The Exhibitionist: Ed Vaizey On The Best Royal Exhibitions
Sadly, yours truly did not blag a ticket to the coronation. Peers of the realm (yes reader, I am one) were invited in March to enter a ballot for a ticket. Twelve were available and 124 peers applied. At the time of writing, no one has confessed to being a winner. I am sure the selection was entirely random. So, like the rest of the country, I must seek my coronation fix elsewhere. I’m pleased to report that there are two outstanding exhibitions that you can go to, and which will be close to the action.
Where better to start than at Kate and Wills’ place – sorry, the home of the Prince and Princess of Wales. I refer, of course, to Kensington Palace. Last month it opened From Crown to Couture, the largest exhibition it has ever staged (until 29 October, hrp.org.uk). There are over 200 objects on display, and they are not all strictly royal. They include, for example, Lady Gaga’s luminous green MTV Awards dress, the gold Peter Dundas gown worn by Beyoncé at the 2017 Grammys, and the Monique Lhuillier gown worn by Phoebe Waller-Bridge at the Emmys in 2019. Thankfully, there is the world-famous Silver Tissue Gown worn at the court of Charles II, as well as the Rockingham Mantua, which ensures there is a royal element.
The exhibition makes explicit the link between court dress and catwalk fashion. It’s even been designed by Alexander McQueen’s production designer Joseph Bennett. In the 18th century the mantua – a loose gown open at the front – was the way that ladies at court could display not just the finest material for their clothes but also their jewellery. No one will wear one at the coronation, so we will have to wait for the Met Gala to know what a 21st-century courtier would wear.
Even closer to the action is the recently opened Style and Society: Dressing the Georgians, at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace (until 8 October, rct.uk). This is also a large exhibition, with over 200 works from the Royal Collection – paintings, prints, drawings and clothes. The portrait of Queen Charlotte, the wife of George III, by Thomas Gainsborough has come over from Windsor Castle for display, alongside her book of psalms, shown in public for the first time (and covered in fabric from one of her dresses).
The exhibition is keen to make the point – as does the one at KP – that court dress was far removed from the fast-emerging fashion on the street. This point is brought home by a painting from the period of St James’s and the Mall, showing a lavishly dressed Frederick Prince of Wales and his courtiers alongside people from all walks of society. Of course, King Charles’s coronation will be modern and far less formal than any before it. One tradition that has ended is the formal banquet in Westminster Hall, near my office. Having missed out on the coronation itself, maybe I would have had a chance to gatecrash. Sadly it’s not to be, I will have to go to the Lords’ canteen instead.
Featured image credit: Unsplash