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1st September 2023

King George vs Lady Gaga: Crown to Couture at Kensington Palace in review

Crown to Couture is an expertly curated exhibition which draws fascinating parallels between the world of today’s red carpet and the Georgian Royal Court in the 18th century.
King George vs Lady Gaga: Crown to Couture at Kensington Palace in review
Photo: Richard Lea-Hair

One of the most exciting fashion exhibitions in London currently is Crown to Couture at Kensington Palace, the official London residence of the Prince and Princess of Wales. The brand-new fashion exhibition for 2023 takes over Kensington Palace’s State Apartments and Piggott Galleries, featuring over 200 items from ball gowns to court suits and handbags to jewellery. The exhibition draws fascinating parallels between the world of today’s red carpet and the Georgian Royal Court in the 18th century, and is cleverly subtitled “the exhibition of the centuries.” In pop culture terms: King George goes Gaga!

Contemporary outfits are paired with Georgian outfits, allowing viewers to appreciate the similarities in mechanism and design. Some of the pieces, Georgian and modern alike, are allowed to shine on their own, but placards reveal context: some of the modern outfits are, inspired by Georgian techniques. Some of the modern costumes are inspired by iconic outfits from modern history, worn by the likes of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe.

The Pigott Gallery (Room Two). Photo: Richard Lea-Hair

In fact, the exhibition begins with a dress designed by Edith Head for Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953), which was altered by Givenchy for her appearance at the Oscars the following year – where Hepburn picked up her first Oscar. The dress is paired with the Oscar statuette presented to Edith Head that year.

In the same glass box sits the earliest known English Court dress (1660s), worn by Lady Theophilia Harris (d.1702), which is paired with the ‘Chain of the Order of the Garter’, a garter worn above the knee. The placard reads: “The greatest honour for an ambitious aristocratic man was to become a Garter Knight. It was the highest award a King could bestow. Just like winning an Oscar, it was a recognisable symbol of success.”

The connection is a little bit tenuous, suggesting that the curators wanted to showcase Hepburn’s dress and thought of a clever way to connect it to the exhibition. Other pieces, however, are directly inspired by older designs and techniques, and if they are not, they are allowed to shine on their own.

At the other side of the glass box, there are two gorgeous Georgian outfits, one for a man and the other for a woman – the latter of which is an obnoxiously wide mantua, worn by Mary Flaxman, 1750-53. Many of the rooms feature some Georgian outfits, reminding us of the exhibition’s purpose.

The Pigott Gallery (Room Two). Photo: Richard Lea-Hair

In the same room, though not protected by glass, is the suit worn by British Vogue’s editor-in-chief Edward Enniful to his OBE Investiture at Buckingham Palace and the dress worn by US Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour to the Met Gala 2021 (subtitled In America: A Lexicon of Fashion).

The next Met Gala outfit is the sparkling ballgown worn by Kendall Jenner to the 2021 edition of the gala. Inspired by Audrey Hepburn’s longstanding relationship with Givenchy, it is based on a gown from Hepburn’s film My Fair Lady. Behind the dress is a screen which shows a behind-the-scenes mini-documentary via Getting Ready with Vogue.

One of the most mesmerising outfits is the “sun god” costume worn by Billy Porter to 2019’s Met Gala, for the Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition. Porter was carried in by men and completed his killer look with oversized gold wings. He embodied “camp”.

I should note that the costumes are held in many different rooms. Even if you only go for the exhibition, you have to explore much of the palace, and you cannot possibly walk through these rooms without appreciating their splendour.

The King’s Staircase. Photo: Richard Lea-Hair

I was particularly taken aback by the King’s Staircase. With forty-five people painted onto the walls and ceiling, you can almost hear the walls whisper as you walk up the staircase. Walls have ears, indeed.

The exhibition also featured some gorgeous pieces from designer collections, which have not (yet) been worn by celebrities. Thus, they are not recognisable but they certainly are amazing to look at. Situated at the top of the staircase is a runway look by Giambattista Valli, who is known for his impactful designs created by exaggerated volumes, endless layers of frothy tulle, and gigantic trains.

The King’s Gallery. Photo: Richard Lea-Hair

The main event takes place in the King’s Gallery, which is adorned with an abundance of rich red curtains. First up is the beautiful gown worn by Billie Eilish to the Met Gala in 2021, where she was the youngest co-chair. She had agreed to work with Oscar de la Renta on the condition that they stop using animal fur. Her dress, with its humongous, puffy skirt, is based on one worn by Marilyn Monroe to the Oscars in 1951.

The room continues to be adorned with Met couture.  For instance, the black dress worn by Nichola Coughlan to the Screen Actors Guild Awards in 2021, the shiny suit worn by Timothée Chalamet to the Cannes Film Festival in 2021, the gold-embroidered morning suit designed and worn by Jeremy Scott of Moschino to the Met Gala 2022 – In America: An Anthology of Fashion, inspired by the Gilded Age.

There’s an archive copy of the green gown worn by Lady Gaga to the MTV Video Music Awards in 2020, complete with the actual horned mask she wore, situated next to the sparkly bright pink suit worn by Colman Domingo to the Academy Awards in 2021.

At the end of the row sits the room’s highlight. There’s the classic brown velvet tuxedo worn by Ryan Reynolds to the Met Gala in 2022 (which he co-chaired) alongside the mesmerising gown worn by his wife, Blake Lively – one of the best-loved outfits in Met Gala history.

The dress pays homage to New York City’s architecture: it represents the Empire State Building. Lively arrived on the red carpet with an elaborate copper bow that was unfurled to reveal a vast verdigris train, which echoes the gradual transformation of the Statue of Liberty from copper to oxidised green. The train is embroidered with zodiac signs taken from the ceiling of Grand Central Station. Seeing this meticulously designed Donatella Versace dress in real life is an incredible experience. It’s a real feast for the eyes.

The final outfit in the King’s Gallery is the black dress worn by Lizzo to the same event, complete with the gold floral-embroidered coat and the 16-carat gold flute she had played impromptu. Lizzo might be cancelled but this costume is invincible!

The King’s Gallery. Photo: Richard Lea-Hair

Situated in the King’s Drawing Room is the memorable chandelier dress that Katy Perry wore to the Met Gala in 2019 (camp really was the best theme, wasn’t it?). The room also features a pair (male and female) of white Georgian outfits.

The King’s Drawing Room. Photo: Richard Lea-Hair

The next room, which celebrates protest fashion, begins with a male outfit which is so much more than just a suit: the outlandish costume worn by Dan Levy to the Met Gala in 2019, which celebrates “the resilience and the love and the joy” of the queer community and presents Levy as a “superhero for the community.” The costume, which is embroidered with an image of two men kissing, is inspired by a 1984 image of two men kissing by American artist and AIDS campaigner David Wojnarowicz.

Next up is the green suit worn by Santan Dave to the Brit Awards in 2020. The outfit makes a powerful statement about prejudice, systemic oppression, and racial identity. Traditional African tribal prints are fused with British tailoring, physically and metaphorically celebrating multiculturalism.

There is a pairing of the black gowns worn to the Golden Globes in 2018 by Michelle Williams (the actress, not the Destiny’s Child member) and her invited guest, Tarana Burke. This was the year that many actors wore black in support of the #MeToo and Times Up campaigns, the former of which was founded by Burke.

Next to the black dresses is the black suit and Pride flag (complete with black and brown stripes) cape worn by Lena Waithe to the Met Gala in 2018. That year’s exhibition was titled Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. Waithe made a powerful statement, whilst other guests dressed in papal-inspired clothing, Waithe highlighted the complex relationship between the Catholic Church and the queer community.

There’s even a political runway look from the late, great Vivienne Westwood, which stands next to the “VOTE” dress worn by Lizzo to the Billboard Music Awards a couple of weeks before the 2020 US Presidential Election.

The Cupola Room. Photo: Richard Lea-Hair

In the grand Cupola Room stands the striking gown worn by Billy Porter to the Oscars in 2020 – which was inspired by this very room. The skirt print is based on the military decorations on the panelling, and the hard-foiled feather bodice references the gold statues of Roman gods. The dress portrays Porter as a “messenger from the gods.”

In another room, there is a pairing of the outfits worn by Queer Eye‘s Jonathan Van Ness and Tan France to the Emmy Awards in 2019. Van Ness’ little black dress has a statement: a huge blue bow. The dress is inspired by Audrey Hepburn in her best-known film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s – which my bedroom is essentially a shrine to! France honoured his South Asian heritage with a silk kurta, or tunic, and an exquisitely embroidered sherwani coat.

In a room of its own (the Presence Chamber) stands the glistening golden gown worn by Beyoncé to the Grammy Awards in 2017, where she performed ‘Love Drought’ and ‘Sandcastles’. The gown is woven (literally) with symbolism: the embroidery incorporates elements of ‘Love Drought’, cherubs dressed in ivy reference her first child (Blue Ivy), her own face is positioned proudly over her baby bump, and sun rays symbolise Oshun, the African goddess of fertility, beauty, and love.

Situated behind Beyoncé are two Queen’s guards, referencing her honorific nickname: “Queen Bey”.

The Presence Chamber. Photo: Richard Lea-Hair

In a corridor sits the epic ensemble worn by Vogue’s global editor-at-large Hamish Bowles to the Met Gala in 2019 (camp!). There are neon lights at either side of the costume reading “Welcome to the after party”.

The Queen’s Gallery. Photo: Richard Lea-Hair

The Queen’s Gallery begins with the pale blue dress worn by Billie Piper to the British Fashion Awards in 2021. Vivienne Westwood was known for her punk take on 17th and 18th century dress patterns, with this dress directly referencing 18th century corsetry and drapery. However, the thigh-high slit and the outfit’s provocative styling subvert the Georgian references in a way that feels fresh and modern.

There’s the dresses worn by Diane Kruger to the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 and Jennifer Lawrence to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 premiere in 2014, both of which reference the elaborate silhouettes which were a feature of both British and French court dress in the 18th century.

There’s a piece from Jean Paul Gaultier’s 1988 ‘Les Marquid Touareg’ collection, which echoes the craftmanship and fashions of the French Court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette – but with a modern edge. There’s also the ensemble worn by Dua Lipa in Pop Smoke’s ‘Demeanor’ music video which is a pairing of two pieces from Gaultier’s Ancien Régime-inspired collection.

Situated next to Lipa’s dress is the suit worn by Franklin Leonard to the Met Gala in 2022. The look is inspired by the 19th century abolitionist and civil rights leaders Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, combining male and female 18th and 19th century elite dress whilst subverting their cut.

The dress worn by Hoyeon Jung to the Critics’ Choice Awards 2022 took inspiration from the Robe de Style, which was popular during the 1920s and itself paid homage to 18th century fashion through the use of panniers – pairs of side hoops worn at the hip to expand the width of a dress. In a nutshell: it’s a 21st century dress inspired by a 20th century dress inspired by an 18th century dress!

Court clothes made from brocaded silks woven with gold and silver threads were worn to royal birthdays, the most prestigious court events – and Hamish Bowles replicated that for the Fashion Awards 2021, with a jacquard woven suit inspired by 18th century silk brocade, complete with gorgeous golden embroidery in leaf shapes.

The Queen’s Gallery. Photo: Richard Lea-Hair

Any Fleabag fans? There’s the angelic gown worn by Phoebe Waller-Bridge to the Emmys 2019!

One of the most striking outfits in the exhibition is that worn by Lil Nas X to the Black Entertainment Television Awards 2021. Both silhouette and fabric are an homage to 18th century designs but new life is breathed into each. The fabric is printed with Toile de Jouy, which historically showed idyllic pastoral designs, but this recreation critiques capitalism, religion, and contemporary society. Perhaps even more radically, the vast mantua skirt is transformed into culottes!

The Queen’s Gallery. Richard Lea-Hair

A fashion exhibition would not be complete without something worn by a Hadid. Celebrities are increasingly looking to fashion archives for unique red-carpet looks. Most notably, Kim Kardashian controversially wore a Marilyn Monroe dress to the 2022 Met Gala. Bella Hadid is a champion of wearing vintage, and she wore an elegant black dress designed by Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior in 1959 to the Prince’s Trust Gala 2022.

In 2014, Stella McCartney partnered with the Green Carpet Challenge to produce the first capsule collection that met all of their criteria for sustainable and ethical fashion. The collection included thirteen looks: four ballgowns made from leftover fabric from McCartney’s studio and nine evening dresses in a new organic material that the designer developed. Cate Blanchet wore an ivory ensemble, complete with a cape with red and blue prints, to the Green Carpet Fashion Awards 2018.

Situated next to Blanchett’s dress is the ensemble worn by Emma Watson to the Earthshot Prize Ceremony in 2021. The ensemble is essentially a half-dress and half-top, with the latter revealing black pants. The piece is taken from Harris Reed’s FOUND collection. Reed’s work centres on fashion’s opportunity to promote inclusivity and spark conversation about political and social issues.

The Jewel Room displays a selection of stunning pieces, including a replica Amazonia necklace and earrings from the Garrard Couture Collection 2023.

The Jewel Room. Photo: Richard Lea-Hair

Crown to Couture is not merely a collection of gorgeous gowns. It is an expertly curated exhibition. A history lesson that comes to life. It is a sensuous experience for lovers of art, materials, fashion, and history.

Crown to Couture runs at Kensington Palace until October 29 2023. Get your tickets quickly before the gowns are packed into a golden carriage and whisked away!

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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