LONDON – Before Kate Middleton, other members of the royal family were fashion trendsetters: Queen Elizabeth II, her sometimes risqué sister Margaret, and the glamorous Princess Diana.
The couture on display in a new exhibit at Kensington Palace shows that each, in her way, made a style statement in Britain and beyond.
Princess Margaret — the queen's younger sister — dressed in some of the boldest styles of the day and was looked up to as one of fashion's leading ladies. And Diana practically embodied the '80s style and was scrutinized for what she wore wherever she went.
"We're looking at how the three women dressed to the trends and how they adapted those rules to the rules of royal dressing," said Cassie Davies-Strodder, the exhibition's curator.
The show, which opens Thursday, features 21 couture dresses from the three royals' wardrobes, ranging from regal silk gowns worn by a young queen in the 1950s to the sparkly and sequined numbers Diana sported in the 1980s and 90s.
While Diana's gowns are likely the biggest draw for many visitors, Davies-Strodder said she was nowhere near as adventurous in her style as the fun-loving Margaret, who threw famous parties and mixed with pop stars like The Beatles. The princess, who died in 2002, was a trendsetter in the Swinging London scene of the 1960s and '70s.
"She wasn't the monarch, so she had greater freedom to follow changing fashions more closely. She was really part of the chic London set at the time, and what she wore was news," she said.
Among the outfits worn by Margaret on show was a dramatic long kaftan and turban set, reflecting the "ethnic dressing" trend of the '70s, worn at a party on the Caribbean island of Mustique in 1976. Another eye-catching display was a glamorous, jeweled ball gown with a Marilyn Monroe-style halter neckline worn in 1951.
"It's very Hollywood and quite risqué — it was quite shocking at the time, especially because she was also seen smoking a cigarette," Davies-Strodder added.
The full-length gowns worn by the queen when she was in her 30s, shown in adjacent rooms at the palace, were traditional and demure in contrast.
All featured a feminine nipped-in waist and were designed in pale creamy shades of peach, cream or grey — royal designers preferred light-colored clothes because they show up better in a large crowd and on black and white television, Davies-Strodder said. The dresses also illustrated what "diplomatic dressing" was all about. For a tour of Pakistan the queen wore a gown in the country's national colors of green and white, and when she visited Canada she sported a dress embroidered with mayflowers, the provincial flower of Nova Scotia.
A final room featured five dresses worn by Diana that showcased her "Dynasty Di" days: All big padded shoulders, dropped waist, lots of sparkles and high drama. There was a spectacular blue velvet sequined dress with a flirty, flouncy skirt and an oversized bow, and a sleeker white one-shouldered column gown that showed how Diana progressed toward a more sophisticated look in the 1990s.
And what about Kate — how will her style be seen 50 years on?
Davies-Strodder was diplomatic in her reply. "All the reporters ask me this. I would say you need some perspective, say 25 years, to know that," she said.
The show, called "Fashion Rules," will be displayed at Kensington Palace for two years.
The exhibition opens July 4, and will be open 10-6 daily including weekends.
Adult tickets are 15 pounds ($23).