Royal Style in the Making. London Exhibition

Culture / Exhibitions
Teodora Cozma
On Jul 26th, 2021

This unique exhibition at the Kensington Palace shows original royal dresses and the working relationship between designers and their royal clients. See in real life Princess Diana’s wedding dress and train.


The "Royal Style in the Making" temporary exhibition takes place at Kensington Palace, and it is sponsored by the Blavatnik family and the royal jeweller, Garrard. The collection is available from the 3rd of June 2021 to the 2nd of January 2022 in the newly conserved Orangery.

If the name sounds familiar, it is because, in 1981, Princess Diana chose her sapphire and diamond cluster engagement ring from Garrard. Three decades later, in 2010, the same Garrard engagement ring opened a new chapter of royal history when Prince William proposed to Catherine Middleton.

Thus, the royal jewel passed to the next generation. If you are passionate about royal style and fashion, don’t miss our book review of the "HRH So Many Thoughts on Royal Style".

Exhibition Concept

The exhibition explores the special relationship between designers and their royal clients, revealing the process behind creating clothing pieces that marked important events in history.

The "Royal Style in the Making" display introduces the visitor to the behind-the-scenes processes of the top-secret world of the designers' workshops.

The exhibition shows how iconic royal style is created from the early stages of sketching to prototype garments and, finally, the end products. As a result, the visitors experience a unique glimpse into the royal style dressing, ordinarily inaccessible to the public.

The exhibition focuses on five royal designers: Madame Handley-Seymour, Oliver Messel, Norman Hartnell, Elizabeth and David Emanuel and David Sassoon.

Madame Handley-Seymour

Madame Handley-Seymour was a skilled dressmaker with a strong business sense and knowledgeable of royal court dressing operating between 1910 and 1940. She designed both original pieces and made skilful copies of French leading couture houses, and she was a favourite of Queen Mary, grandmother of Queen Elizabeth II. Her business grew from 4 to 200 workers, as she created garments for the Court and Society during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

In addition to Queen Mary, Madame Handley-Seymour has dressed the next generation of royals, the mother of Queen Elizabeth II. She created three significant garments marking important events in the life of the Queen Mother: the debutante dress, the wedding dress in 1923 and the Coronation dress in 1937. The "Royal Style in the Making" exhibition displays a rare prototype garment by Madame Handley-Seymour for the 1937 coronation gown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

Visitors can marvel at the toile for the Coronation Dress of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in the exhibition. The toile is a full-size mock-up of the completed gown, made of cotton to ensure any alterations and fit details are right before the designer starts working with the final materials. The toile in the exhibition has an original pin and tacking stitches from 1937.

The design for the embroidery is hand-painted with the floral emblems of countries including the United Kingdom (the thistle, the shamrock, the leek, and the Tudor rose), Canada (the maple leaf), New Zealand (the fern) and Australia (the wattle flower).

Oliver Messel

Oliver Messel was one of the leading stage designers of the 20th century that combined unconventional materials to create dazzling effects on stage and fairy-tale scenarios. In 1946, he designed "The Sleeping Beauty" production for the Sadler's Wells Ballet (now the Royal Ballet) for the reopening of the Royal Opera House in London.

Princess Margaret has appreciated his genius and remembered the first time she attended Messel's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in 1938. Her choice of Messel as a designer speaks to her lifelong support of the arts.

In 1964, the 18th century inspired dress designed by Oliver Messel was worn by Princess Margaret to a charity costume ball at the Mansion House in aid of the St. John Ambulance. The sketch accompanying the dress shows more the effect the designer wanted to achieve rather than technical detail. But Messel's work for Princess Margaret went beyond ball gowns. In the mid-1960s, he designed Princess Margaret's villa in the Caribbean, Les Jolies Eaux, on the island of Mustique.

Norman Hartnell

Sir Norman Hartnell was the star of London couture during the interwar years, and his most famous client was Her Majesty the Queen. He designed both the wedding and Coronation dresses for Queen Elizabeth II. At the Kensington Palace exhibition, there is a sample of the 1953 Coronation dress embroidery with the emblems of the UK and Commonwealth. If you are interested in learning more about the creative process of Norman Hartnell for the Coronation dress, you can consult the abridged extract from his autobiography made available by the Victoria and Albert Museum's page.

Besides a snippet of the archive materials from Sir Norman Hartnell atelier and a reimagined working desk of the designer, the "Royal Style in the Making" exhibition displays a spectacular full-length velvet dress worn by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, in late 30s early 40s style.

The dress has Hartnell's design signature, the incredible embroidery present on the shoulders and neck. The Queen Mother, dressed by Hartnell, promoted British fashion and hosted Buckingham Palace's first fashion show in 1941.

Elizabeth and David Emanuel

After their acclaimed graduation show, David and Elizabeth Emanuel started their own business and planned to turn their final RCA show into the first Emanuel collection. Their introduction to dressing members of the Royal Family came through their connection with Vogue.

Princess Diana's first encounter with an Emanuel design was for the cover of Vogue, in 1981, for her photograph with Lord Snowden. Diana wore a pale pink chiffon silk dress in the photo and thus became acquainted with the young designer couple and their creations. Another well-remembered Emanuel garment was Diana's black dress for her first public engagement at Goldsmiths' Hall.

David and Elizabeth Emanuel received a call from Diana on the 4th of March 1981 to design a wedding dress that would never be forgotten. The designers were a young couple, recent graduates from the Royal College of Art in London, very ambitious and passionate about fashion.

The most famous garments the Emanuels designed are Princess Diana's wedding dress and train she wore on 29th of July 1981 on the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. The exhibition at Kensington Palace displays the ivory taffeta dress and the longest train in history. The visitors can get close enough to observe the delicate traditional old lace from the bodice and the exquisite detailing.

Although most of us have seen Diana's wedding dress on screens, as 750 million people watched the wedding transmission, it is a revelation to see the garment in person. The visitors can appreciate the classic 1980s silhouette with the puffy sleeves and thrills, the details and care that went in making the dress and the sparkles that were part of the fairy tale along the twenty-five-foot train.

The Carrick-ma-cross lace formed the central bodice of the wedding dress and once belonged to Prince Charles' great-grandmother, Queen Mary. The lace was enhanced with thousands of mother of pearl and iridescent sequins. In keeping up with tradition, the bride must wear something old, something borrowed, something new and something blue. The Carrick-ma-cross lace was something old for Diana's wedding. The tiara Diana wore was a Spencer family heirloom, something borrowed, her dress was new, and her something blue was a little bow hand-sewed into the back of the dress by the Emanuels.

David Sassoon

David Sassoon, an expert in royal dressing, joined Bellville et Cie in 1958, the year of the last debutante event. David brought the formal training and skills needed to Belinda Bellville's business to transform the dressmaking shop into a couture house. David and Belinda had created for five of the Royal Princesses – Anne, Alexandra, Diana, Margaret, Michael, and many of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, ambassadors' wives and guests to Windsor and Balmoral Castles.

Throughout the years, David Sassoon designed over 70 outfits for Diana, helping shape her image from the early age of 19. Some of the most well-known garments from Sassoon-Bellville were her going away outfit, her floral dress in bright colours worn when meeting children, and her dress for the christening of Prince William.

David Sassoon had a close relationship with the Princess, and she was involved in the design process as she reviewed the sketches. The exhibition at the Royal Kensington Palace showcases David Sassoon's sketches with handwritten notes from Princess Diana about her preferences for the garments. In addition, the visitors can view the pink dress and jacket worn by the Princess on her wedding day, which later was worn on two more working occasions.

The relationship between the designer and their royal clients is a significant one, as the clothes worn have a role in conveying messages to the public through the details of the garments. If you are passionate about royal style, check out our review of "HRH So Many Thoughts on Royal Style", where Elizabeth Holmes explores the style of four royal women: Queen Elizabeth II, Diana Princess of Wales, Kate the Duchess of Cambridge and Meghan the Duchess of Sussex.

The exhibition is available to visit until the 2nd of January 2022, and you can view the online talk between the experts for a sneak peek.


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