The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace is made up of outfits worn by members of the Royal Family, dress worn by officials and dignitaries undertaking ceremonial roles, such as heralds or members of the Orders of Knighthood, and court dress. The collection dates from the 18th to the late 20th century. Court Dress
Particular items of dress have been preserved by the Royal Family because they are associated with significant moments in the life of the wearer. The most impressive items are the coronations robes, each a skilful blend of splendid decoration, formality, fossilisation and fashion.
Court dress was worn by those attending the more formal assemblies and gatherings held by the king or queen. These events were a very important part of the social calendar and for many years attendance at them was vital for politicians as well as socialites.
From the 18th to the 20th century, the most significant event for ladies was known as the 'Drawing Room'. At this ceremony a young girl just out of the schoolroom was presented to the king and queen by a female relation who had previously been presented. This came to mark, symbolically, her entrance into the adult world. The 'Drawing Room' was generally held at Buckingham Palace. In 1902, King Edward VII changed the time of this event to the evening.
During the early 18th century the mantua and petticoat came to be the accepted wear for ladies at court. This was a fashionable style of the late 17th century and comprised of a petticoat worn over side hoops and a bodice with train. At the 18th-century court, the hoops developed to an extraordinary size and remained exclusively a court style of dress long after the fashion moved on. This style of dress with its wide skirts and train provided a wonderful opportunity to show off fine silks and elaborate embroidery. One lady went to such lengths in 1738 that the commentator Mrs. Delany declared 'the pattern much properer for a stucco staircase than the apparel of a lady'.
On his accession in 1820, King George IV announced that ladies were no longer required to wear the cumbersome court hoop. However, the train, ostrich feather headdress and lace lappets, or a veil, remained distinctive components of court dress until as late as 1939.
The 1920s saw changes in ladies' court dress. The elaborate trains were reduced in length and skirts became fashionably short. The last occasion ladies had to dress up in this splendid attire was in 1939. After the Second World War court occasions changed their character and this distinctive style of dress was no longer worn.
Gentlemen were presented at a ceremony called a Levee which took place at St James's Palace. Gentlemen attending the 18th century court would wear a suit comprising of a coat, waistcoat and knee breeches made out of the finest fashionable silks, often in vivid colours and covered with embroidery. Their shoe buckles and sword belts were often decorated with jewels, cut steel or glass paste.
George IV also promoted styles of court uniform to replace the colourful court suits worn by 18th-century gentlemen. These uniforms, made of fine wool, were elaborately embroidered with gold and silver wire. The colour of the cloth and the style and position of the embroidery were used to distinguish the office and rank of the wearer.
Each uniform reflected military styles of the period in which it was introduced. However, as with ladies' dress, the styles immediately fossilised and remained unchanged for years after the fashion had moved on. Even though court uniform is rarely seen today, many of the styles still have their origins in the early 19th century.
Royal dress provides both tangible evidence of the splendour of court events and, at the same time, truly memorable mementos of its wearers. The collection at Kensington Palace is added to with each generation and remains a unique display and archive of British royal fashion.
Royal ladies have used dress as opportunities to promote the best of British craft, whether it be in the production of special textiles, fine lace or commissioning designs from a leading couturier or even aspiring students at art school. Each monarch has had favourite designers who would produce dress to suit their taste and which was practical and suitable for the occasion.
To service the court, tailors and dressmakers in London and many other fashionable centres specialised in the production of these distinctive clothes. Visitors to Kensington Palace can view a tailor's workroom and dressmaker's workshop.
The work of a court dressmaker was important and profitable. However, as the court business was concentrated into a very short season each year, the seamstresses often had to work very long hours in poor conditions and for little pay. During the 19th century there were two major Government enquiries which looked into the women's' working conditions and endeavoured to improve them.
Most London tailors were based in Savile Row or the City. They would have to be aware of all the details of gentlemen's court uniform as styles became ever more complex and numerous. From the end of the 19th century, the Lord Chamberlain periodically issued a set of dress regulations to explain what should be worn by each official of every office and rank.
The 20th century saw the rise of the couturier. All would compete for commissions as the spectacular court events proved an excellent opportunity to show off the quality of their dress design. Aspiring young couturiers made their reputation by securing an important client who would wear their dresses. One such couturier was Norman Hartnell who designed a great number of outfits worn by Queen Elizabeth II including her wedding dress.
The tailors who supplied court dress were also called upon to make up dress for other kinds of ceremonies. Many great occasions of state such as coronations or state funerals have particular costume and textile requirements. For example, the small black spots applied to the white fur capes (imitating ermine) on the coronation robes worn by members of the nobility would be very carefully counted and positioned as this device indicates the seniority of the wearer.
Bright colours might be used so that the wearer would stand out in a crowd and could be easily seen. Great care would have to be taken to ensure that the clothes remained practical. Shapes would have to be kept simple - nothing could be too long or too short.
With a number of dresses worn on State visits abroad, HM Queen Elizabeth II and her dressmakers have been careful to introduce a tribute to the host country. For example, the design of a dress worn to India incorporates a pattern of lotus flowers: the lotus is the national flower of India. Similarly, the bodice of a dress worn in the United States of America at a dinner with President Ronald Reagan, who had previously been Governor of California, is embroidered with Californian poppies.
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