Just over two months ago, I visited the Crown to Couture exhibition at Kensington Palace, London. The exhibition features more than 200 exhibits that compare court fashion of the Georgian era (almost the entire 18th century and the first third of the 19th) and modern couture outfits that celebrities recently walked on the red carpet.
Going to court in the Georgian era involved a visit to a royal palace. Once or twice a week, people attended a Drawing Room, a morning reception where they could meet the king, queen or Prince of Wales. The grandest occasions were the balls to celebrate a royal birthday. At court, your dress and manners were crucial to getting noticed.
A successful appearance could further your career, show your political standing, and secure your social position.
Formal invitations were not issued for a court occasion - what you wore was your passport to entry. Courtiers were required to wear a specific style of dress, quite different from everyday fashion, that honoured the power and prestige of the Crown.
In 1767, a court gown cost about 70 pounds, the same as the annual salary of a royal master cook. For the privileged few who could afford it, this was a worthy investment.
A successful court appearance could secure a knighthood, guarantee your fortune or lead to an advantageous marriage.
Court suit, ~1765.
Spitalfields silk court gown, 1750-1753. Ladies Gown, 1740s.
Today, the red carpet is the most important global stage for fashionable, cultural, and even political statements. As public figures arrive at awards ceremonies and premieres, the spectacle of the red carpet tells its own story. Here celebrities can express their personality and sense of style, celebrate the artistry of established and emerging designers and shine a light on causes they support. Like its Georgian predecessor, success on the crimson stage can make and shape careers.
Awards ceremonies, charitable events and premieres all roll out the red carpet to welcome their guests. Dress codes can vary depending on the purpose, environment, and the changing political and cultural mood of the time. At Cannes women are asked to wear heels, the Met Gala's annually changing theme offers an opportunity to be creative and the Academy Awards demand glamour and respect.
The exhibition starts with the lace dress worn by Audrey Hepburn to the Oscar ceremony in 1954, when she accepted her first Oscar Statuette for her role in Roman Holiday (1953). The dress was designed by Edith Head and altered by Hubert Givenchy.
Suit worn by Edward Enninful to his OBE Investiture at Buckingham Palace, 2016. Designed by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen.
Dress worn by Anna Wintour to the Met Gala, 2021. Designed by Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia for Oscar de la Renta.
Getting ready for a court event could take up to 6 hours. Wigs needed powdering, hair needed styling and makeup needed applying. This process was known as a toilet. it was common for women to invite guests to watch them get ready in the intimate setting of their dressing rooms. This was a great opportunity to grow social networks and engage in political gossip.
In the exhibition was shown the behind the scenes video with Kendall Jenner, where she prepares for the red carpet (you can watch it below). These intimate insights showcase the skill of the vast teams of makeup artists, hairdressers, manicurists, stylists and designers involved in perfecting these spectacular looks.
Dress worn by Kendall Jenner to the Met Gala 2021. Designed by Matthew M Williams for Givenchy. Her look was inspired by Audrey Hepburn's longstanding collaboration with Givenchy. Matt Williams based his design on a gown from My Fair Lady (1964).
Nowadays, the red carpet is the most influential stage for fashionable spectacle. It takes months of work to create images. Fashion, film, television, music and sports stars can show off their dazzling outfits and express themselves.
Runway look #31 Spring 2020 Couture collection. Designed by Giambattista Valli, who is known for his impactful designs created by exaggerated volumes, endless layers of frothy tulle and gigantic trains.
Dress worn by Billie Eilish to the Met Gala 2021. Designed by Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia for Oscar de la Renta.
Dress worn by Nicola Coughlan to the Screen Actors Guild Awards 2021. Designed by Christian Siriano.
Suit worn by Timothée Chalamet to the Cannes Film Festival, 2021. Designed by Tom Ford.
Suit worn by Jeremy Scott and the outfit worn by Iris Law, to the Met Gala, 2022. Designed by Jeremy Scott for Moschino.
Outfit worn by Jessie Buckley to the Met Gala, 2022.
Suit designed by Daniel Roseberry for Schiaparelli, hat designed by Stephen Jones in collaboration with Schiaparelli.
Archive copy of the dress worn by Lady Gaga to the MTV Video Music Awards, 2020. Designed by Christopher John Rogers.
The 2020 VMA was the first major awards ceremony to be broadcast remotely during the Covid 19 pandemic. Lady Gaga worn this dress with a horned mask by Lance Victor Moore.
Outfit worn by Colman Domingo to the Academy Awards, 2021. Designed by Donatella Versace for Atelier Versace.
The exhibition showcased some of the outfits celebrities wore to the Met Gala in 2022.
Outfit worn by Lizzo. Designed by Thom Browne.
Dress worn by Blake Lively, designed by Donatella Versace for Atelier Versace. Suit worn by Ryan Reynolds, designed by Ralph Lauren.
This glamorous look pays homage to New York's architecture. The dress represents the Empire State Building. Lively arrived on the red carpet with an elaborate copper bow that was unfurled by three attendants to reveal a vast verdigris train echoing the gradual transformation of the Statue of Liberty from bronze to oxidized green. The train is hand painted, foiled and embroidered with zodiac signs taken from the ceiling of Grand Central Station.
Dress worn by Katy Perry to the Met Gala, 2019. Designed by Jeremy Scott for Moschino.
One room of the exhibition was dedicated to portraits of influential people from the Georgian court.
Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, was known during her lifetime as the Empress of Fashion. She used her clothing to express her politics at court. At George III's birthday ball in 1781, she showed her opposition to a 12 million pounds government loan by wearing a dress decorated with chains, a reference to the heavy burden of the debt.
Lady Isabella, Countess of Hertford, was known for her immaculate dress and good manners and expected the same of those around her. In the painting is probably the gown that she wore at the court of King Louis XV of France when her husband became the French Ambassador.
Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1784.
Lady Isabella, Countess of Hertford, by Alexander Roslin, 1765.
Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, was a favourite of Queen Anne, but personal and political differences led to her dramatic departure from court. Sarah returned when George I came to the throne, hoping to arrange royal marriages for her grandchildren. However, she soon fell out of favour again.
Mary "Molly" Lepell, Lady Hervey, arrived at court without money or title. She used her beauty and charm to achieve social and financial success and in 1715 became Maid of Honour to Caroline, Princess of Wales. In 1730 she married John Hervey, 2nd Baron Ickworth and became Lady Hervey. Women usually lost their positions on marriage, so the couple initially kept their marriage a secret to retain her lucrative salary.
Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, by Charles Jervas, early 1700s. Mary "Molly" Lepell, Lady Hervey, by John Fayram, 1728-9.
Today, celebrities make an entrance by arriving in expensive cars. 18th century court goers could be identified by their sedan chairs and carriages. None was more famous than Queen Charlotte's sedan chair which featured regularly in newspapers. An entire article in the Morning Post on 6 February 1813 described it as "ornamented with medallions of the most elegant description".
Queen Charlotte's sedan chair, 1763.
Undergarments are designed for cleanliness, as a foundation on which to layer clothes and occasionally as a decorative feature in their own right. Georgian corsetry was not about creating tiny waists, rather it was designed to give clean lines and a sturdy base to support the weight and silhouette of court fashions. Even the gentlemen at court adopted unusual techniques for making the most of their figures.
Today, "shapewear" is similarly intended to smooth the body as a foundation for clothing, and adhesive tape is allowing designers to create increasingly daring styles.
Underwear and fashion have always been intimately linked. Today underwear can be worn as outerwear. The world's leading corsetier, Mr Pearl, is known for creating elaborately decorated corsets for burlesque star Dita von Teese. The detailed embellishment echoes the embroidered or jewelled panels, known as stomachers, that were often visible features of 18th century court dress.
Corset worn by Dita von Teese during her Strip, Strip Hooray tour, 2016. Designed by Mr Pearl.
Palaces weren't just for pleasure, they were the setting for the serious business of monarchy. Politicians attending court could signal their dissent or support through their clothes. Today, many celebrities use the red carpet as a stage to voice protest or show their support for a particular community, cause or issue.
Runway look #56, Spring/Summer 2008 collection by Andreas Kronthaler for Vivienne Westwood. Westwood's collections addressed topics including climate change, human rights, and Brexit.
Dress worn by Lizzo to the Billboard Music Awards, 2020. Designed by Christian Siriano. Lizzo sent a powerful message about voting rights in the event that was a couple of weeks before the US presidential election.
Suit worn by Santan Dave to Brit Awards, 2020. Santan made a powerful statement about prejudice, systemic oppression and racial identity. His suit was made by British-Ghanaian designer Ozwald Boateng.
The tribal print was part of Boateng's Africanism collection, fusing traditional African prints with British tailoring.
Dresses worn by Tarana Burke and Michelle Williams to the Golden Globes, 2018. Tarana's dress was designed by Whitney Mero, Michelle's - by Nicolas Ghesquiere for Louis Vuitton.
The 2018 Golden Globe red carpet was devoted to raising awareness of sexual harrasment. Burke founded the MeToo movement to support survivors of sexual violence in 2006. It went viral as MeToo following sexual abuse allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2018. Many actors wore black in support of MeToo and the Time's Up campaign, a Hollywood initiative launched to fight sexual harassment.
Dress worn by Beyonce to the Grammy Awards, 2017. Designed by Peter Dundas for DUNDAS.
The pregrant star worked with designer to create a gown that was woven with symbolism. The embroidery incorporates elemets from her song Love Drought, cherubs dressed in ivy reference her first child, and her own face is positioned proudly over her baby bump. Sun rays symbolise Oshun, the African goddess of fertility, beauty, and love. Headdress designed by House of Malakai.
Outfit worn by Tan France to the Emmy Awards, 2019. Designed by Varun Bahl. Non-western dress remains unusual on British and American red carpets, Tan celebrated his South Asian heritage.
Ensemble worn by Hamish Bowles to the Met Gala, 2019. Designed by John Galliano for Maison Margiela Artisanal.
Dress worn by Billie Piper to the British Fashion Awards, 2021. Designed by Vivienne Westwood. This dress directly references 18th century corsetry and drapery but the thigh-high slit, and the outfit's provocative styling subverts the Georgian references in a way that feels fresh and modern.
Dress worn by Diane Kruger to the Cannes Film Festival, 2012. Designed by Bill Gaytten for Christian Dior. The dress is a modern interpretation of the romance of 18th century fashion.
Runway look #61. Spring 1998 Les Marquis Tuaregs collection. Designed by Jean Paul Gaultier.
His avant-garde designs challenge conventions to reflect a changing society. His 1998 collection echoed the craftsmanship and fashions of the French court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. He gave them a modern edge with the inclusion of shirts, ties and streetwear fabrics.
Runway look #15, Spring 2022 Ready-to-Wear collection. Designed by Edward Crutchley.
Dress worn by Kirsten Dunst for American Vogue photo shoot at the Chateau Versailles, 2006. Designed by Oscar de la Renta. The blue and white pattern of quinces and cherry blossoms was created using a dyeing technique called Chine a la branche that was particularly popular at the French court in the 18th century.
Dress worn by Phoebe Waller-Bridge at the Emmy Awards, 2019. Designed by Monique Lhuillier.
Runway look #7, Spring/Summer 2022 Ready-to_wear collection. Designed by Erdem.
Erdem is known for incorporating carefully observed historic references into his work. His Spring 2022 collection focused on embellishment and embroidery. The delicate trails of floral spangles on this dress are reminiscent of patterns found on fabrics in the mid to late 1700s.
Ensemble worn by Emma Watson to the Earthshot Prize Ceremony, 2021. Designed by Harris Reed SS2022.
Dress worn by Anna Potts to the Christening of her son Alfred Potts, 1822.
Ensemble worn by Cate Blanchett to the Green Carpet Fashion Awards, 2018. Designed by Stella McCartney 2014.
Dress worn by Bella Hadid to the Prince's Trust Gala, 2022. Designed by Yves Saint Laurent for Christian Dior, 1959.
And finally, some shoes:
Shoes 1730-40 and 1820-30.
Fenix Pump 105 by Edgardo Osorio for Aquazzura, worn by Catherine, Princess of Wales, to the premiere of the James Bond film No Time To Die in 2021 and to the BAFTAs in 2023.