For a man or woman of noble status living in the 18th century, Kensington Palace was the place to see and be seen. The site of grand balls and lavish receptions, it was where great artists, thinkers and socialites came, in their finery, to jostle for favour with the king and queen. The visitors’ court suits and large gowns panniered with whalebone hoops were admired by throngs of onlookers and fawned over in newspapers.
The glittering social scene of the Georgian court might seem like a bygone era but look to the Met Gala or the Academy Awards ceremony today and you’ll find scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in the royal court 300 years ago. “The court has been replaced by the red carpet as the key sphere of fashionable influence and fashionable display,” says Claudia Acott Williams, co-curator of Crown to Couture, a forthcoming exhibition on the subject at Kensington Palace, which opens next month.
The idea for the show came to Williams and co-curator Polly Putnam while they were watching the Met Gala in 2018. “Seeing these celebrities being manoeuvred out of their Mercedes Sprinter vans onto the red carpet by a sea of attendants who then arrange their gowns around them made us think there’s something here,” says Williams. “The 18th century was also the moment of the birth of celebrity culture in the way that we understand it now thanks to the expansion of the print press, which created an obsession with notable names and a fashion press that was commenting on what was being worn at court.”
Set to be the largest exhibition ever staged at the palace, the show juxtaposes late 17th- and 18th-century pieces, including a white silk brocade mantua embroidered with flowers from the early 1750s and a silver boned silk dress with large puff sleeves believed to have been worn at the court of Charles II by a young Lady Theophila Harris, against items such as the white floral lace minidress worn by Audrey Hepburn to the Oscars in 1954, originally created by Edith Head for Roman Holiday and redesigned by Givenchy. There’s also the ornate Thom Browne black cape jacket with gold embroidery Lizzo wore to last year’s Met Gala, and the gold beaded catsuit in which Billy Porter was famously carried into the Met Gala in 2019, as well as the Schiaparelli dove brooch worn by Lady Gaga at Joe Biden’s inauguration in 2021 and the Garrard pearl, diamond and sapphire necklace and earring set worn by Beyoncé for her Mrs Carter world tour promotion. “It was literally my first design for Garrard so to have it worn by Beyoncé was really cool,” says Sara Prentice, creative director of Garrard, which was official crown jeweller from 1843 to 2007 and is partnering with Historic Royal Palaces on the exhibition.
The exhibition also draws parallels between the rituals of red carpet preparations with those of Georgian nobility, such as the “levée”, where elite members of the royal court would be invited into the monarch’s state bedchamber to watch them dress. “It always seems completely bizarre to people, but we’re all fascinated by the Vogue ‘Getting Ready with’ videos that show celebrities preparing for these events,” says Williams, pointing to Kendall Jenner’s behind-the-scenes video of her before the Met Gala, which is displayed in the exhibition.
The show will also feature designs by a new generation of names such as Harris Reed and Edward Crutchley, whose sumptuous green lurex and crinoline gown from his SS22 collection echoes the hoop petticoats and status-signalling court mantuas of the 18th century. “While we might tell ourselves that the days of aristocratic exclusivity are something of the past, in reality we have just continued this in a different guide,” says Crutchley, who drew inspiration from the queer culture of London in the 1720s for his collection. “The red carpet is the same thing as the staircase at Kensington Palace. You only get through the door if you know the right people and have the right outfit on.”
As well as being a place to dance and mingle, the royal court was a space for the celebrities of the era to further their careers, for which their choice of elaborately decorated and extravagant costume was an effective medium. “Much as one’s outfit at court was a way of being noticed by the monarch, which could lead to titles and land and political positions, a successful red-carpet appearance can really propel a celebrity’s career forward, and help them distinguish themselves from their roles or show their multiplicity,” says Williams. She points to the blush-pink tulle Oscar de la Renta gown worn by Billie Eilish to the 2021 Met Gala, and a 3m-wide marigold yellow silk mantua worn by Helen Robertson of Ladykirk to a ball at Holyrood in 1760, as an example of women using the red carpet as a way to shape their public image. For the then 19-year-old Eilish, the Marilyn Monroe-inspired ball gown marked a departure from her usual style of baggy T-shirts and tracksuits and cemented her shift from neo-goth teen pop sensation to grown-up and sophisticated star. “It was a kind of debut moment or a moment of major rebranding for both of them,” says Williams. “The mantua had been chosen by Helen Robertson shortly after she had married, and, up until that point, all of her court clothing would have been chosen by her mother, so this was her stepping out as a woman in her own right and rebranding herself on her own terms.”
Similarly the red carpet’s recent acts of sartorial protest – from the Carolina Herrera rainbow cape worn by Lena Waithe at the 2018 Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination Met Gala to the headline-making “Tax the Rich” gown worn by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the 2021 Gala – can be traced back to some of the subtle political statements made at the royal court, such as an extraordinary shimmering silver silk satin brocade mantua that was believed to have been worn by Lady Rockingham, the wife of the British prime minister Charles Watson-Wentworth, for her court appearances in the 1760s, and whose colours expressed her political affiliations. “It made it very clear what her political standing was at court – much like the way we see clothing today used very explicitly to make a political statement,” says Williams.
In having these Georgian costumes in dialogue with 21st-century celebrity ensembles for the first time, the exhibition aims to highlight the enduring style “rules” governing today’s most exclusive red carpet events and the parallels between past and present use of dress. “All this protocol and ceremony is about showing reverence and respect for the institution,” says Williams. “Those rules might have changed dramatically, but the thing that persists is the idea of clothing as a way of showing respect for the environment that you’re in and dressing to impress or dressing to express, and using clothing as a tool to communicate.”
Crown to Couture opens at Kensington Palace on 5 April 2023, and will run until 29 October