Maid Of Honour Coronation Dress, 1953

Lady Rosemary (second on left) in an official photograph from 1953

In 1953 Lady Rosemary Spencer-Churchill, daughter of the Duke of Marlborough, was one of six maids of honour at Queen Elizabeth II coronation. She wore this dress, designed by Norman Hartnell, the queen’s favourite designer at the time. In this photograph, she’s standing on the second left.

The dress is of pale peach silk satin, with applied beaded decoration to the bodice, around the upper part of the skirt, and down the back of the skirt. The beadwork is extremely fine, incorporating diamante, sequins, bugle beads, imitation pearls, and plastic leaves covered with silver paint. The skirt is full length with a back pleat, unlined but with attached wool wadding ‘hips’ which would have given some shape to the very slim-figured Rosemary.

The dress was missing for many years but discovered in an attic store at Blenheim Palace in 2021. Sadly, after many years on display it had suffered badly from light damage, and together with subsequent inappropriate storage, the dress was in a very fragile and damaged condition. There was significant shattering and splitting of the silk down the back of the skirt, around the hem, around the waist, and at the bodice sides. There were smaller splits and cracks in the silk throughout the dress, but the beadwork was thankfully intact and without any losses.

To commemorate the Platinum Jubilee, Blenheim wanted to put the dress on display in 2022, on a mannequin. This was going to be a significant challenge, made more complex as the process was to be recorded for an episode of ‘Heritage Rescue’, featuring presenter Nick Knowles, about Blenheim Palace. What a project!

In order to prepare the dress for mounted display, it required considerable remedial conservation. The fragile condition of the silk meant that an adhesive support was going to be necessary, combined with some additional stitching. A support fabric of silk crepeline was prepared with an adhesive, Beva 375 (a dispersion of acrylic resins and ethylene vinyl acetate). This is diluted in warm Stoddart solvent and applied to the crepeline with a roller. Once dry, the crepeline could be cut to shape and applied to the underside of the silk, the adhesive being heat reactivated with a spatula iron and the original silk, having been realigned into position is thus secured and stabilised. The choice of adhesive, and the concentration it is made up in, is key, in order to get the balance right between obtaining really good adhesion that will last and maintaining the flexibility and drape qualities of the original silk. A tricky job, especially around all the shredded bodice and waist areas.

Having reinforced the silk in this way, it was necessary to carry out some additional laid thread couching on some of the longer splits and weakest areas, for additional strength and support when on the mannequin. For this, we used a monofilament silk dyed to colour-match the peach of the dress.

Finally, the beadwork was checked and secured where necessary, and the final challenge was to source a mannequin small enough to take the dress. Lady Rosemary had had a tiny 55cm waist, and we ultimately had to find the smallest female torso available and shave it down to a suitable size.

The dress was ready for the June 2022 jubilee celebrations and unveiled to Lady Rosemary during filming for ‘Heritage Rescue’. The sequence can be viewed here: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-10870681/Queens-maid-honour-Lady-Rosemary-Spencer-Churchill-overwhelmed.html#v-7584088677182359852 and the entire programme viewed here: https://www.discoveryplus.com/gb/video/nick-knowles-heritage-rescue/blenheim-palace

The dress will be on display at Blenheim Palace for a longer exhibition in the summer of 2023.