What do Princess Diana, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle have in common? Yes, they all married into the British royal family, but they’re also fashion icons who have sparked style trends across the globe. And there’s no better way to delve into their fashion universe than by visiting London.
Start with Kensington Palace, which has served as home to all three women, as well as many other royals. Though the private residences are off limits, you can tour the historic portion of Kensington Palace, including Queen Victoria’s childhood home and the quarters of William III and Mary II. If the beautiful Sunken Garden looks familiar, it’s because that’s where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle took their engagement photos. But for fashion fanatics, the real treat is “Diana: Her Fashion Story,” an exhibit that showcases outfits worn by the Princess of Wales. A few of her most famous outfits are on display from her favorite designers, alongside original fashion sketches. There’s the ink-blue velvet gown by Victor Edelstein that she wore at the White House when she danced with John Travolta – as well as the flak vest, denim shirt and Armani chinos she wore on her groundbreaking visit to the landmine fields of Angola in 1997.
Catherine Walker’s gowns are seen again and again throughout the exhibit, which is no surprise since the British couture house was a go-to for Diana. A visit to their showroom in Chelsea shows why. Absolutely everything—from the pattern-making to the elaborate embroidery and beading—is done within the atelier. The house was founded in 1977 by Catherine Walker and her husband, Said Cyrus, who assumed the role of head of design after his wife passed away in 2010. After taking 32 measurements, each piece is made to measure, and in addition to choosing from their archives and two annual seasonal collections, clients can commission custom designs, as Princess Diana did and now Kate Middleton does. They frequently made Princess Diana’s ensembles for official state visits and did so much research for each destination that they sometimes even went to visit the countries. It was important that each outfit pay respect in subtle, appropriate ways to where she was going and simultaneously embody her ambassadorial role as British royalty.
But London’s deep and nuanced fashion history goes beyond modern designers. A great place to explore that is The Victoria and Albert Museum, the largest museum in the world of decorative arts and design with a permanent collection of more than 2.3 million objects. Its special exhibit “Fashioned From Nature” examines the complicated relationship between fashion and nature from 1600 to today. Garments are interspersed with natural history specimens to examine the materials used in the clothes and where they come from. The wide array of clothing ranges from 19th century muslin day dresses to runway pieces by Stella McCartney, who designed Meghan Markle’s wedding reception dress.
To shop like British royalty, you might want to start with those who hold a Royal Warrant of Appointment, which is a mark of recognition of those who have supplied goods or services to Queen Elizabeth II, the Duke of Edinburgh or the Prince of Wales for at least five years and have an ongoing relationship with them. One such Royal Warrant holder is Bentley & Skinner, which has specialized in fine antique jewelry, engagement rings and objets since 1880. (They also do valuations for insurance and probate, repairs, seal-engraving, pearl-stringing and bespoke jewelry commissions.) They’ve been serving the royal family since Queen Victoria’s reign. A visit to their boutique in Mayfair will transport you to that time; their doors seem to lead you into the Victorian era with classically British décor and opulent pieces. But they don’t just offer antiques—they also worked with Damien Hirst to create his diamond skull, For the Love of God, which
took two years, 8,601 diamonds and nearly a kilo of platinum to make, and became the most expensive art sold by a living artist.
Another Royal Warrant holder located in Mayfair is the world’s oldest jewelry house, House of Garrard, which has worked with the British royal family since 1735 to create many of their iconic jewels and has served royalty worldwide. In 1843 they were appointed crown jeweler by Queen Victoria and have served every subsequent British monarch since then. Queen Elizabeth II, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle wore historic tiaras by House of Garrard on their wedding days. The house often looks to its own history for inspiration. For example, they made Princess Diana’s sapphire and diamond engagement ring, which now belongs to the Duchess of Cambridge, which was inspired by a sapphire cluster brooch that Prince Albert co-designed with Garrard and gave to Queen Victoria on their wedding day. But perhaps they are most famous for their crowns, which are on display at the Tower of London, including the imperial state crown worn by Queen Elizabeth on her coronation day.
It’s worth a trip to the Tower of London just to see the Crown Jewels, which are even more impressive and twinkling in person than one could imagine. There are plenty of other attractions there too to grab your attention, starting with a tour led by one of the famous Beefeaters, who can point out all the spots where blood was spilled (including where Anne Boleyn was beheaded).
The Royal Beasts exhibit showcases the very first zoo in London with the wild and rare animals that once lived there, and for more of the animal kingdom, you can learn about the Tower’s ravens and the legend behind them. Though the Tower of London is notorious for its role as a prison and place of torture and death, it also once housed an elegant royal palace.
Speaking of palaces, you’ll probably want to stay in one yourself. While Kensington Palace doesn’t have any vacancies for tourist commoners, you can still take up residence in the posh neighborhood thanks to London Perfect. The company hand-picks luxurious apartments for rent—and helps plan everything else—so that you can live like a local. It doesn’t get more picturesque than staying in a traditional mews house in Kensington.
You can’t get much closer to Kensington Palace than The Milestone Hotel & Residences, which is exactly opposite it. The décor of the luxury hotel oozes classic Englishness, particularly equestrian-themed bar The Stables. Meghan Markle has been spotted there drinking her cocktail of choice, a negroni.
For a bird’s-eye view of London, enjoy a Michelin-starred meal at Galvin at Windows, a modern French haute cuisine restaurant on the 28th floor with sweeping views. The delectable menu and hand-picked wine list are as impressive as the vista. Aim for a sunset dinner to maximize those Instagram likes. Soak in the view of Buckingham Palace from the restaurant and raise a glass to the royals just across the way.