Duchess of Cambridge wedding dress steals the show at Buckingham Palace

The weakness of the exhibition is that, for a wedding dress display, it is curiously unromantic

The Duchess of Cambridge has usurped the Queen as Buckingham Palace's leading lady faster than even the most fervent royal moderniser could have hoped. The summer opening of the palace begins on Saturday, with 19 state rooms included. But all eyes will be on the ballroom, where Catherine Middleton's wedding dress is displayed on a grand dais, complete with her tiara, earrings and shoes, and the wedding cake. While the Queen holidays in Scotland, the duchess is stealing the show.

Advance ticket sales for the summer opening have doubled this year – 125,000 people have already booked. With a maximum of 600,000 timed slots, exhibition organisers "are not ruling out the possibility" that it will sell out. (One doesn't like to show off, at the palace.) The rosy afterglow of the royal wedding lingers, but the dress is a particular draw: there was a dramatic spike in ticket sales when it was announced in June the dress would go on display. The curators refused to be drawn on whether they had considered further boosting box office appeal by adding Pippa Middleton's bridesmaid dress to the display.

Let us take it as a win for sexual equality that the wedding has turned out to be almost solely about the women. On the day, second billing went to Pippa. In this exhibition, it is Sarah Burton, designer of the dress, who gets a turn in the spotlight starring in a five-minute film shot in her studio. Even the duchess's visit to the exhibition will be with her mother-in-law, rather than her husband. Prince William, who played a competent supporting role at the Abbey, is nowhere to be seen.

From a fashion perspective, the film of Burton explaining the thought process behind the dress is the highlight of the show. The subtitle of the exhibition is A Story of Great British Design, and the film demonstrates how exactly it is that Britain leads the world in fashion design. The key challenge, she says, was that "it had to be a dress of historical importance and one which had enough presence for Westminster Abbey, and yet it needed to be modest". The instinct and talent for imbuing clothes with meaning which was at the root of her mentor's Alexander McQueen's work is strong in Burton, but with a feminine slant.

She uses the language of flowers to give the dress a message which is stately and feminine. Her team found six different types of lace, each with a particularly beautiful depiction of one national flower. Thistles were cut out from one, roses from another, shamrocks and daffodils – some no bigger than a 5p piece – and arranged individually on to silk tulle for the Royal School of Needlework to appliqué. The construction is girded with both historical references (the hip bustles, in curls of organza, were modelled on a Victorian technique) and engineering accuracy (the Emanuels, creators of Diana's famously crumpled train, could have learned from Burton's use of double layers of hidden canvas to weight and flatten.)

It is compelling, also, hearing Burton talk about the duchess, and how she chose a shorter veil than is traditional because she didn't want to disguise the lacework.

The weakness of the exhibition is that, for a wedding dress display, it is curiously unromantic. The dress is gorgeous, but – apart from the side view, which we haven't seen before – to be honest, the view was better on TV. All alone under the lights – no tan, no smile, no scarlet-clad husband – the slender dress is almost ghostly. Instead of all that bouncy hair, there is just the Cartier tiara lent by the Queen, suspended halo-like above the veil.

Whether visitors swoon over the exhibition is likely to depend on their royalist fervour. Those who revere Queen, monarchy, palace and country will find much to admire. Those, on the other hand, who think Will 'n' Kate seem really cute, will probably be left wishing this dazzlingly dressed tableau would come to life.


Jess Cartner-Morley at Buckingham Palace

The GuardianTramp

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