Fashioning a Reign exhibition celebrating the Queen at 90 opens at Windsor Castle

Nicola Hine


A glimpse inside the Queen's wardrobe is on offer at Windsor Castle when a special exhibition opens to the public from tomorrow (Saturday).

Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from the Queen's Wardrobe brings together a range of outfits representing key moments from her life and reign, including pieces never displayed in public before, such as a pantomime costume worn when she was a young princess.

Curator Caroline de Guitaut explained: "This is the third in a trilogy of exhibitions which have been held in the Queen's official residences (the previous two were held at Holyroodhouse and Buckingham Palace). It marks Her Majesty's 90th birthday through an unprecedented display of fashionable dress from the Queen's wardrobe which has never been put together on such a scale before.

"Here at Windsor I wanted the focus to be on pieces which not only illustrate the themes of the exhibition, like dressing for ceremonial occasions, the Queen's support of British fashion, dressing for family occasions, the importance of millinery in the Queen's wardrobe, childhood and state occasions, but also pieces which had a particular significance for Windsor and the surrounding area."

More than 30 outfits are on display in the Semi-State Apartments, originally created for George IV and adorned with red and gold furniture and sparkling chandeliers. The setting is important for the exhibition. Caroline said: "In the Green Drawing Room and the Crimson Drawing Room, the idea is to invoke a sense of glamorous evening wear, which the Queen has worn from the 40s through to the 70s, and for the dresses to be seen in the environment in which they would have been worn, and I think that lends something very special. Visitors, I hope, will get a real sense of the glamour and beauty of the pieces, they're on open display and they can get up close and see them and see what goes into making them."

Among the dazzling gowns on display in these rooms are an opulent Norman Hartnell gown from 1960, made from Duchesse satin and adorned with pearls, and an additional Hartnell design from the following year, worn at a banquet during a state visit to Pakistan.

From here, the exhibition moves into the State Dining Room, which focuses more on outfits with a Windsor association.

Caroline continued: "We have pieces associated with the Queen's childhood, for example her Girl Guides uniform from about 1937 when she first joined. First of all she was based in the Buckingham Palace patrol, and then when the princesses moved here to Windsor for the wartime years the Windsor patrol was started up again here at the castle, so that's a really lovely thing from a very early time in the Queen's life.

"Also from her childhood, and again from the wartime years, are some pantomime costumes which, like the Girl Guides uniform, have never been seen in public before, and these were worn during a performance of Aladdin, a Christmas pantomime which the princesses staged here together with the headmaster of The Royal School, who helped them to dramatise the performances. Those costumes were worn by Princess Elizabeth who played the character of Aladdin, and also by Princess Margaret who played the character of Princess Roxanna. It's very special to be able to display them here, because those performances took place in the Waterloo Chamber, just a few rooms away.

"On a more off-duty note we have riding outfits which the Queen has worn, one dating from 1947, the year she got married, and one more recent one from the 80s or 90s. These are shown alongside accessories that the Queen wore, there's one of her earliest riding hats, some of her riding crops, including one which was presented to her for her 21st birthday, and also her riding boots. Again riding is very much a part of her weekend life here at Windsor so that will lend something quite special.

"We then move on to outfits which have a family association with Windsor, so we have the ensemble which Her Majesty wore for Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall's wedding, for the Earl and Countess of Wessex's wedding and also for Peter Phillips' wedding. Those all took place in St George's Chapel so there's a strong association."

Another strong theme within the exhibition is how the Queen's clothes can convey a sense of diplomacy; examples include a black ensemble of silk and lace worn to meet Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 2000, and a romantic Sir Hardy Amies evening gown embroidered with mayflowers, the regional emblem of Nova Scotia, worn during a 1959 tour of Canada.

Caroline singled out a dress worn by the Queen during her historic state visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011 as another highlight, and explained: "The bodice of the dress, which is all in white, is embellished with over 2,000 shamrocks, a very important emblem for the Irish. Obviously that was a hugely important visit and the dress was just again another example of how the Queen is able to sometimes covey messages without having to speak, though of course she does make a lot of official speeches.

A more recent outfit in the room is a blue day ensemble worn when Her Majesty joined the centenary celebrations of the Women's Institute in June last year, and struggled to cut the cake. It also contains a representation of the ceremonial aspect of the Queen's wardrobe, in the form of her mantle and hat from the Order of the Garter, which she wears to the service at Windsor each June.

The exhibition ends in a fourth room containing a display of hats through the decades, many of which were worn at Royal Ascot. Caroline said: "Again, Ascot and horseracing is very much a part of the Queen's life, and it includes a very up-to-date hat which Her Majesty wore to this year's Royal Ascot on Ladies Day, when she presented the cup to the winning owner and jockey and it just so happened by complete coincidence that Her Majesty's ensemble which was in a wonderful royal blue and orange, quite an interesting colour combination, very strong colours, absolutely matched the silks of the winning jockey, so that's quite a nice story."

For Caroline, an art historian by trade who has worked for the Royal Collection Trust for 25 years, the exhibitions have been 18 months in the planning.

"It's been a very hectic time, lots of hard work," she said. "I think the challenges are really making the selection in the first instance, because obviously I was mindful of the association with the different residences, I wanted each exhibition to have totally separate content that was really important for that particular location, and doing all the research to make sure that I had covered everything, that I really felt each exhibition was absolutely representative. The other thing is, overwhelmingly, I wanted everything to look as beautiful as possible, and that's so fundamental with displays of dress. But all in all it's been an absolute pleasure to work on these three shows in this very important year for the Queen and it's just lovely that the Royal Collection Trust can have this fantastic celebration here at the castle."

When pressed on her favourite item on display, Caroline said it was difficult to choose, citing the riding outfits as being important examples of British tailoring, but eventually settled for the Pakistan dress.

"It's a very simple dress in many ways and yet it's complex," she said. "It's in the colours of the Pakistan national flag. At first I imagine when the Queen appeared wearing the dress those around her probably thought it was quite a plain dress, it's just off-white duchess satin, it's beautifully cut and tailored, and then they could just see these flashes of green over the straps. But I suppose when she then turned around and they saw that gorgeous waterfall pleat, lined in that vivid green satin, it must have been a real wow moment, and so I think just because it sums up, in a sense, the best of British couture, the best of the Queen and her designer understanding how colour can play that important diplomatic role, and just because it's a beautiful dress - and I put it in the Green Drawing Room, it's just lovely to be able to see it there, and it's what I dreamt of doing, and it's just so lovely that it's come true."

Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from the Queen's Wardrobe runs at Windsor Castle until January 8, 2017. Entry is free with an Advantage card.


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