Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, Reviews  |  May 17, 2017

A Passion for Fashion: 300 years of style at Blenheim Palace

A Passion for Fashion: 300 years of style at Blenheim Palace

‘This exciting exhibition takes a look at the clothes, underclothes, shoes and accessories which would have been worn by some of the more colourful characters in the Palace’s 300-year history, and considers the part that arsenic, lead, mercury and mousetraps played in the fashions of the day’ (Keaney, 2017, p.1).


I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Blenheim Palace, the principal residence of the Dukes of Marlborough that was built between 1705 and 1722, to attend the ‘A Passion for Fashion’: 300 years of style at Blenheim Palace exhibition, which showcased unique and historic items of dress from the Blenheim collections spread throughout eleven different locations in the Palace.

Blenheim Palace has been the home of the Churchill, and later Spencer-Churchill family, for over 300 years and was the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill in 1874. In Churchill’s Birth Room was a display of Victorian children’s clothing that centred on a portrait of Winston Churchill as a boy with long auburn curls. The exhibition explained how young boys didn’t have their first hair cut until the age of five when they were traditionally ‘breeched’ and made the transition from wearing dresses to breeches. A small pink dress that could have been worn by a young Churchill highlighted how clothing did not become gender specific until the start of the 20th Century.

In the grand Second State Room, the exhibition focused on the portrait hanging above the mantelpiece of the 1st Duke of Marlborough’s rival, Louis XIV, who the Duke defeated at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Louis XIV frequently wore shoes with red heels, which drew attention to his feet and declared his status as a monarch as painted heels showed that the nobility did not dirty their feet. Louis XIV felt so strongly about the social power of red heels that he passed an edict claiming that only the nobility could wear them. The display of shoes in the State Room spanned the from the 18th century to the present day, with a beautiful 18th Century style Christian Louboutin heel taking centre stage, proving the appeal and popularity of the colour red and how it still symbolises one of the most aspirational shoe brands in the world today.

Following on into the Third State Room, was what I saw to be the most popular and most-talked about exhibit, an identical copy of the iconic ‘Revenge Dress’ worn by Princess Diana. Designed by Christina Stambolian, the black silk chiffon dress (one of only two made) was purchased by the Princess of Wales in September 1992 but did not make an appearance until June 1994, when Princess Diana attended an engagement at The Serpentine Gallery. Worn on the same day as Prince Charles admitted to adultery on a TV interview, the message Princess Diana wanted to portray at the end of her failed marriage was clear!

I thought the exhibition kept the best until last, with the stunning Long Library displaying items of dress, sketches and archive footage from Blenheim Palace’s long collaborative history with the House of Dior that has seen Maison Dior fashion shows presented in 1954, 1958 and 2016. Dior first visited Blenheim in November 1954 at the invitation of the 10th Duchess of Marlborough who organised a fund-raising catwalk show for the British Red Cross, of which she was President of the Oxford Branch. Beautiful archival film showed the fourteen models, or mannequins as they were known, modelling dresses from Dior’s H-line collection (which would be worth in excess of £1.3 million today) for guests including Dior patron Princess Margaret. An amazing fact that the display emphasised was that during the course of the two hour show, each of the models would have walked nearly three miles through the various state rooms to display the dresses, including the Amadis and Mazette dresses that the exhibition had on show.

I left the ‘A Passion for Fashion’ exhibition feeling that I had seen another side to the historic building and the family that has resided there.

Clothes can tell such personal stories that other items cannot, and I felt that this exhibition helped to really bring the Palace alive. The exhibition’s curator, Antonia Keaney, stated: “We’re delighted with the positive response we have been getting from visitors for the new exhibition. Being able to use so much of the Palace to display dresses and costumes which were actually worn in these very rooms over the centuries is very special – and it is proving a major draw for the public. Seeing how fashion has changed over the ages is fascinating and seeing it through the prism of a single family makes it truly unique.”1

Victoria Haddock, Costume Society Ambassador, 2017.

Bibliography and Further Reading Keaney, A. (2017). ‘A Passion for Fashion’: 300 years of style at Blenheim Palace. Keaney, A. (2017).


Foot-note: 1 Blenheim Palace, 2017.

‘A Passion for Fashion’ Excites Visitors. [online] Available at:


  • Dior dress, Victoria Haddock
  • Christian Louboutin shoe, Peter Seaward Photography
  • Victorian children’s clothes, Victoria Haddock
  • Great Hall display, Victoria Haddock