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Rare surviving Georgian fashions and majestic paintings go on display as The King’s Gallery reopens

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Benjamin West, Prince Octavius, c.1782

Johan Joseph Zoffany, George III, Queen
Charlotte and their Six Eldest Children, 1770

Pair of baby shoes, 1796–98
Worn by Princess Charlotte.

A sword made for George IV’s historic visit to Edinburgh and other rare surviving items of Georgian clothing are among almost 100 works from the Royal Collection that go on show from today (Friday, 22 March) as part of Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians. It is the first exhibition to open at The King’s Gallery at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, formerly known as The Queen’s Gallery, following an 18-month closure for essential maintenance work.

Throughout the exhibition, the fashions recorded in portraiture are used as a lens to explore the many social, political and technological changes that characterised Georgian Britain. Paintings, prints and drawings by artists including Gainsborough, Zoffany and Hogarth are accompanied by a selection of clothing and accessories to tell the story of fashionable dress from George I’s accession in 1714 to the death of George IV in 1830. 

Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians takes a closer look at George IV's 1822 visit to Scotland, the first by a reigning monarch in almost 200 years. Visitors will see the set of accoutrements specially supplied to the King for the visit by George Hunter & Co, purveyors of Highland dress based on Princes Street in Edinburgh, including an ornate broadsword, made of blued steel inlaid with gold and decorated with Scottish emblems, a belt and a dirk. Also on display is a full-length portrait of George IV by Fife-born artist Sir David Wilkie, showing the monarch in Royal Stewart tartan and wearing the accoutrements. 

The growing textile industries presented artists with fresh challenges as they strived to depict the latest fabrics. A rarely displayed, full-length portrait by Thomas Gainsborough of Queen Charlotte is paired with an embellished Indian muslin sacque gown on loan from Historic Royal Palaces, a close match in shape and style to the delicate white dress that glitters with silk netting and tasselled bunches of gold lace in Gainsborough’s painting.

An essential fabric for centuries in Britain, linen was used in a variety of ways in items from washable undergarments to delicate lace, and even shoes, as demonstrated by a pair of baby shoes which belonged to Princess Charlotte, George IV’s only child. 

The age of Enlightenment saw ideas about childhood evolve, and this materialised in childrenswear becoming more comfortable and practical. Benjamin West’s portrait of three-year-old Prince Octavius, the 13th child of George III and Queen Charlotte, shows him wearing a skeleton suit – a new style of children’s dress inspired by the functional clothing of working-class sailors. With a toy horse on the floor behind him as he carries his father’s cavalry sword, displayed nearby, it is as if the young prince is pretending to be a hardworking king.

Clothes and undergarments such as bonnets and stays were used to teach children good posture or provide protection. An embroidered bonnet thought to have been worn by Princess Charlotte is on display for the first time after being bequeathed to the Royal Collection in 2022 by a descendant of the then young Princess of Wales’s Preceptress (teacher), Miss Mary Hunt.

All four Georgian monarchs took great interest in military clothing, and the 18th century saw a proliferation of uniform styles. A preliminary work by Sir Joshua Reynolds of Lord Eglinton, a respected military leader and patron of Robert Burns, demonstrates the finesse of 18th-century portraiture, with headdress feathers appearing to flutter in the Highland breeze. A deep blue uniform jacket designed by George IV and captured in the monarch’s portrait by Sir William Beechey shows first-hand the richness of military dress.

Georgian jewellery was often highly personal, and much like clothing, was regularly repurposed – even by the royal family. Pearl-adorned buttons from a dress coat belonging to George III were reused to create an eye-catching necklace for the Duchess of Clarence, later Queen Adelaide, shown alongside items of Queen Charlotte’s impressive jewellery collection.

Anna Reynolds, curator of Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians, said: ‘The 18th century was an incredibly innovative period, and the Georgians were responsible for ushering in many of the cultural trends we recognise today. From the rising influence of practical working-class dress to the practice of recycling and reusing fabric wherever possible, fashion from this period tells a broader story about what was happening in society. It is fascinating just how much we can learn from the paintings, clothing, and accessories on display. And, thanks to our new scheme of £1 tickets, we are looking forward to sharing it with as many people as possible.’

Following a successful run in London, Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians at The King’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse is the first Royal Collection Trust exhibition to offer £1 tickets to visitors receiving Universal Credit and other named benefits. The King’s Gallery will also continue to offer concessionary rates, including reduced tickets for Young People, and the option to convert standard tickets bought directly from Royal Collection Trust into a 1-Year Pass, allowing free re-entry for 12 months.

An accompanying programme of events at The King’s Gallery includes:

  • Style Natters: Free short talks for visitors will be held weekly on Thursdays at 11:00, each taking an in-depth look at a work of art in the exhibition.

  • Powder and Pomade: Exhibition curator Anna Reynolds will give a lunchtime lecture on Friday, 3 May on 18th-century wigs and hairstyles, an essential aspect of Georgian style.

  • Dressing Children in the 18th Century: Assistant Curator Lucy Peter will give a lunchtime lecture on Friday, 21 June exploring new ideas around childhood in the Georgian period, including attitudes towards education and the importance of playing outside.

  • Recycled Fashion: Family Workshop: The King's Gallery’s Learning team will hold a fun family workshop on Saturday, 10 August exploring embroidery and other fashions in Georgian Britain. Children will have the chance to create a cape inspired by the exhibition, using recycled paper materials.

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George Hunter & Co., Sword and scabbard, part of the Highland Dress accoutrements, 1822

George Hunter & Co., Dirk, scabbard, knife and fork, part of the Highland Dress accoutrements, 1822

Credit for both: Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024. Photographer: Mike Davidson.

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French, Fan depicting ‘The Ascent of M. Charles’s and
M. Robert’s Balloon, 1783’, 1783

Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024.

Paul Emil Jacobs, Augustus, Duke of Saxe-Gotha-
Altenburg, c.1840-4 after an original of 1807

William Hogarth, David Garrick with his wife Eva-Maria Veigel, c.1757–64

Chinese, Roll of hand-painted silk, c.1760s (detail), Credit: © The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle

Jeremiah Meyer, Ring with a miniature of
George III, 1761

German, Snuffbox, c.1770

Credit unless otherwise stated: Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2024.

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