LONDON — Queen Victoria didn’t have many secrets — at least when it came to her wardrobe.
Every time she stepped out in public, the British newspapers reported on the minutiae of her British-made outfit, just as they did with Princess Diana, the Duchess of Cambridge, and now two-year-old Prince George, who recently sent sales of Crocs soaring.
The Duke of Windsor, later King Edward VIII, wrote about his tailoring and wardrobe preferences in “A Family Album,” while his grandmother Queen Alexandra famously loved having fun with clothes, building her wardrobe around designs from both British and French couturiers.
Their clothes — not the Crocs, yet — are part of a major archive at Hampton Court and Kensington Palaces that’s increasingly under the spotlight with a high-profile clutch of fashion industry figures raising money to preserve and showcase them. Last month, Glenda Bailey, Marigay McKee, Bill Ford, Silas Chou and Tommy Hilfiger helped to raise more than 100,000 pounds, or $155,000 in current exchange, in the first summer gala fundraiser for the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, overseen by the independent charity, Historic Royal Palaces.
The event took place at Kensington Palace with Prince and Princess Michael of Kent in attendance and guests including Mary Katrantzou, Thomas Tait and British First Lady Samantha Cameron.
Bailey, editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, said this is the first of many projects she’s undertaking with the palace as an ambassador for the ongoing “Great Britain” campaign.
“Royalty were the first to realize the power of fashion. Fashion emphasizes how they want to be seen and how they choose to reign by the outfits they wear,” she said. “When Queen Elizabeth I wore a gown with embroidered eyes and ears, she was sending a message that she was all knowing, even when she was not present. If you look at Princess Diana’s wardrobe, you see how her taste evolved with each message she wanted to project throughout the various periods of her life.”
Bailey called the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection “remarkable,” and added: “There is no one better dressed than the Queen.”
McKee, who’s been working with Historic Royal Palaces since her days as chief merchant at Harrods, confirmed that a similar summer event would take place in 2016. She said the archive “allows people to savor British history” and witness all the pomp and pageantry close-up.
She said one of her personal archive favorites is Princess Margaret’s Sixties caftan and turban ensemble — part of the royal’s Mustique wardrobe — which McKee describes as “Talitha Getty goes to Goa.”
The collection, a 12,000-piece archive of British royal and court dress ranging from an ostrich feather cap that belonged to King Henry VIII to a black velvet Bruce Oldfield dress worn by Princess Diana, is meant to mirror royal life — and life at court in general — across the centuries. It also includes fabric swatches, sketches, and even files donated by debutantes, the young, upper-class women who were presented at court, a tradition that lasted until 1958 when Queen Elizabeth did away with the ceremony.
Among the pieces stored in a climate-controlled room at Kensington Palace is Edward VIII’s Savile Row bespoke cotton drill safari suit, with detachable sleeves and adjustable trouser length, designed to accommodate various tall grass and mosquito challenges.
There is also the hand-stitched silk bonnet and rosette-dotted “baby presentation dress” that was worn by the tiny royal who would become King George IV. The dress comes with a small boned corset to give it shape, in keeping with the styles of the times.
During a recent tour of the archive, the historian and senior curator Deirdre Murphy pointed to the baby’s bonnet with the Prince of Wales three feathers motif — which belongs to the heir to the throne — picked out in petit-point stitch.
“The nice thing about royal clothes is that they are the best that money could buy with the highest-quality craftsmanship,” said Murphy, who spends much of her time at auctions, bidding for items ranging from 19th century nightgowns to pieces from Princess Diana’s wardrobe.
Sometimes, she doesn’t have to travel far, or even bid: Murphy was recently handed a single embroidered sleeve of a dress, which she discovered was part of Princess Margaret’s coronation dress. “Norman Hartnell’s embroidery is pretty distinctive,” she said, adding that the late princess likely had the dress altered — and never recovered the sleeve.
The archive also includes a mauve dress that Queen Alexandra wore to Ascot in 1910. It was donated to the palace by a woman whose family owned the cleaners where the dress was left and never collected. The Henry VIII cap, with its ostrich feather and holes meant for jewels, was donated by a descendant of one of the king’s wardrobe staff — and later authenticated by Murphy and her team.
It remains to be seen how much of the modern royals’ wardrobes will eventually land in the archive given that they rely so much on high street shopping. Indeed Murphy, who recently coauthored the book “Modern Royal Fashion: Seven Royal Women and Their Style” (Historic Royal Palaces), pointed out that the Duchess of Cambridge certainly isn’t the first royal lady to favor the high street.
“Both Princess Diana and the Queen wore high street. The Queen wore dresses from Horrockses [which produced off-the-peg fashions in the Forties and Fifties] and Diana wore jeans, sweatshirts, and Laura Ashley,” Murphy said.
In the book, she and coauthor Cassie Davies-Strodder also point to that fact that the royals like shopping their closets. “The Queen often wears her dresses on more than one occasion and has been known to recycle items from her wardrobe for past decades.”
There’s also the question of whether the Duchess of Cambridge’s Alexander McQueen wedding dress will eventually become part of the collection.
“It’s a very personal decision, whether she wants to donate it,” Murphy said. Princess Diana’s dress belongs to her sons, princes William and Harry, and has been on display at Althorp, the stately home in Northamptonshire, England, where Diana grew up.
All of this will present challenges for Murphy and her team in the future.
“We’re constantly attempting to make new acquisitions, but there is just not a lot around,” she said. Money is a problem, too: Murphy recently lost out on a Versace dress worn by Princess Diana after she was outbid at a recent auction.
Asked about what items in particular she’s eager to buy and add to the collection, Murphy declined to comment, not wanting to disclose anything to the competition.
While the archive is not open to the public, pieces regularly go on display in exhibitions at the palaces. The baby presentation dress worn by King George IV went on display at Kensington Palace — albeit briefly — after Princess Charlotte’s christening last month.
More secrets will be out of the closet next year: A new fashion exhibition is planned for Kensington Palace in 2016, after the current one, “Fashion Rules,” wraps up in January.