enhance the overall image of the wearer.

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What is the merit of choosing the drab when beauty hangs in the wardrobe?

Norman Hartnell

Designer unknown for Princess Margaret, 1951

Evening dress, silk satin with beaded embroidery. Lent by Lord Linley and Lady Sarah Chatto. Worn by Princess Margaret at a film premier in London and at a dinner in Paris with Prince Paul of Yugoslavia, 1951. This statuesque party dress, with its plunging neckline and halter-neck straps illustrates Princess Margaret’s daring approach to fashion. The Princess was known to prefer simpler, streamlined garments, but here the beaded embroidery is restricted to the dramatic waistline. The use of large turquoise beading creates a striking impact. More Hollywood glamour than royal wardrobe, this risqué dress was widely reported by the press who loved to catch the Princess smoking a cigarette.

Norman Hartnell for Princess Margaret, 1953

Evening dress, silk and lace. Lent by Fashion Museum, Bath. Worn by Princess Margaret at a performance of Guys and Dolls at the London Coliseum, 1953. Norman Hartnell famously said, ‘I despise simplicity. It is the negation of all that is beautiful.’ He was known for his opulent yet elegant designs, lavish beaded embroidery and use of intricate details. The clever juxtaposition of corded black lace and light pink silk seen in this dress, produces a striking effect. The pink satin fold-down neckline accentuates a fashionable 1950s hourglass silhouette. Princess Margaret paired the dress with a fur bolero jacket.

18 couture dresses

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Hardy Amies for Her Majesty The Queen, 1979

Evening dress, silk chiffon with embroidery. Lent by Lord Linley and Lady Sarah Chatto. Worn by The Queen on a state visit to Bahrain in 1979. The striking colour of this evening dress and floating fabric were typical of the relaxation in formal dress that emerged in the 1960s and 70s. Designers such as Yves Saint Laurent travelled the world and were inspired by garments of other cultures. As Head of State, The Queen has always been mindful of the appropriateness of her dress during travels abroad. Here the flowing kaftan shape is daring, fashionable, yet still appropriate, while the bold colour stands out against a background of men in black.


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Zandra Rhodes for Diana, Princess of Wales, 1985

Sketch of dress by Zandra Rhodes. Referencing the occasion in the design of garments has long been a tradition of the royal wardrobe. On their 1986 royal tour of Japan, every movement of the young Prince and Princess of Wales was captured by the press. The striking colour of this sparkling shimmering evening dress by Zandra Rhodes references the cherry blossom in flower at the time of the royal visit. Interviewed for Vogue in 1981 Rhodes said of 80s fashions ‘What’s very important now is a fantastic feeling for dressing up and looking absolutely wonderful’.

Catherine Walker for Diana, Princess of Wales, 1991

Evening dress, ivory silk crepe and sequins. Historic Royal Palaces. Worn during a state visit to Brazil, 1991. In the 1990s the Princess adopted a more streamline and sophisticated look in keeping with changing fashions, often wearing asymmetrical dresses with a single sleeve. Catherine Walker wrote of this commission for a trip to Brazil where the football team had just lost to Argentina in the World Cup ‘The Princess of Wales took great care to honour the traditions and feelings of each country that she visited. We received instruction that… we should not design anything in green, yellow or blue, which were the official colours of the Brazil team, and definitely not in blue and white, which were the colours of the Argentinian football team.’ This attention to detail resulted in a dress which sparkled in the Itamaraty Palace.

High Impact Dressing

Visually impressive clothing has helped to distinguish members of the royal family from other people for many centuries. Over time, many royal individuals have used dress to create spectacle or to communicate a message to the wider world. During the twentieth century, the most successful designers have helped their royal clients to navigate a world of impressive backdrops, cheering crowds and media scrutiny where being seen and looking regal are essential. Velvet robes, gleaming silks, sparkling jewels and intricate embellishment have helped The Queen, Princess Margaret and Diana, Princess of Wales to create a lasting impact on a public with expectations of how a queen or princess should look. The designer Catherine Walker could have described any royal woman when she said of Diana, Princess of Wales: ‘people wanted her to be something very special, something in their own dreams.’

True elegance is always effortless

Bruce Oldfield