New exhibition: “Kunglig Vintage”

Chiffon, silk, satin, tulle, crêpe, duchesse, lace, brocade, embroidery, draping. Taste those words and add skilfully made patterns, cuts and advanced sowing techniques and you have yourself a merry little collection of couture. And this is just what Livrustkammaren, the Royal Armoury at the Royal Palace of Stockholm, is putting on show right now – a gorgeous collection of royal couture worn by Princess Sibylla, Princess Margaretha Mrs Ambler, Princess Ingeborg, Queen Louise and Queen Victoria.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the opening preview of the new exhibition titled “Kunglig Vintage” (“Royal Vintage”) and although feeling a little daunted by the younger and more style-aware than usual crowd, not to mention the topical knowledge of people like the opening speaker Bea Szenfeld, I was able to enjoy the beauty of the fashion and feel a little royally nostalgic in a way that probably not many others at the event were (many being into the actual fashion and techniques and not so much the royal provenance, like myself).

1960’s sillk coat with flower damask pattern by Märtaskolan. Worn by Princess Margaretha Mrs Ambler for her sister Princess Désirée’s wedding in 1964.

The exhibition consists of around 70 pieces dating from the early 1900’s, with a few rare pieces made for Princess Ingeborg, up to the 1970’s. An emphasis is put on the 1950’s and 60’s with focus on the fashion of Princess Sibylla, Princess Margaretha Mrs Ambler and Queen Louise. It’s a cavalcade of beautiful pieces, with a majority of the items being dresses, that showcase Swedish couture history and the golden age of exclusive ateliers that lasted until the late 1960’s when they had to shut down and leave room for factory production, designer boutiques and more generally accessible fashion.

Exhibited in rooms by colour (red-purple, light, dark and blue-green) the exquisite pieces, made to the royals’ personal measurements in hand sown beautiful fabrics and with ravishing details, are displayed against a back drop that doesn’t belong to their times. Scenes from the subway in Stockholm and a street at night, perhaps meant to show that the highest level of couture lasts more than a lifetime.

Augusta Lundin, NK:s franska damskrädderi, Märthaskolan and Tunborg & Co are the ateliers behind the fashion in the exhibition, the testaments of a time when handmade and only the best was taken for granted in the royal world. These ateliers are an important part of Swedish fashion history and some details about them are told in the exhibition but I wish there would have been even more.

Early 1900’s tulle dress covered in sequins decorated with winding embroideries of long sweaping tassels of pearls by Augusta Lundin for Princess Ingeborg.

Vintage means pieces that are a few decades old (at least 25 years according to Szenfeld), couture or high class ready-made. Today after the consumption era of the 1980’s and 90’s; with the very visual reality we live in with glossy magazines, billboard ads, an internet overflowed with fashion blogs and a day-to-day life still very much impacted by multi-national business conglomerates – there’s a trend saying that we are starting to value new (old) things.

Now that class is less important and most of us have been able to have a decent wardrobe and indulge ourselves in a few exclusive pieces, be it tech gadgets or designer bags, those specialists and small businesses that have had a hard time surviving in recent decades have begun to see new light at the end of the tunnel. Fast consumption is no longer trendy; instead keywords like organic, sustainable, eco friendly, second hand and vintage have become regulars in our vocabularies.

The question is though: where is royal fashion going, will it be more or less exclusive in the future? Back in the day the royal ladies publicly supported the ateliers who made the clothes they wore, not to mention educated themselves in sewing. Present time royal women mostly wear designer fashion from the public runway collections mixed with cheap pieces from H&M, Zara and Mango. Although they don’t officially announce the brands they wear there are fashion bloggers who can name the designer and specific collection immediately.

But this way around makes the support a part of a larger consumer chain and global PR; not the kind of support for skill, craft and jobs that it did in the old days. Are we forever thrown into a royal reality were money makes this necessary, tailor made is only for very special occasions and royal style means accessible, affordable style, fashion spreads in Vogue and Elle plus attendance at fashion weeks instead of personal involvement with skilled craftsmen and women like in the old days?

In connection to the exhibition Livrustkammaren has also released a book to accompany it. It’s a high quality beautiful thing in black covers, containing well over 200 pages with great photos of pieces in the exhibition accompanied by explanatory text of the design and royal owner. The book also has a number of essays written by experts covering topics of the 1900’s fashion history; from couture to today’s fashion blogs. The book is available at the bargain price of 180 Swedish crowns in the museum shop.

I can warmly recommend a visit to this exhibition. You don’t need to be interested in fashion per see or know anything about the techniques of design to enjoy this great feast of visual candy. If anything you will leave feeling beautified and perhaps, like me, slightly nostalgic for days gone by.

Kunglig Vintage runs between 8 April 2011 and 8 January 2012.

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