‘Crown to Couture’: Kensington Palace unveils its largest ever exhibition

‘Crown to Couture’ at Kensington Palace, London, promises a dazzling delve into royal-court and red-carpet jewellery and dressing (5 April – 29 October 2023). Its curators tell us more

Tiara by Verdura, one of the jewellery pieces from Crown to Couture exhibition at Kensington Palace
Tiara by Verdura
(Image credit: Crown to Couture at Kensington Palace)

‘Crown to Couture’ at Kensington Palace is set to trace the history of couture from the 18th-century royal court to today’s red carpet in the largest exhibition ever staged at the palace. Supported by Garrard and the Blavatnik Family Foundation, ‘Crown to Couture’ will unite over 200 objects throughout the State Apartments, from ceremonial dresses from the 1760s to the Thom Browne dress Lizzo wore to the 2022 Met Ball.

A host of spectacular jewels will also be joining the line-up, with Garrard displaying pieces including the Marguerite earrings and necklace worn by Beyoncé in 2013, and the brooch worn by Queen Elizabeth II while front row at London Fashion Week. The contemporary jewellery element of the exhibition was curated by Melanie Grant and includes Verdura, Thelma West, Cindy Sherman for Liz Works, Chopard, Fernando Jorge, Frederick Leighton, Lorraine Schwartz, Sacred Skulls and Schiaparelli. Here, Polly Putnam, collections curator at Kensington Palace, and Sara Prentice, Garrard creative director, tell us what we can look forward to.

‘Crown to Couture’ at Kensington Palace

Necklace by Garrard, part of Crown to Couture exhibition at Kensington Palace

Necklace by Garrard

(Image credit: Crown to Couture at Kensington Palace)

Wallpaper*:  This beautiful exhibition encompasses many pieces. How did you begin in bringing a sense of order and storytelling?

Polly Putnam: We avoided a chronology and really used the palace to determine our exhibition themes. So, for example in the Council Chamber we explore the politics of court dress, because historically this was where the king would meet with his ministers. Alongside the historic pieces, we feature examples of political dressing from the contemporary red carpet. In a room known as  Queen Caroline’s closet, we have hung a series of amazing portraits of courtiers, because this is where Queen Caroline hung portraits of Henry VII’s courtiers by Holbein. This has allowed us to introduce visitors to some of the most glam and vibrant people you could have ever met if you were to visit court in the Georgian era – the celebrities of their day!  

In the King's Gallery, which is arguably the most spectacular room in the palace, and was really designed as the place to 'be seen', we have lots of incredible examples of red carpet dress. We have included Billie Eilish’s Oscar de la Renta gown, which she wore to the Met Gala in 2021 – apparently she stipulated that it had to be ‘so effing big you can help but notice it’!  We pair this with one of the widest court dresses in existence. It’s a stunning mustard colour and is 2.8m wide (on loan from National Museums Scotland.) It was worn in about 1760 by Lady Helen Robertson and she would have definitely been noticed. So – in summary – we let the palace's history and architecture dictate the way we've structured the exhibition.

W*: What were your criteria for inclusion?

PP: We were very much led by the themes of the exhibition, which in turn were very much determined by the interiors. We were also very interested in drawing parallels between the red carpet today and the world of Georgian fashion. For example, all red carpet looks are largely chosen for celebrities by their stylists. I was so intrigued that there was a Georgian equivalent of the stylist – a woman called Mrs Frances Abington. She was the leading actress of her day and was known as much for her fashion as for her acting. If the court was like the red carpet, the theatre was the runway, so fashion trends were set by the theatre. Frances made an extra £1,500 a year advising women on what to wear – was she the first stylist? The exhibition poses that question.

We decided we simply had to include a stunning portrait of her by Joshua Reynolds from the Yale Centre for British Art. It’s a real masterpiece by the artist but it shows her at her most fashionable; she’s in a pink gown wearing black ribbons at her wrists. Newspapers at around the same date report of Frances wearing ‘mourning ribbons’ on stage, so she’s wearing a fashion she introduced here.  

Ring by Thelma West, item from Crown to Couture exhibition at Kensington Palace

Ring by Thelma West

(Image credit: Crown to Couture at Kensington Palace)

W*: Have you chosen a chronological order? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?

PP: For us curators at Historic Royal Palaces, storytelling is at the heart of everything we do. We are also passionate about celebrating the amazing buildings we look after, and finding new ways to show how they've been used in the past. We're not doing a full design history of 18th-century dress and contemporary fashion (we'd need a bigger palace for that!), but we're telling you some intriguing stories about historic and contemporary dress, and celebrating some spectacular looks in a really majestic setting.  Our hope is that, by filling rooms like the King's Gallery with lots of historic dress, we'll give visitors a sense of what the palace must have been like when it was at its most important socially, politically and culturally.

W*: What are you most excited about in the exhibition? 

PP: We have about 200 objects going on display, so it’s hard to pick a single moment. For me, as someone who lives and breathes the Georgian era, I'm excited that we've found a new way of sharing its stories – we feel like we're looking at it through a completely different lens by drawing parallels with contemporary fashion. It was a fun, decadent and complex era and I'm really looking forward to sharing its stories.  

Necklace by Garrard with pearls, part of Crown to Couture exhibition at Kensington Palace

Marguerite necklace by Garrard, as worn by Beyoncé for her Mrs Carter tour promotion in 2013

(Image credit: Crown to Couture at Kensington Palace)

W*: Sara, how did you decide which special pieces were to be included in this exhibition?

Sara Prentice: We wanted to feature a selection of special pieces that portrayed both the history and heritage of Garrard as well as the current contemporary jewellery we design today. It seemed a natural fit for us to include the Amazonia necklace and earrings from our new Couture High Jewellery category, and our Marguerite necklace and earrings, which were worn by Beyoncé for her Mrs Carter world tour promotion, an iconic cultural moment for Garrard.

W*: How do these pieces nod to Garrard’s significant royal and cultural history?

SP: Garrard designs have been historically associated with the Royal family for centuries, ever since we were appointed the first Crown Jeweller in 1843. Our jewellery has been worn alongside some exceptional fashion and our Couture collection was designed to demonstrate the blend between fashion and jewellery, showcasing the exceptional artistry that goes into designing high jewellery, just like a couture dress. Amazonia is designed to be worn to make a statement, just like a couture gown. 

The Marguerite earrings and necklace are made with pearls – a stone synonymous with some of Garrard’s most recognisable designs, such as our Rose Garden high jewellery suite. [When] Beyoncé wore these pieces paired with a regal dress […] it was amazing to see the convergence of her style, as an iconic figure, and the oldest jewellery house in the world, with such royal heritage. 

Cameo-style earrings by LizWorks x Cindy Sherman, part of Crown to Couture exhibition at Kensington Palace

(Image credit: Crown to Couture at Kensington Palace)

W*: What do you hope the visitor gains from viewing these exquisite jewels in this narrative?

SP: ‘Crown To Couture’ will be the largest exhibition of dress and jewellery ever showcased at Kensington Palace, so it’s a very poignant moment that we are pleased to be a part of. We hope viewing jewellery in this narrative gives an insight into the true craftsmanship and attention to detail that goes into designing and making jewellery, as with couture fashion. The story of such iconic celebrity-dressing moments goes beyond what just meets the eye; it is fascinating to uncover the historical references and inspirations behind some of these famous looks. It’s also important for us to communicate on the evolution of Garrard, and how the oldest jewellery house in the world can still be associated with such culturally significant moments in modern times!

‘Crown to Couture’ opens at Kensington Palace on 5 April 2023, and will run until 29 October 2023.


Woman wears earrings by Fernando Jorge

Earrings by Fernando Jorge

(Image credit: Crown to Couture at Kensington Palace)

Earrings by Garrard

Earrings by Garrard

(Image credit: Crown to Couture at Kensington Palace)

Hannah Silver is the Art, Culture, Watches & Jewellery Editor of Wallpaper*. Since joining in 2019, she has overseen offbeat design trends and in-depth profiles, and written extensively across the worlds of culture and luxury. She enjoys meeting artists and designers, viewing exhibitions and conducting interviews on her frequent travels.