Princess Margaret’s 21st Birthday Dior Gown

This stunning Dior gown was worn by Princess Margaret at Sandringham Castle on her 21st birthday, on August 21, 1951 and is seen in her official birthday portrait taken by Cecil Beaton that July. She later described it as “my favorite dress of all.”  

Photo By Cecil Beaton

The princess wore this gown again on November 22, 1951 in Paris at the Hertford Hospital Charity Ball. 

The piece was recently loaned to the V&A by the Museum of London for their “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” exhibit which ran from February 2-September 1, 2019. 

Princess Margaret’s daughter Lady Sarah Chatto and Daniel Chatto attend a gala dinner celebrating the opening of the “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” exhibition at The V&A on January 29, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett for V&A)

Brigit Katz of Smithsonian Magazine reported that the gown had damage both from wear and tear and age so V&A conservators worked carefully to restore it. “Parts of the skirt had started to pull away from the waist band, sections of the beading were unravelling and the fabric was marked with a few stains. Not all of these stains could be removed, for fear of damaging the fabric.” Conservator Emily Austin said that they represent a “part of [the gown’s] history. The wear and tear certainly suggests the gown was well-loved by its owner.”

Dior wrote in his autobiography that Princess Margaret “was a real fairytale princess, delicate, grateful, exquisite.” and that she “crystallized the whole popular frantic interest in royalty.” 

Margaret chose this gown from Dior’s Spring 1951 “Oblique” line. Featuring the “new look” silhouette, the skirt of this gown has seven layers which have darkened in color over time. These include an inner tube of silk, three layers of stiffened net and two outer layers of organza with an asymmetric front panel. This is embellished with gold raffia, sparkling sequins and sequins made from wood pulp covered in straw.

Image courtesy of Museum of London

Silver and gold circular and star shaped sequins swirl festively throughout. Large clusters featuring knotted raffia, translucent, flower shaped and silver sequins and claw set rhinestones are scattered through the embroidery. My favorite element of the detailing are the stunning mother of pearl shell pieces carved into leaf shapes which surround these clusters. 

Image courtesy of Museum of London

The strapless, boned bodice of the gown detaches from the skirt. It is made from silk organza over satin. There are button closures and snap closures on the inside of the fabric. Embroidery from the skirt continues on the right side of the bodice. Silk organza covers the bust and twists into a sweetheart neckline with the right side tucking beneath the left.

Image courtesy of Museum of London

The large matching shoulder strap (also detachable) secures from inside the top left of the bodice. This created the illusion that the organza twist from the bust was extending upward. Another cluster sits elegantly on the left shoulder. The organza sweeps across the back and is sewn into a loop which wraps around the right arm giving a dropped illusion. A simple belt completed this look. 

Image courtesy of Museum of London

Oriole Cullen, co-curator of the V&A show told Art Newspaper that “This was a very modern choice in 1951 for a very modern princess. The use of synthetic materials allowed colors and effects you couldn’t get otherwise, and there was a bit of a thing for raffia in the 1950s, but it was a bold choice for a couture gown for such an important occasion.”

Margaret donated this gown to Museum of London in 1968 where it is now back on display. She continued to be a fan of, and wear Dior until the end of her life.