Evening dress worn by Queen Alexandra; embroidered chiffon by Doeuillet, Paris 1910
Image: Fashion Museum Bath

It’s one of the first questions about any major royal appearance or event, with entire websites dedicated to answering it as quickly as possible: But what was she wearing?

While many no doubt write off the fascination with the wardrobes of Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton as frivolous, their outfits have a major impact on the fashion industry. And given how tight-lipped Buckingham Palace is, clothing choices are some of the best insights we have into how the young royals are shaping their images. Ultimately, fashion is a microcosm of how any individual member of the family walks the line between public role and private person—something to remember when Meghan Markle steps out wearing a smart ladies’ tux.

Serendipitously, just as Harry and Meghan announced their engagement, the wonderful Fashion Museum in Bath, England, was already working on a pertinent exhibition: Royal Women, which looks at the fashions worn by generations of Windsors. They have beautiful New Look gowns made for the young Princess Margaret; a stunning evening ensemble worn by the formidable 63-year-old Queen Mary in 1930; and several pieces that belonged to Queen Alexandra, the elegant wife of the king who gave his name to the Edwardian era. The exhibit even includes Alexandra’s 1863 wedding gown—a particularly fascinating piece to consider as curiosity builds about what Meghan will pick.

As part of our ongoing investigation into the royal wedding as a cultural phenomenon, I spoke to the exhibition’s curator, Elly Summers. Turns out, people have been fascinated with the wardrobes of royal women for a very long time, with Alexandra setting trends in the 19th century. Unfortunately, conditions of the loan mean they couldn’t share pictures of her wedding gown, but Summers was able to tell us about it—and how it offers some interesting context for Meghan’s choice. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


JEZEBEL: In the examples you have in the show, how are these royal women negotiating the balance of appearing in public as a royal but also expressing their individual style? How much do they balance that?

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Elly Summers: That’s quite a difficult one, really, because every royal woman has to think very carefully about the way in which they dress, because there are so many different factors involved. The occasion that you’re going to, what’s going to be required of you—you wouldn’t turn up in a ballgown for the opening of something like a big leisure center. There are lots of different factors.

Evening dress and coat, black and purple sequins with fur trim, worn by Queen Mary about 1930
Image: Fashion Museum Bath

When you look at Alexandra, she was quite a fashion icon in her day. In actual fact, she almost set trends. She did use quite a lot of her own taste and her own style which she applied to her dress. Our very first piece in the exhibition shows that, because it’s her wedding dress and it dates to 1863, and originally the dress had a great big cage crinoline style skirt that was so fashionable in the 1860s. Alexandra was said to said to be less in favor of the big cage crinoline skirts, so she actually had the dress completely remodeled straight after the wedding. As we’re displaying it, it has a much slender skirtline. Also, lots of chokers and high collars on her dresses, which was instantly snapped up and became part of fashionable dress. In actual fact, she had a scar on her neck and it’s suggested that she was wearing collars and chokers to conceal the scar. But just by stepping out in that—just like today, really, whatever our key royal women are wearing, everybody else wants to be wearing the same.

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So I do think that their own individual styles and preferences had an important place. But, of course, that is within a framework of what has come before them and of the occasion for which they’re dressing.

You’re talking about how Alexandra, as the wife of the heir, she could express her style more than you might think. For somebody like Princess Margaret—she wasn’t going to be the queen and she was famous for being very fashionable and having a fascinating personal life, but she still was an official member of the family and very high profile. How out there could she get in her choices? Could she just wear whatever she wanted or did she still have to shape her style according to the dictates of her role?

I think to a certain extent she did still have to consider those constraints. But perhaps as a princess and not as a direct heir to the throne or consort, she did have did have a little bit more freedom. At that time, both her sister the Queen and her mother, the Queen Mother, were very much buying British, wearing British. And actually her grandmother before them as well, Queen Mary. From Queen Mary onwards, there’s very much a buying British, wearing British trend. But for Princess Margaret, as a princess, she perhaps did have that little bit more freedom. She absolutely loved French couture and she was a lifelong patron of Dior. They met in 1947, when he brought his New Look collection to London.

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Evening dresses worn by Princess Margaret. Left: red and white striped cotton by Norman Hartnell 1949; right: yellow, grey and peach figured silk by Norman Hartnell, about 1953
Image: Fashion Museum Bath

Actually, there’s a lovely little connection with the Fashion Museum there, because the founder, Doris Langley Moore, set up the showing of that famous 1947 New Look collection at the Savoy Hotel in London. Princess Margaret and Elizabeth the Queen Mother very much wanted to go to it, so actually what they had to do was set up a private viewing. They very quietly smuggled all the dresses out the back of the Savoy Hotel after the showing, took them over to the French Embassy, and they put on a special show for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, and Princess Margaret, and also the Duchess of Kent was there, as well. That was the very first time that Princess Margaret met Dior. I think he described her as the perfect princess, very beautiful. From that point onwards, I think she always bought Dior. We’ve got that very beautiful key piece in the exhibition, the 1952 Dior dress that she wore to Ascot in June of that year, which is absolutely lovely. And actually I think that demonstrates her own personal take and her personal interest in fashion, because the collection that Dior designed, that that dress comes from, was called “Rose Pompon,” and all of the dresses in that collection had a little rosebud design. But Princess Margaret chose to have that piece made separately for herself, in plain cream. So she clearly took an active role in the crafting of her image.

It seems like the fashion choices are almost like a microcosm of what it means to be royal and craft your image. Because you have to craft your image, to some extent.

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Yes, absolutely. And I think in the 1950s, there was suddenly so much, probably, more pressure to have that image presented more uniformly, because there was television, there was a huge amount more in the way of paparazzi photography. So perhaps in the past where you had a specific outfit designed for a specific occasion that was only going to be seen by that audience who were at that event, once you hit the 1950s, there’s so much more media that actually that outfit’s going to be seen by a much wider audience. Then you look at today, where your image is everywhere. You almost have to dress for everybody, because your audience is the world.

That gradual expansion of the way in which we view royal dress and how immediate the media has become probably had a steady effect on the way the royal women have to consider their dress from Alexandra right through to Margaret and now present day.

You have Alexandra’s wedding gown. (The first royal to be photographed in her wedding dress!) Given that we’re in this year of the royal wedding, what do you think is particularly interesting to notice about the dress and the choices that they made in designing it?

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What’s really interesting is the fact that, you know, she wasn’t a British princess. She was a Danish princess, coming over to marry the heir to the throne. And as such, she was expected to wear English lace. The dress, originally, had huge swathes of Honiton lace decorating the skirt and also on the bodice, very fine, very beautiful lace with emblems of England, Scotland, and Ireland, so the rose, the thistle, and the shamrock. Interestingly, she actually was given a lace dress by the king of Belgium, King Leopold, and it was Brussels lace. She wanted to wear the Brussels lace dress. But Queen Victoria was adamant that she should be wearing English dress. The fact that she did probably had something to do with how formidable Queen Victoria was. But also, it just shows that she was coming over to England to become a British princess and this was a very important way in which she could show her new affiliations. If you look at royal wedding dresses over the last hundred years, that is something that tends to be repeated. That use of English lace, or English tailoring—it’s a very key way to establish a British identity.

So it will be really interesting to see what’s going to be chosen for the royal wedding in May.

Especially since she’s also not a British woman!

Exactly. She’s coming from another country and she’s marrying into the British royal family. I think it will be interesting, and interesting for us, because we have Queen Alexandra’s wedding dress on display.

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What would you like visitors to take away from the show? What do you think is really interesting or compelling that you’d like people to remember?

What’s particularly lovely about this show is it looks at successive generations of dress of women in the royal family. Women who are not the reigning monarch, but have that close association. And when you see them all en masse—you can look at individual photographs of each piece, but you don’t get the sense that you get when you actually walk around the exhibition, having that feeling of being in a room surrounded by four generations. You’re looking at a family—a great grandmother, a grandmother, a mother, and a daughter—of women from the British royal family. I think it’s quite special to be able to see all those pieces together in one place.

Do you have a favorite piece?

Am I allowed to choose two?

Of course!

I would choose the circa 1870 dress that was worn by Alexandra when she was still Princess of Wales. It’s made from the most incredibly vivid tartan, red, green, and cream, and the colors are so bright. It looks incredibly modern, the fabric itself. You can almost imagine it going down the catwalk as part of a Vivienne Westwood collection. It’s quite extraordinary. But there it is in circa 1870, and it’s also absolutely beautifully made.

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Evening dresses worn by Alexandra, then Princess of Wales; left, tartan silk by Madame Elise about 1870; right, lilac silk by Morin Blossier about 1893.
Image: Fashion Museum Bath

I would also choose Princess Margaret’s Dior dress of 1952. I think that one’s really special. It’s incredibly delicate, very floaty and light. It’s made of silk chiffon. It’s a strapless boned bodice with a very light, delicate bolero and it has a full skirt in the 1950s style. And it’s just so beautifully made. Little tiny intricate pleats. I think it absolutely sums up couture, and especially, you know, for Princess Margaret and her connection with Dior.

Oh, and I’ve thought of something else we could say to sum up the exhibition: It isn’t just about royal fashion, but it also looks at the collection stories behind the garments, how these garments have filtered their way down from that royal individual and ended up in museum collections in all sorts of interesting ways. There are some lovely little collection stories about how we have managed to acquire different pieces and when they were acquired.

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Evening dress worn by Princess Margaret; black lace by Norman Hartnell, 1953
Image: Fashion Museum Bath

One of them came from a London thrift shop, right? Or a vintage store?

Yes, there were some pieces that belonged to Alexandra that were found in a shop called Baroque, in the 1960s. The shop closed down, and all of these pieces belonging to Princess Alexandra were discovered. There were actually eightof them that were offered to the Fashion Museum. We were called the Museum of Costume at that time. The founder, Doris Langley Moore—the lady who set up the New Look collection showing—she chose two pieces, because they were particularly good examples of their type. But we don’t know what happened to the rest of them. It’s fascinating, and it’s quite a mystery, as well.

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Other pieces, they were perhaps handed to a favored member of staff, like Queen Mary, one of her senior ladies in waiting, Lady Ampthill, who was the Lady of the Bedchamber, she was given a sequined evening dress and matching coat, two pairs of shoes, and a hat. They were obviously kept and treasured and then they were passed to the museum, again in the 1960s.

The four dresses that we have belonging to Princess Margaret, actually they were gifted from the princess herself. She contacted the museum in the early 1980s—she had lots of connections with Bath, she used to visit Bath with her husband Antony Armstrong-Jones and she was also patron of the Theatre Royal in the city. She offered for the curator to visit Kensington Palace, which was quite an occasion. They drove up to Kensington Palace and were invited in to her state apartment, shown into one of the rooms where her dresser had made out these four beautiful dresses for them to view, and asked if they’d like to choose one. And they said, we’d love to have them all, please! And we were very lucky in that they were all gifted.

Royal Women runs through April 28, 2019, at the Fashion Museum in Bath, England.