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Crown to Couture

Start Date 05 April 2023
End Date 29 October 2023
Venue Kensington Palace, Historic Royal Palaces
Location London, U.K.
Curator Polly Putnam and Claudia Acott-Williams
Designer Joseph Bennett
Gallery view showing mannequins wearing historical dress

The glittering world of the Georgian court will come head-to-head with the high glamour of the modern-day red carpet in a new exhibition set to open at Kensington Palace – famously a stage set for historic fashion – next spring. Crown to Couture will see contemporary couture worn by high profile celebrities including Lizzo and Lady Gaga, displayed alongside historic costume – drawing fascinating parallels between the world of the red carpet and the world of the Royal Court in the eighteenth century.

Set to be the largest exhibition ever staged at the palace, over 200 fascinating objects will be going on display across the glittering State Apartments and intimate exhibition spaces, from some of the finest examples of 18th century court dress to iconic contemporary red carpet looks. The display will take visitors on a journey, from the preparation and styling required for an attendance at one of the hottest tickets in town and the “fashion rules” that must be followed, to the grand arrivals at both the court and the red carpet. Visitors will learn what it takes to get noticed, the subtle messages clothing can deliver, and the design influences outfits can take inspiration from, before stepping inside the notorious “after party”. To create the experience, Historic Royal Palaces – the charity that cares for Kensington Palace – is working with Emmy award-winning production designer Joseph Bennett, who is best known for his creation of Alexander McQueen’s famous catwalk shows, promising a truly unforgettable visit.

For the first time, Kensington Palace’s spectacular State Apartments, witness to near-daily lavish events in the Georgian era, will showcase a host of recognisable 21st century red carpet looks, drawing parallels between the two periods. The King’s Gallery, which once formed one of the central spaces “to see and be seen” at the Palace, will be filled to the brim with stunning dress, just as it would have been over 300 years ago. Among the dazzling items going on display is the Thom Browne dress worn by musician Lizzo to the 2022 Met Gala, complete with gold cape jacket. In keeping with the 2022 Gala theme of “Gilded Glamour” the two-piece ensemble features a plain black corset gown and billowing jacket with intricate gold detailing, styled by Jason Rembert. It will be joined, among many others, by the luminous green gown worn by Lady Gaga to the 2020 MTV Awards.  Created by Christopher John Rogers, the vast skirt of the futuristic-style dress is not dissimilar to the size and scale of dresses that would have been worn in this historic space centuries before, designed to be noticed. The King’s Gallery – populated with beautiful dress worn by well-known faces – will create a connection across the centuries, demonstrating how just as the celebrities of today are on show and subject to scrutiny at public events, the fashion worn by Georgian visitors to these spaces would have been watched by throngs of onlookers and reported widely in the newspapers just as they are today.

Claudia Acott Williams, curator at Historic Royal Palaces, said: ‘We’re thrilled to be collaborating with a wide variety of well-known fashion houses and emerging designers to showcase some of the most iconic red carpet looks of recent years and celebrate the wonderful diversity and creativity we see there today. By bringing these familiar looks into the Palace and placing them in conversation with spectacular 18th century court dress, we hope to provide a new perspective on these historic spaces and the seemingly distant customs of the Georgian Court, and allow visitors to experience the Palace as it was meant to be experienced: filled to the brim with the most fashionable and influential names of the day.’

Along with the modern looks created by some of the hottest designers of today, the exhibition will pay homage to the stunning design of the Georgian age, from the distinctive mantua to the intricately embroidered court suit. Among the objects will be examples of some of Historic Royal Palace’s own collection – the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection – which is cared for by a team of experts at Hampton Court Palace. Highlights will include the Rockingham Mantua, brocaded in silver thread and silver lace trim and believed to have been worn by the wife of British Prime Minister, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, in the 1760s. The large dress worn over wide hoops is synonymous with the era and will be one of a number going on display, alongside an array of accessories including fans, dress swords, hats, jewellery, shoes, stockings, stays and even a wig curler!

Other historic items set to be unveiled include the world-famous Silver Tissue Gown, on loan from the Fashion Museum Bath, which will form the opening to the exhibition. A rare example of fashion worn at the court of Charles II and handmade of fine silk woven with silver thread, the gown perfectly encapsulates the origins of Georgian court culture and fashion. It is believed to have been worn to court by a young Lady Theophila Harris, who later went on to become the wife of MP Sir Arthur Harris of Hayne, and as one of very few complete dresses from the 17th century, it forms just one of many treasures set to bring to life this opulent era.

Polly Putnam, curator at Historic Royal Palaces, said: “Just as the designers of today dress celebrity royalty for important public events, Kensington Palace was home to the original red carpet of the Georgian court. Crown to Couture will demonstrate the similarities in the fashion “rules” set out by high society designers, drawing fascinating comparisons between the present day and the 18th century, when the Palace was at its most busy, exciting and politically and culturally important.”

Crown to Couture opens to the public on 5 April 2023 and is included in palace admission. Historic Royal Palaces are especially grateful to our sponsors, Garrard and the Blavatnik Family Foundation, for their generous donations which have enabled the exhibition to take place.

Photo © Historic Royal Palaces.