Crown to Couture: The Fashion Show of The Centuries Back

The Crown to Couture exhibition defines itself broadly as the “Fashion Show of the Centuries”. It succeeds in captivating visitors with fascinating stories of the opulent and elaborately dressed courtiers of the 18th century and situates these styles alongside iconic modern-day outfits such as Kendel Jenner’s Givenchy dress worn to the 2021 Met Gala. As a “space to stir and be stirred”, Crown to Couture exemplifies, at once, how fashion can be perceived as a tool with which the individual can wield personal power or agency over the re-fashioning of the self; but also, how fashion has the potential to challenge and redefine social and cultural norms associated with certain fashion styles. Parallels are thoughtfully drawn between the glittering gowns of 18th-century court dress (Crown), and the glamourous styles of the red carpet (Couture).

Silver Tissue Dress, lent by the Fashion Museum, Bath. © Historic Royal Palaces, Highlight Object List.

In the first room, visitors to the exhibition are transported back in time to the 18th century while they marvel at the exquisitely tailored Silver Tissue Court Gown worn by Theophila Harris (d. 1702), exhibited alongside the highest accolade of English chivalry: the chain of the order of the garter which was awarded by George III to John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute in 1761. The physical placement of the 18th-century Silver Court Tissue Gown with the dress worn by Audrey Hepburn to the Oscars 1954 (designed by Edith Head for the film Roman Holiday and altered for the Oscars by Givenchy), exemplifies the fluidity of fashion. Although fashion trends are ever-changing, a common thread between 18th-century court dress and red-carpet attire centres on the idea that individuals are free to re-construct their public images through the fashion choices that they choose to engage with. The visual juxtaposition of Audrey Hepburn’s lace dress with the 18th-century silver tissue gown exemplifies the similarities between the prestige associated with both court attire and red-carpet dress and engages visitors, from the outset, with the cultural and historical comparisons that can be drawn between “crown and couture”. Josiah Wedgewood’s words “Pray put on your best suit of clothes you ever had in your life and take the first opportunity of going to court” (Josiah Wedgewood, 1765) adorn the walls of the exhibition entrance in gold lettering, reminding modern-day spectators of the grandeur and sumptuousness associated with the aristocratic pleasure of attending court. Despite the frivolity of Josiah’s statement, Court was by no means accessible to everyone; as with red-carpet dress today, the average court dress would have cost around £70 in 1767 – this would have equated to the entire annual salary of a royal master cook.

Questions, such as: “What is the Red Carpet?” and “What is Court?” aid the establishment of Court and the Red Carpet as two public spaces, or public “stages” where identities, public images, and even cultural norms, demonstrate their potential for reinvention. The phrase “Come as the most fabulous version of yourself” reiterates one of the most pertinent focal points of the exhibition; the idea that every single one of us has the ability to demonstrate agency over our own fashion choices, and that these fashion choices can, and sometimes do, influence the multitude of public images that we project to the public. The manifestation of personal agency through the fashion choices that we choose to make can – in some situations – be exerted to implement social change, and to disrupt certain social systems. The second room of the exhibition exemplifies flawlessly how the court, and the red carpet can be considered as spaces to “stir and be stirred”. A portrait of Frances Abingdon (1737 – 1815) as Miss Prue in William Congrene’s Love for Love (1771) by Sir Joshua Reynolds, is exhibited alongside a photograph of Sam Ratelle (stylist and creative director); photo taken by Rankin (2023). Frances Abingdon “the priestess of the fashions” was especially well-known for her impressive, nonconformist, fashion choices on stage; the exhibition outlines that she earned an extra £1500 a year for her “judgement in blending what is beautiful with what is becoming”. In Sir Joshua Reynolds’s painting, Frances Abingdon has been illustrated leaning on the back of a chair, wearing black mourning ribbons and a pink dress, while it remains questionable whether this portrait may have been scandalous for the time period, we (as spectators) can learn a lot about the influence of dress in the re-fashioning of the self upon analysis of Frances’s representation. Reynolds’s portrait showcases the malleability, and fluidity of fashion trends; Frances demonstrates how a material symbol of death and grief (the black mourning ribbon) could be popularised as an oxymoronic fashion accessory; meanwhile her physical position, leaning on the back of the chair, as opposed to sitting in the traditional seated position reiterates the controversial manipulation of everyday objects, and thus positions art and fashion as powerful in the [re-]construction of the everyday spaces or metaphorical “stages” (e.g. the Court and the Red Carpet) which individuals interact with. The exhibition of Frances Abingdon alongside the 2023 photograph of Sam Ratelle by Rankin, provides a fusion between the 18th century and today; like Frances Abingdon, Sam Ratelle is renowned for his spectacular nonconformist approach to fashion, and below the photograph he is cited as having stated: “For the red carpet, I would say, you have to be yourself and a version of yourself that you would like us all to see. It’s a character. We play different characters all day. We all have different versions of ourselves, people are allowed to be more than one thing.” Once again, the idea that fashion enables individuals to construct numerous “identities”, or “characters” on the “public stage” appears as a common trope of the exhibition. On that note, in the same room, spectators are drawn to a video of Billy Porter as he prepares for the Met Gala, styled by Sam Ratelle; Billy Porter made history and revolutionised the fashion world. Styled in a glittering, gold Ancient Egyptian Sun God ensemble; he made a ground-breaking entrance at the 2019 Met Gala as the first male to wear a dress to the red carpet. Billy succeeds in breaking down the barriers associated with the “norm” and challenges our pre-conceived assumptions about fashion and gender.

Billy’s endearing decision to wear a dress to a Red Carpet event, emphasises once again the power of fashion in the reconstruction of the self, and reiterates the idea that we all have multiple versions of ourselves that we allow the world to see. Perhaps one of the most important messages of this exhibition is that, as evidenced by Frances Abingdon, Sam Ratelle, and Billy Porter, our ability to demonstrate agency over our own fashion choices, facilitates the breaking down of social barriers; whether these barriers are imposed by gender, sexuality, race etc; regardless of the social barriers in place, individuals can and will manipulate their own fashion choices to aid them in their construction of a new “character”, and in the same vein, a “new personality”.

As a “space to stir and be stirred”, Crown to Couture succinctly echoes the power of Court dress, and Red-Carpet dress in the refashioning of the self, and the subsequent power and agency that the individual can achieve through the fashion choices that they choose to engage with. Although fashion can be used to demonstrate agency over one’s public image construction; we are reminded that fashion can be negatively exposed to objectify individuals. The use of satirical imagery in the exhibition successfully draws upon the negative narratives relating to 18th-century fashion, and outlines, at once, how women were accused of corrupting their appearances through the use of wigs, make-up, and stays to alter their public image, and also highlights the objectification of enslaved black children, who were often forced to wear exotic dress as a symbol of wealth. The following selection of 18th-century / 19th-century prints on display at the exhibition disrupts and challenges the aforementioned idea that fashion enables individuals to wield power over their own identity construction : Progress of the Toilet Plates I-III (James Gillray, 1818), The Stay Maker (1782, Joseph Haynes after William Hogarth), Lady Archer, The Finishing Touch and Albina, Countess Buckinghamshire, La Derniere Ressource (James Gillray, 1791), Modern Head-Dress or Folly of 1772 (James Gillray, 1772), The Lacing or Fashion Before Ease (After John Collet, 1777). In the prints, we can see how women’s stark attention to their appearance became satirised by the male gaze, and satirical prints, such as those in the exhibition, were produced with the intention of mocking women on account of their supposed deceitful appearances, made possible by the use of wigs, make-up, and figure-altering undergarments.

Overall, the combination of 18th-century, with 20th / 21st-century celebrity culture Crown (Court dress) and Couture (Red Carpet Dress) has been successfully curated to inform visitors to the exhibition of the similarities between the two public settings the Court and the Red Carpet, and also to challenge our pre-conceived assumptions about the influence (both positive and negative) of fashion in the construction of fluid sexual identity, luxury and decadence.