New royal fashion exhibit honors Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana's exotic style

Princess Diana is seen wearing a Jacques Azagury dress in Florence, Italy, in 1985, at left. Conservators prepare the gown for display at Kensington Palace, on the right.

A new exhibit at London’s Kensington Palace will feature rare and exquisite dresses worn by Queen Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana. From the post-war 1950s, through the rebellious 1960s and '70s, to the extravagant 1980s, each decade had its own spirit and style. Entitled “Fashion Rules,” the display will use photographs, film, and music to take visitors on an extravagant look back at how the royals reflected and inspired the trends of their day.

“The most nostalgic piece” will be a dress Princess Diana wore to a dinner in Florence, Italy, in 1985, said the exhibit’s curator.

“It’s not the most glamorous dress, but it encapsulates the '80s: big shoulders, dropped waist, rah-rah skirt at the bottom, it has an oversized bow on the side and is electric blue and black with stars,” said curator Cassie Davies-Strodder.

“It reminds everyone of something they wore in the '80s,” she said of the Jacques Azagury dress that will be on display for the first time in Britain.

The three royals chosen for the exhibit all had “a personal relationship” with Kensington Palace; Princess Margaret and Princess Diana lived in the lavish 17th century West London residence with their families and “the Queen and Prince Philip spent time here as newlyweds before he went on tour with the Navy,” the curator said.

Each of the women had a different style that reflected not only the era in which they lived but the positions they held in Britain’s royal family.

Dresses fit for a Queen

Queen Elizabeth became the Head of State of the UK and 15 other Commonwealth realms at the tender age of 25, in 1953, so her look had to be adapted “for the working wardrobe of a monarch.”

“Her 1950s gowns are very romantic and feminine in their look, and are pale so that she stood out in black and white photographs and film,” said Davies-Strodder.

Queen Elizabeth wears a Norman Hartnell dress for the opening of New Zealand’s parliament in 1963, left. The gown is seen as it will be presented at the “Fashion Rules” exhibit, right.

The Queen also chose the outfits she wore for meetings with foreign dignitaries with care. For a visit to Pakistan in 1961, her satin evening gown was designed in the green and white national colors of the country. The front of the gown was plain so that her insignia could be displayed across her chest.

The rebellious princess

Princess Margaret was the younger sister and only sibling of Queen Elizabeth. She was often viewed as a rebellious, controversial member of the royal family due to a divorce and romantic links to other men.

“She had greater freedom in her role and she was seen as a real fashion leader; we have a quote from the (photojournalistic magazine ) Picture Post, saying ‘What she wears is news,” the curator said.

Getty Images / Today
Princess Margaret wears a 1952 gray lace dress by Norman Hartnell. The boned fitted bodice is intricately constructed in layers of grey silk net with grey leaf-patterned lace underneath.

Her clothes reflect the changing times. Among Princess Margaret’s items on display are a 1977 “Slim Look” dress and a glamorous fur coat she wore in the 1960s and '70s, both by Marc Bohan for Christian Dior. The designer was associated with other high-profile, high-fashion clients like President Kennedy’s wife Jackie Onassis and film stars Bridgette Bardot and Elizabeth Taylor.

“She even reflected the hippy, ethnic dress trend in an upmarket way,” the curator said, noting a silk kaftan and turban the princess wore while on holiday on the Caribbean island of Mustique in 1976.

Princess Diana ‘disseminated high fashion’

In the 1980s and '90s, the coverage of Princess Diana and the clothes she wore were “so widely covered in the press that it’s phenomenal,” the curator said.

“Diana was following fashion and wasn’t the most cutting edge dresser, but she made catwalk fashion more accessible to people who wouldn’t normally follow high fashion; she disseminated high fashion in that way,” she said, adding that the Princess of Wales was instrumental in reviving British design and popularizing the wearing of hats in particular.

Like Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana’s wardrobe often referenced the countries she visited. For a state banquet in Kyoto, Japan, in 1986, she wore a sparkling, shimmering Zandra Rhodes dress in the same shade of pink as the cherry blossoms blooming at the time of her visit.

Princess Diana chose this Zandra Rhodes creation to reference the cherry blossoms in bloom during her visit to Japan in 1986.

The curator said that every detail had to be taken into consideration when dressing for the world stage, and with the international press commenting on every article of clothing. For example, when Princess Diana visited Brazil in 1991, the country was still deeply upset over its World Cup soccer loss to Argentina the previous year. Aware of this, Princess Diana asked designer Catherine Walker to make sure that her dresses did not contain the colors of the Argentinian or Brazilian flags. Instead, her entire wardrobe for the South American trip was pale pink and ivory.

Highlight of the exhibit

A highlight of the exhibit will be an evening dress that Princess Diana debuted at Claridges Hotel in 1986. She obviously loved the dress as she wore it on several other occasions right up until the year she died, 1997.

London designer Murray Arbeid created this evening dress for Princess Diana with the drama and glamor of Milan and Paris courture.

“It is a really glamorous show-stopper of a frock,” Davies-Strodder said, describing the midnight blue strapless gown with a theatrical fish-tail skirt of multiple layers of tulle.

“In the '80s, she wore it with big hair and long gloves, and in the '90s she paired down the look with sleek, short hair,” she said.

‘Fashion Rules’ is included in the £15 ($23) entry to Kensington Palace. It adds onto the already acclaimed Victoria Revealed exhibition and a new presentation of the magnificent State Apartments, and is hoped to be a popular summer attraction.

It will open on July 4, just as the nation gears up to celebrate the birth of the next royal baby, whose mother, Duchess Kate, is the family’s latest style icon.