It was rather moving to see a woman take a picture of her daughter and baby granddaughter in front of Princess Diana’s wedding dress. But then, at Royal Style in the Making, an exhibition at Kensington Palace which opened yesterday, there were umpteen women taking selfies in front of one of the most famous dresses of the last century. People responded to the dress because it was an expression of a person, and an extraordinary moment, not just because the enormous train was the longest ever worn by a royal bride — though, actually, the bride rather liked the idea.
What the exhibition does is demonstrate that dress, especially royal dress, isn’t just frivolous or superficial — though it may well be that too. It’s a way of communicating with people. Diana wasn’t the only royal to master style as message but she was perhaps the most instinctively gifted at it. Her fabulous wedding dress didn’t just reflect Eighties style, it helped create it — and it was her way of making her mark on the world. That dress suggested beauty and also power. Prince Charles did his best in scarlet uniform to look the part but it was the young ingénue bride who physically dominated the cathedral and drew every eye.
Historians know the value of royal dress. Those who write about the Renaissance and early modern period are forever going on about the importance of dress as display, a way of projecting power through flamboyant costume. At the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, in an exhibition on royal portraiture from the Tudors to the present, there’s a well-known portrait of Elizabeth I, with her foot on the globe, and the most enormous breadth to her skirts. She physically dominated the picture as she did the court. Now that was power dressing.
Back then, it wasn’t just women who mastered it; men too projected power through dress. Like peacocks, the bigger and brasher the display, the better. Henry VIII, Elizabeth I’s father, is there too with his bulging codpiece, fabulous furs and enormous padded shoulders. He was projecting an image and it worked.
In a lower key, modern royal dress is still an exercise in communicating a message. Another part of the Kensington Palace exhibition was given over to Norman Hartnell’s exquisite designs for the Queen Mother.
There was a lovely watercolour sketch of a striking blue dress and coat with trademark fur that she wore to visit the East End during the Blitz. A stupid woman would have dressed down for the event; she took the view that if the people had come to visit her, they’d be wearing their best, so she should do the same visiting them. It was dress as a morale boost for Londoners.
But the royals were shrewd in other ways during the war; the Queen and the princesses accepted the same rationing of material as everyone else, though unlike everyone else, they had an awful lot of lovely frocks that could be reworked as new costumes. But they made the rationing work — there’s an interesting, atypical black dress that Hartnell made for the Queen Mother at the time, which is slim and close-cut. It looked fabulous.
There’s a modern equivalent, of course, for the way the royal women reflect the times and accept the restrictions of the age when it comes to dress. The Duchess of Cambridge can dress as she likes, so it’s striking that she has made a point of wearing some of the same clothes repeatedly. It’s something most of us do because we have to, but for her the message is that reworking perfectly good clothes is environmentally conscious. It’s of a piece with the mood of the moment, which is against disposable fashion. Mind you, Princess Anne aced that years ago. I think she’d call it thrift. Male royals just don’t have the same scope because mostly we just don’t register what they wear.
Diana was in many ways vulnerable, but dress was her way to break through to the world, to convey a message visually. There’s a sketch of a cheerful floral print dress that she’d wear to visit children; they liked that. And what she didn’t wear counted too, as when she deliberately removed her gloves to shake hands with Aids patients. That meant a lot.
Royal Style in the Making has a message, and it’s that we shouldn’t discount the value of dress as communication, especially for royals, who are restricted in what they can say. A dress, in fact, says more than a thousand words.
What does Diana’s wedding dress mean to you? Let us know in the comments below.