Crown to Couture: Was the Georgian court the original red carpet?

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The custom of the red carpet is strange, when you think about it. It’s an event attended only by those elected ‘special’ by society – those who exist above the sphere of normal people, worthy of scrutiny and acclaim. This event causes a frenzy, with people desperate to know who was there, what happened, and, most of all, what the ‘higher-ups’ were wearing. What ritual garb did they adorn themselves with? The masses pass judgement swiftly – sometimes harshly. Will the designated elites impress, thereby achieving icon status, or will they fail, and become objects of mockery and opprobrium?

It’s a phenomenon bound up in our consciousness of modernity – with celebrity culture and social media. But this sort of spectacle started long before Lady Gaga. In fact, the tradition has roots as far back as the Georgian era. That is the claim, at least, of Crown to Couture, a new exhibition opening at Kensington Palace today.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, ‘court’ referred to the extended royal household of a monarch, including the nobility and clergy along with emissaries and visitors. In a key set piece of Crown to Couture, attendees observe the gold gown and headdress worn by a pregnant Beyoncé at the 2017 Grammys, displayed in front of a scarlet throne in Kensington Palace’s Presence Chamber. It’s an apt visual representation of the parallels between celebrity culture and the class systems of the past.

Just as we have our modern ‘it-girls’ – Bella Hadid, Kylie Jenner, Hailey Bieber et al – the Georgians had ‘influencers’, too. Frances ‘Fanny’ Abington was an English actress and style icon; in one role she wore her hair low, which subsequently became the fashion. In another, she wore a ‘mob cap’, which later became known as the ‘Abington cap’ at hatters across the country. Incidentally, Abington sounded like a bit of a legend; she separated from her husband when he couldn’t cope with her popularity, thereafter paying him an annual stipend to stay away from her while she engaged in affairs with an MP and an earl.

crown to couture

Image: Historic Royal Palaces/Giambattista Valli Paris

When it came to court appearances, the process of getting ready was almost as important as the event itself. Queens and noblewomen would invite only their most favoured courtiers into their chambers to help them prepare. Today, we have Getting Ready with Vogue (a behind-the-scenes video series) and the ‘GRWM’ (get ready with me) trend on social media. The Georgians wore hoops and corsetry; we have Skims and Spanx. Then there was the small matter of make-up; while Kim Kardashian has Mario Dedivanovic (her trusty makeup artist), Charity Treby (wife of Captain Paul Henry Ourry, who sat in the House of Commons from 1763 to 1775) had an exquisite silver grooming kit, on display at Crown to Couture.

Making an entrance was, and still is, vital. Remember in 2019 when Billy Porter arrived at the Met Gala in a golden litter carried by six shirtless men, wearing 10-foot wings and a 24-karat gold headpiece? Well, maybe he took cues from Queen Charlotte, wife of George III and she of Bridgerton fane, who would arrive at engagements in an ornamental sedan chair. She employed four men to carry said chair at an annual salary of £39 (around £6,000 in today’s money).

At court, what you wore was vitally important, as impressing the right person could mean a good marriage, an advantageous title, or special favours. Similarly, today, a viral red carpet moment can make a celebrity’s career. Thus, the court and the red carpet become theatres of fashion – places where one puts their best foot forward in the hope of garnering social acclaim. The Givenchy dress that Audrey Hepburn wore to the 1954 Oscars is considered one of the most iconic of the 20th century; similarly, a ‘silver tissue’ dress displayed in Crown to Couture has also gone down in history. The gown hails from the 1660s, believed to have been worn by a woman named Theophila Harris – it’s a rare example of the clothing of the court of Charles II, and is the earliest of its kind in existence.

Also exhibited is Katy Perry’s Moschino chandelier dress from the 2019 Met Gala, Blake Lively’s Versace tribute to the Statue of Liberty from 2022, and Billie Eilish’s Marilyn Monroe-inspired ball gown from 2021. At the Met Gala especially, shock-factor is key. Ditto the Georgian court – in 1760, Lady Helen Robertson of Ladykirk commissioned a court gown with an enormous skirt-span of almost three metres. It was all part of a big game of sartorial one-upmanship.

The preparations, the garments, the drama – at the root of it all, it’s all about wealth. The red carpets of today are theatres of rarefied couture and fine jewels – and, being sponsored by royal jeweller Garrard, there are plenty of those on display at Crown to Couture. Rhianna’s yellow Guo Pei look from the 2015 Met Gala cost around $3.97 (about £3.21) million. But that pales in comparison to the $40 (£32) million Tiffany & Co. yellow diamond necklace that Lady Gaga wore to the 2019 Oscars. Back in the 1760s, meanwhile, the Marchioness of Rockingham, wife of British Prime Minister Charles Watson-Wentworth, wore the ‘Rockingham mantua’ – a French silk dress made up of about 14 metres of fabric that would have cost over £10,000 today.

Arguably, the 18th century represented the advent of celebrity culture with the expansion of print media, and Crown to Couture does a good job of reinforcing this idea. The Georgians had their trendsetters, their ‘viral’ moments, and their status signifiers – just like we do.

Crown to Couture runs from 5 April – 23 October 2023, visit

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