A new exhibition at The Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace, has opened placing a spotlight on the life and style of Georgian society, featuring more than 200 works from the Royal Collection, including the wedding dress of George IV’s daughter Princess Charlotte of Wales.
‘Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians’ runs until October 8 and looks at what Georgians wore, from the practical dress of laundry maids to the glittering gowns worn at court, and charts the transformation of clothing and silhouettes from the accession of George I in 1714 to the death of George IV in 1830.
The exhibition explores Georgian Britain fashion and beauty through paintings, prints and drawings by artists such as Gainsborough, Zoffany and Hogarth, as well as rare surviving examples of clothing, jewellery and accessories from the period.
Among the highlights is the wedding dress of George IV’s only legitimate child Princess Charlotte of Wales, which is on display for the first time in more than a decade. Her marriage to Prince Leopold was considered one of the most important royal weddings of the era, and her silk embroidered bridal gown is the only royal wedding dress that survives from the Georgian period.
Although it appears to have been significantly altered from its original form, the gown is in keeping with the Georgian practice of repurposing and recycling clothing and follows the tradition for European royal brides to wear silver, despite white wedding dresses becoming popular by the end of the 18th century.
Anna Reynolds, curator of Style & Society, said in a statement: “Dress is so much more than just what we see on the surface, and it’s fascinating what we can learn about a period when looking at it through a fashion history lens.
“Visitors might be surprised to learn how much the Georgian period has in common with the fashion landscape we know today, from influencers and fashion magazines to ideas about the value of clothes and how they can be recycled and repurposed.”
The Queen’s Gallery explores Georgian fashion through paintings
The exhibition also showcases a rarely displayed, full-length portrait of Queen Charlotte by Thomas Gainsborough, c.1781, which usually hangs in the White Drawing Room at Windsor Castle. Painted by candlelight, it depicts the Queen in a magnificent gown, worn over a wide hoop and covered with gold spangles and tassels. The painting is shown alongside a beautifully preserved gown of a similar style, worn at Queen Charlotte’s court in the 1760s, on loan from the Fashion Museum Bath.
Other portraits throughout the exhibition demonstrate how artists rendered magnificent gowns such as these in paint in exquisite detail, from the metallic woven silk in Antoine Pesne’s Duchess of Saxe-Wessenfels to the bows and fine lace of Francis Cotes’ Princess Louisa and Princess Caroline.
While Allan Ramsay’s life-size coronation portraits of George III and Queen Charlotte demonstrate how ceremonial clothing was carefully chosen to emphasise themes of continuity, tradition and spectacle. Queen Charlotte is seen wearing a gown heavily embroidered with gold thread and a stomacher panel covered with diamonds. This stomacher, which no longer survives, was valued by a contemporary spectator at 60,000 pounds, which today would have been worth almost 10 million pounds.
The exhibit also highlights the rise of a professional class, more women earning wages, and cheaper fabrics available, which allowed fashion to become more accessible to the masses. This led to middle and upper-class women wearing fashion to pleasure gardens, theatres and coffee houses, as well as the introduction of the first fashion periodicals featuring up-to-the-minute trends. These can be seen on the pages of influential French fashion periodicals on display, which recommended women’s looks inspired by men’s riding dress and military uniforms.
Buckingham Palace showcases Georgians’ clothing, jewellery and grooming
There is also jewellery on display, described by the curator as “highly personal and sentimental” items, including diamond rings given to Queen Charlotte on her wedding day and a bracelet with nine lockets, six containing locks of hair and one with a miniature of the left eye of Princess Charlotte of Wales.
As with textiles, jewellery was often repurposed and there is a striking necklace made from pearl-adorned dress-coat buttons that had belonged to George III.
‘Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians’ also explores the hair, cosmetics and grooming tools used by Georgian men and women to achieve their elaborate styles, as well as 18th-century developments in eyewear and dentistry.
On show for the first time is a silver-gilt travelling toilet service, acquired by the future George IV as a gift for his private secretary for 300 pounds, the equivalent of more than 20,000 pounds today. The toilet service gives a remarkable insight into a Georgian gentleman’s grooming routine and contains more than 100 objects, including razors, combs, ear spoons and tongue scrapers, as well as tools for cleaning guns and making hot chocolate.
Reynolds added: “During this period, we start to see court dress lagging behind street style, with people from across a much broader social spectrum than ever before setting fashion trends. The Royal Collection is so rich in visual representations from this period and the exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to share them with the public.
“Showing paintings alongside surviving items of dress really adds an extra layer of insight, helping us to understand how clothing was constructed, what it felt like to wear, and how artists approached the challenge of representing Georgian fashion in paint.”
‘Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians’ runs until October 8.