Anything related to Princess Diana’s is bound to draw the crowds and the small Fashion Rules exhibition at Kensington Palace, including only 5 of her evening-gowns, is no exception. The other dresses on display belonged to the Queen and Princess Margaret, charting the development and purpose of royal formal outfits from the 1950s – 1990s. Although there’s not much to see (the advertising claims 5 rooms, but there are only around 20 dresses), this is usefully arranged in chronological order so you can see changing styles across the decades, with lots of useful signboards explaining the occasion, fabric, designer and intent of each dress. For example, some of the most interesting were worn for state visits and designed to fit the national colours and/or style of dress in the host countries. This is a nice addition to Kensington Palace and included in the cost of entry (although you can’t pay for the exhibition independently), but will only take about 20 minutes despite the queues to see the display cases.
As you have to pay anyway, you may as well visit the rest of the Palace – although I’ve only ever been disappointed. I went before, during and after the refit, yet each time it feels like there’s something missing. The new Queen Victoria rooms are very good with lots of interesting pieces and information, but the respective King and Queen’s State Apartments have little to say. At least on the King’s side you get the sense of how courtiers moved through the rooms to get closer to the monarch, and they are admittedly beautifully decorated. But, the Queen’s have continued the bizarre exhibition used during the refit which tried (and failed) to tell the story of several royal women through a strange treasure hunt designed by a theatrical company (presumably not historians). I overheard another visitor say ‘it doesn’t look like they’ve finished this bit).
The problem is that they want you to buy an audio guide (after paying £15 entrance fee this is pretty cheeky) so there are no proper information boards – a lot of places are doing this now. In addition, they’re trying to cover too many stories; you get everything from William and Mary to the end of Georgian England, so you don’t really learn much about any of them. They might do better to focus primarily on one era, as they do with the Victoria rooms, and try to aim more of it at adults.
Fashion Rules runs at Kensington Palace until the summer of 2015 and is included in the Palace entry fee. Entry to the Palace is free with a National Art Pass.