With our essays handed in and the end of term in sight, the MA Documenting Fashion class caught the train from Waterloo to that great red royal palace on the Thames, Hampton Court. The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection was the reason for our visit, and we were welcomed into the archives by curator Eleri Lynn, fresh from the opening of her new exhibition at Kensington Palace, ‘Diana: Her Fashion Story.’ The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection comprises dress worn by members of the Royal Family, by officials and dignitaries undertaking ceremonial roles, and court dress. The collection dates from the 18th to the late 20th century.
In keeping with our course’s period of specialism, Lynn had selected pieces from 1920-1960 worn by young women on occasion of their presentation at court. After making their entrance into society in this way, the young women were permitted to attend court events and mix with the rest of the aristocracy; many would use the opportunity to catch the eye of an eligible young man and marry. Whether you were a young debutante or a sponsor – usually the girl’s mother, mother-in-law or guardian – there were strict rules about how to dress issued by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. Gowns were white or pale in colour, with a train of specified length; three white feathers were worn in the hair to recall the emblem of the Prince of Wales; gloves were worn, and a fan carried. Slight shifts occurred over time, before the ceremony was abolished in 1958; Prince Phillip reportedly thought it ‘daft’ and Princess Margaret famously declared that ‘we had to put a stop to it … every tart in London was getting in!’
Delving into the boxes, we found a range of dresses and trains, most of them worn from the shoulder, crafted from the most luxurious and decadent fabrics. Freed from their layers of conservation tissue paper: a beige net dress worn for the 22nd July 1926 presentation by Miss Fraser made by Jays of London; a sequined ivory train; a salmon pink silk velvet train with silver beading worn by Lady Eversham in 1926, a highlight.
The boxes kept coming. A tasseled iridescent green gown with silver trim worn by Beatrice Pease, who later became Countess of Portsmouth, was handled with great care, likely as it was to split or shatter as a result of the chemical dyes used at the turn of the century, too heavy on tin. A pale blue silk georgette dress with black lace and ribbons (conservation efforts on the lace are in evidence) betray the fact that its wearer in 1937, sponsor Lady Gwendoline Benn, was in mourning. These were hugely sentimental dresses, many of which, when gifted, came with the original invitations, anecdotes and photographs of their first outing.
A huge thank you to Eleri for showing us these treasures. We spent the rest of the day waltzing around Henry VIII’s rooms and taking a turn around the splendid gardens, planning a further trip for when the flowers are in bloom.