Fashion Rules: Dress from the collections of HM The Queen, Princess Margaret and Diana, Princess of Wales

A nipped-in waist in the 50s, short skirts and diaphanous fabrics in the 60s and 70s, sparkles and shoulder pads in the 80s – these were the fashion rules we all dressed by, even members of the Royal Family.

Re-live recent decades of fashion

Take a nostalgic look back at recent decades of dress through the wardrobes of three royal women in their fashion heydays: HM Queen Elizabeth II in the 1950s, Princess Margaret in the 1960s and 70s and Diana, Princess of Wales in the 1980s. Five rooms of elegant dress displays will explore how these women reflected the style and trends of the day, negotiating the rules of dressing fashionably within the ‘rules’ of a royal wardrobe.

Featuring 21 exceptional couture dresses, the exhibition will be complemented by film and photography to set the scene and provide a feeling of the times in which these stunning gowns were worn.



Exclusive to visitors: Fashion Rules on Paper

Create beautiful illustrations with Fashion Rules on PaperWe’ve collaborated with New York-based 53 to create a bespoke version of the award winning iPad illustration app Paper. Available on-site when you visit.

Put the ‘fashion rules’ into practice. Create beautiful fashion illustrations based on each era’s shapes and colours and inspired by the dresses on display – then share your creations with your friends. 






The Queen’s fashion ‘rules’

The fashion ‘rules’ for The Queen’s wardrobe in the 1950s were similar in many ways to those seen in debutante dressing of the time. Evening gowns were long with full skirts and nipped-in waists to form an hour-glass silhouette. Dresses were heavily embellished with intricate beading and lace work and were worn with long white evening gloves.  



Above: Evening gown, duchesse satin in the colours of the Pakistani flag, Norman Hartnell, 1961. Worn by Her Majesty The Queen at a banquet hosted by President Ayab Khan of Pakistan, on the first day of a six-week tour of Pakistan and India, 1961. 

As a young monarch, however, The Queen also had other ‘rules’ to consider.  She took up her role as head of the Commonwealth in earnest with lengthy foreign tours, and for these she upheld the long-standing tradition of ‘diplomatic dressing’ – whereby references to the host country were made in the design of her evening gowns – for example, colours of the host country’s flag.

Accommodations were also made in her dresses’ designs for the display of royal insignia across the chest and the gowns were usually fashioned in pale colors to ensure that she stood out against large crowds and in black and white film and photography. As is still the case today, the royal wardrobe was the perfect advertisement for the British fashion industry and it was The Queen’s responsibility to promote British design in her wardrobe choices. 

Princess Margaret and the 1960s and 70s


A ‘royal rebel’ in the fashion stakes, Princess Margaret was at the forefront of fashion and style in the 1960s and 70s. The differing roles of Margaret and her sister The Queen were reflected in their fashion choices.

Differing roles

The differing roles of The Queen and her younger sister Margaret were reflected in their clothing choices. Princess Margaret had greater freedom to wear changing fashions and was under less pressure to patronise British designers. 

The Princess fully embraced the rule-breaking fashions of the more liberal 1960s and 70s and wore short dresses inspired by Mary Quant’s designs and bold bright colours. She was loyal to Marc Bohan at Christian Dior and like Jackie Kennedy wore his elegant ‘slim look’ evening dresses. 

In the 1970s Princess Margaret spent a lot of time at her Caribbean residence on the island of Mustique and favoured Eastern-inspired caftan designs for the hotter climate. 

2-1-featured-bohan-140x200Evening dress, Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, 1977. Worn by Princess Margaret at the Silver Jubilee

2-1-featured-toms-140x200Kaftan, Carl Toms, 1976. Worn by Princess Margaret in Mustique, 1976. 

‘One hip chick’

With her marriage to fashion photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, the ever-fashionable Princess Margaret secured her position as part of the chic London set and was often seen with music and film stars of the time.  ‘One hip chick’ was how Louis Armstrong described her. 


Diana, Princess of Wales and the 1980s


The wardrobe of Diana, Princess of Wales in the 1980s was characterised by the signature drama and glamour of the decade.

Sparkles and drama



Diana, Princess of Wales in a Murray Arbeid gown.

As office work boomed, women became more prevalent in high-powered positions and ‘power dressing’, such as women’s suits with big shoulders, became de rigeur. Glamorous American soap operas like ‘Dynasty’ introduced even bigger shoulders, bigger hairstyles and sparkling embellished evening wear, a style adopted by the young Princess of Wales, earning her the nickname ‘Dynasty Di.’

Trends such as New Romanticism developed in reaction to the hard anarchic style of 1970s punk, and saw both men and women sporting frilly shirts, foppish hair and eyeliner. New Romantic pop acts such as Duran Duran and Boy George popularised their looks through music videos shown on the brand new MTV. 

Into the fashion spotlight

On marrying Prince Charles in 1981 Diana was thrust into the fashion spotlight, with her every outfit scrutinised by the press. Her wardrobe reflected the ‘rules’ of dressing of the era and was full of drama and glamour. She popularised many key 80s looks such as wide shoulders, dropped waists, bold trimmings and sparkling embellishment. The Princess also continued the tradition of diplomatic dressing, wearing colours and styles appropriate to the countries she visited. Her faithful patronage of home-grown designers and much-imitated style was credited with almost single-handedly reviving the flagging British fashion industry, making designers such as Bruce Oldfield and Catherine Walker household names. 



Evening dress by Zandra Rhodes, in the colour of Japanese cherry blossom. Worn by Diana, Princess of Wales for a state banquet in Kyoto, during a royal visit to Japan, 1986. 

In the 1990s the Princess adopted a more streamline and sophisticated look in keeping with changing fashions, often wearing asymmetrical dresses with a single sleeve.  Catherine walker wrote of this commission for a trip to Brazil where the football team had just lost to Argentina in the World Cup “The Princess of wales took great care to honor the traditions and feelings of each country that she visited.  We received instructions that…we should not design anything in green, yellow, or blue, which were the official colors of the Brazil team, and definitely not in blue and white , which were the colors of the Argentinian football team.”



August 20, 2013. August.

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