There she stands: Her Gracious Majesty, wearing the gown at her coronation in 1953. Beside this image of a young woman in regal crown and full-skirted dress is the outfit itself — designed by royal couturier Norman Hartnell and laid flat for an up-close view of each embroidered detail: a thistle for Scotland, the shamrock of Ireland, and the leek of Wales, combined with flowers of the Commonwealth nestling around the English Tudor rose.
"Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from the Queen's Wardrobe", displayed in the State Rooms of Buckingham Palace, is a fascinating study of how the young Queen Elizabeth developed a royal closet for an extraordinary life. We see her first as a young married woman, just 27 when she acceded to the throne, then follow her as she develops from the post-war 1940s, through the curvaceous 1950s — all the while fulfilling her role as head of the British Armed Forces.
"One of the things I wanted to show in the Queen's wardrobe is her support for British design," said Caroline de Guitaut, the exhibition's curator, as she discussed the displays in the grand Palace rooms.
The coronation gown is the highlight of a show twinkling with encrusted decoration and filled with clothes fit for purpose. Subtle messages are stitched into outfits for official Royal travel, as in the choice of symbolic yellow for an Australian tour, green for the Ethiopian flag, and blossom embroideries on an Ian Webb dress destined for the Queen's historic visit to China. Many of those static outfits are brought to life by an accompanying film of each overseas event — art of the intelligent vision of the curator.
De Guitaut wanted to show the clothes as the development not just of a royal wardrobe, but also of the art and craft of British couture and its various designers. While her fashion-fiend sister, Princess Margaret, had her eye on Paris and Dior gowns, the future Queen patronised the incomparable Hartnell, whose royal career began with the dress for the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in 1947.
Hartnell was dedicated to fashioning a look for a young Queen, whose essence evoked hope and joy in an exhausted post-war Britain. Hardy Amies, a master of tailoring, offered a sleeker and less emotional vision of the young Queen Elizabeth, while the exhibition follows the royal wardrobe right through to this year, with outfits from more recent couturiers. They include from Stewart Parvin the vivid, can't-miss-her neon green coat (top); and the many current outfits by Angela Kelly.
Kelly produced not only the white coat and hat, inspired by the Tudor splendour of Queen Elizabeth I, for the Thames River Pageant in 2012 for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee; but also the salmon-pink lace dress for the Olympic Games in London the same year. That was secretly created as two identical garments for when Her Majesty interacted with Daniel Craig as James Bond and a stunt double showed "the Queen" arrive at the Olympic stadium by catapulting herself out of a helicopter.
For all its exceptional opportunity to see details up-close, there is one frustrating gap in this fashion collection. Missing are the jewels that are at the heart of majesty, the corner stones of royal heritage and an essential decorative item for the plainer clothes. Those outfits look dull as ditchwater as they are lined up on dummies, the necklines naked. Even a handbag would have helped. Yet in the photographs shown above, the clothes came back to life, as the Queen had decorated them with jewels, from a pink diamond flower brooch to her grandmother's pearls.
Why couldn't there have been some effort to make reference to the jewels — even if it were a paper crown or a string of fake pearls? "It's down to practicality. It is very difficult to combine things on open display, which we can do for clothes because of the short duration of the exhibition, over eight to nine weeks," de Guitaut said. "Jewellery alongside would have to be placed in cases. And my concept was accepted on the basis that it is about British couture. Jewellery is fundamental to how the Queen appears, but we have created several jewellery exhibitions before and there is lots of imagery to support the 150 ensembles on display."
She was referring to the films and to exceptional details, such as the ivory satin wedding shoes with pearl buckles by Edward Rayne. There is also an intelligent linking of clothes with portraits, such as the 1969 Pietro Annigoni oil sketch for his portrait of the Queen in the red robes of the Order of the British Empire. It was intriguing to discover that this cloak was designed by Marion Foale, an unknown student of London's Royal College of Art, showing the Court's prophetic vision of the rise of British fashion designers during the Swinging Sixties.
All this is a fine achievement, especially considering that in this 90th birthday year Caroline de Guitaut is producing a trilogy of exhibitions of Queen Elizabeth II's wardrobe, at three separate locations: Buckingham Palace, Holyroodhouse in Scotland (until October) and Windsor Castle (from 17th September).
The Buckingham Palace exhibition starts with an overview of changing decades, including two shapely black velvet Norman Hartnell dresses, pre-coronation. Black was later reserved for the royal ritual of mourning and is virtually never worn by the Queen. An exception was a dress made for one of seven visits to the Pope over 60 years. That black dress had its high bodice cut away for other outings — the better to find space for diamonds and pearls. The long wall of hats, displayed in a horizontal showcase, offers an opportunity to see in close-up 62 hats from six out of 11 royal milliners, including Frederick Fox, Simone Mirman and Aage Thaarup. A film at the end of the gallery records the handcraft with which the hats are made to emphasise the curator's enthusiasm for couture workmanship.
However, I could not help thinking, as with jewels, that hats are best seen in context with the clothes. For example, Angela Kelly's ensemble of cotton-silk piqué coat and matching hat worn for Her Majesty's 90th birthday celebration in June this year at St Paul's Cathedral; and for the ankle-length blue outfit with long sleeves by Hardy Amies, topped off by the witty Freddie Fox turban for a Middle East trip in 1979.
Caroline de Guitaut was eager to point out the Queen's military uniforms — for example the Grenadier Guards outfit based on a riding habit with a hat inspired by the furry military headdress, but made by Aage Thaarup in a tricorn shape with a dashing regimental feather. "The ceremonial illustrates the importance of tailoring," Caroline de Guitaut explained, saying that the asymmetric hat was one of her favourite pieces.
There is plenty of majesty in this exhibition, although no-one apart from Hartnell really made a statement about 20th-century royal dress. The Queen, so young and fresh at the start of her personal pageant, became a mother of four and dressed as a power woman, in tailored daytime wear or grand gowns.
This exhibition is interesting, informative and sometimes sumptuous. But it lacks the poetry that, even in the 21st century, is at the heart of majesty.