Crown to Couture at Kensington Palace review: Heaven for devotees of the A-list, past and present
Nothing sparks a furore quite like the mix of fashion and celebrity. Whether the Met Gala or the Academy Awards, images of stars flaunting their painstakingly crafted outfits become all consuming in the news cycle, but also scarily fleeting.
The images are pumped out to the masses for 24 hours, before vanishing to give way to the next night’s events. Year-on-year, it is a phenomenon that has only grown.
Kensington Palace, perhaps surprisingly, has chosen to lean in to champion the beauty of artifice and celebrate the ostentatiousness of 21st century pop culture.
In a sprawling new fashion exhibition, Crown to Couture, Hollywood fame and the lavish dance of the red carpet are compared to 18th Century court attire grandeur. It is as if to say: the viral outfit was not invited by Gaga, buddy.
An opening glass-boxed tableau sets the scene: in the centre, an Oscar. To the right, Aubrey Hepburn’s white lace Roman Holiday gown adapted by Givenchy for when she won Best Actress in 1954, and to the left, the oldest, complete court gown in history.
From the 17th Century, it represents the ‘open court’ notion, which began under the rule of Charles II and continued into the House of Hanover reign, that one could dress their way up the social ladder. The insinuation is that the red carpet today offers similar opportunities for status makes and breaks.
Pass, then, through the outfit of the US and British Vogue editors, the monarchs of the fashion industry: Anna Wintour’s 2021 Met Gala floral, Oscar De La Renta gown, stands tall beside Edward Enninful’s Alexander McQueen suit, worn in 2016 to accept his OBE, before coming to the jewel room, where Queen Victoria’s emeralds can be found alongside bling bestowed upon Rihanna, Lupita Nyong’o, Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchett at various carpeted affairs. It is in anticipation of the main event.
Twisting through the Palace, the rich histories of each room inform the sartorial displays which inhabit them. Most spectacular is the red walled, curtained and carpeted King’s Gallery. Where courtiers once gathered to see and be seen, a stellar line-up of the most famous outfits of the past three years are on display.
There is Blake Lively’s colour changing, Lady Liberty-inspired Versace gown from last year’s Met Gala; Timothée Chalamet’s shimmering Tom Ford suit from the 2021’s Cannes Film Festival, and Lady Gaga’s horned mask and cascading, aqua green Christopher John Rogers dress from the 2020 digitally streamed MTV VMA awards. Heaven, it most certainly is, for any and all of the A-list devotees.
In the Council Chamber, where George II declared war on France in 1756, comes the political statements, which have become a debated mainstay of the modern celebrity function. From the camp – when Lizzo’s 2020 Billboard Music Awards black mini dress was splashed with the word ‘Vote’; to the memorable – the black gowns worn by Michelle Williams and MeToo founder Tarana Burke are on show, worn to the 2018 Golden Globes carpet to mark the watershed moment of Harvey Weinstein’s downfall.
Gems are not in short supply; singular rooms play host to incredible gowns worm by BeyonceÌ and Katy Perry which, presented in situ, are undeniably regal – before a path leads through countless more contemporary outfits inspired directly by the 18th Century.
At times, there are details too far – strange, pre-recorded speech to imitate court gossiping or red-carpet reporters feel unnecessary. As is the use of projections with a mish-mash of ye-olde graphics impersonating Instagram. But these, by no means, distract from the glory of garments on display.
A section looking to the future makes for a satisfying conclusion. Examples of the most fanciful embroideries from the 1820s are shown, before the extravagance of dress toned down, alongside standout sustainable outfits which are en vogue today. A film plays where stylist Rose Forde, responsible for a number of the looks on show, as well as designers Giles Deacon and Ozwald Boateng puzzle over the future of the red carpet.
The suggestion is that the excess has reached its peak – if so, this will mark one hell of a final hurrah. You can certainly bet on walking back out into Kensington Gardens with celebrity cravings fulfilled - it is surely the starriest fashion exhibition London has ever seen.
Crown to Couture opens 5 April 2023