You never need a reason to visit the Royal Pavilion and generally, each visit reveals a little more. But this year, there’s an extra special incentive, Regency Costume Exhibition in Brighton.
The Regency Wardrobe
If you know anything about Regency fashion, you’ll know it was an era of high-waisted dresses, and lightweight fabrics such as cotton, silk, or muslin, often classically influenced. Think Greek and Roman, or alternatively think Bridgerton and Jane Eyre. Men’s fashions included longer breeches or pantaloons, and coats were cutaway in front with long tails behind and tall standing collars. The promenade along the seafront must have looked so sophisticated and elegant back then, with fashionable folk taking in the healthy sea air.
The Regency Wardrobe exhibition at the Royal Pavilion provides all the sweet extravagance and pleasure of Regency fashions and more. Much more. Designed and created (with help from a team of volunteers) by Stephanie Smart, the exhibition has taken three years to put together. Stephanie explains her mission, namely to create items that are “visually beautiful, intellectually interesting and technically ambitious”. There’s absolutely no doubt that that mission was achieved.
The costumes are truly exquisite but what makes them even more so, is that these beautiful dresses and costumes are not made from the usual silks, cottons and muslins. They were all made using a technique called quilling which was popular during the Regency era and involved using paper, tissue paper, lace paper, card and embroidery thread. The garments are all designed to reflect the fashion and styles of the era as well as reflecting the Royal Pavilion itself, picking up on personalities of the time and tiny details that reflect the era. The exhibition centrepiece, Symphony of Stars, stands proud and magnificent in the centre of the Music Room and took 3 ½ months to complete as Stephanie and her volunteers layered exquisite detail on exquisite detail.
The stories begin to unfold
With mannequins posed around the Pavilion interior, the exhibition feels like a series of fleeting encounters. On the stairs as you arrive, there’s a white dress and parasol with the caption “this visitor has just blown in from a blustery sunny walk along Brighton seafront”. The detail on the jacket and skirt represents Brighton’s old Chain Pier (destroyed in 1896) whist the skirt frills are the waves of the sea. The parasol depicts the light and dark of the shade of a willow tree (willow was a common medicine in the Regency period). And so you begin to realise that each piece reveals a dozen little details representative of a certain time and place.
Lady Gore and her daughter
As you sweep on through the Banqueting Hall you meet two ladies (Lady Grace Gore and her daughter) who lived in Brunswick Square at the time.
They are off to a Grand Ball to celebrate the birthday of the Duke of Sussex in 1831. The dresses are inspired by the rooms around them with foliage and blossom used to depict youth.
The Symphony of Stars
The Symphony of Stars is a tapestry (not literally) of intricate sub-stories. It is decorated with 59 stars in deference to William Herschel (a talented astronomer and composer who died in 1822) with the stars placed in a way to represent the notes of Herschel’s Symphony No 8 in C minor. Stephanie explains that they even found a violinist to play the piece as they worked on the stars. The stars are in platinum to also represent the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.
The dress includes words from a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley and at the centre of the dress is a paper theatre which illustrates the Music Room itself and was inspired by a book published in 1826 by John Nash (Views of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton). Paper theatres were popular in the Regency era.
There’s an emerald necklace inspired by one given by Prince Albert to Queen Victoria on her last visit to the Pavilion but the necklace also represents the 55th anniversary of the Rockinghorse, the official fundraiser for Royal Alexandra Children’s Hospital. And if all that’s not enough, the dress also takes inspiration from the colours and the interior of the room, like the gold pillars of the fireplace and the wallpaper, as well as from wider developments in society such as lace-making and a particular style of button known as the Dorset Button that came into fashion at the time.
Admiral Sir Robert Smart and the Lady of the House
Upstairs you meet more visitors, like Admiral Sir Robert Smart. Look carefully for the words and images on the costume which were taken from the naval diary of someone who served with Smart.
Inspired by Victorian fashion, a few rooms on and you meet the enigmatic Lady Of the House with the text from a 1900s article inscribed on the back. Once again, the dress detail is exquisite with paper rosebuds decorating the front and the shifting light that shines through the glass roof changing the hues and tones of the dress with the passing clouds.
There are 11 costumes in total along with a number of accessories (bonnets and parasols) and embroideries and I can think of no better place to showcase this exhibition. Royal Pavilion has a habit of sweeping you into its arms and whisking you off to an exotic world of yesterday and these ghosts from the past will take you by the hand and draw you into their beautiful stories.
The exhibition runs from the 19th March to 11th September.
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And you can find out more at: Brighton Museums