As news of the imminent Royal Wedding has reached a fever pitch, I observe little actual excitement on the part of friends, colleagues and associates here in London. I have been invited to some ironic theme parties, and the population are unsurprisingly pleased to have an extra day’s holiday, but otherwise there seems to be little enthusiasm for the royal couple and their future wedded lives. I know a few women getting married in the UK this year, and the sentiment from their corner is a bemused laugh, or a dismissive comment such as, ‘mine will be very different!’
Fashion media, however are covering the event with great gusto, and most of the news that travels past my eyes relates to the question of Kate Middleton’s choice of dress, and on her prior fashion choices. The high street fashion labels, and catwalk designers she has worn publicly are often making the front pages as well as the fashion pages. Thus, even a fashion researcher with little chosen interest in the study of British Royal sartorial history, could not easily ignore the topic.
The dress Kate Middleton wore in a student fashion show, where Prince William reportedly first “noticed,” her properly was recently sold by Kerry Taylor Auctions in London for £100,000. This news got me interested. I realised that royal nuptials would serve to produce Royal dress artifacts.
So, I took off my hat of cynicism, put on my curator’s spectacles and decided to take a healthy look back into the history of royal wedding dresses in Britain. My curiosity about the exhibition of Royal wedding clothes led me to seek out the dresses of seven Royal British women, and follow them from the aisle to the archive. On this journey, I have visited many blogs and websites that do sincerely and eagerly anticipate the upcoming Royal Wedding, and they have aided me greatly. So, proof of popular interest must be acknowledged, and indeed appreciated for the information it yielded.
So without further I do (sorry couldn’t help it), here is a selected timeline of silk, satin and lace, with vital stats on the couples and their weddings. For more biographical and social history info, I have added links to Wikipedia, which you will need to follow if you are curious about the scandals, triumphs and fates of these marriages, and their protagonists.
THE BRIDE: Princess Charlotte 1796-1817
THE GROOM: Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha
THE DATE: May 2, 1816
THE PLACE: Carlton House in London, where the Princess was also born.
THE DRESS: Princess Charlotte’s Directoire style wedding dress was an appropriately fashionable choice. The dress was constructed of silver lame and net, over a silver tissue slip, embroidered at the hem with shells and flowers. The bodice and sleeves were trimmed with Brussels lace. The manteau was of silver tissue lined with white satin and fastened in front with a diamond ornament.
THE PRESS: The following is a contemporary account of Princess Charlotte’s Wedding from the May 1816 issue of The Lady’s Magazine:
I attended the Chapel Royal, St. James’ Palace, to see the Princess Charlotte, probably the future Queen of England. Her dress was purple pelisse edged with white, with a French fashioned bonnet and a wreath around it. She had not the least gentility of appearance and her manners were shockingly vulgar, particularly when she stood up.
THE ARCHIVE: Princess Charlotte’s wedding dress is in the collection of Kensington Palace and Charlotte is one of seven Princesses featured in the museum’s current installation Enchanted Palace.
THE BRIDE: Queen Victoria, 1818-1901
THE GROOM: Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, Victoria’s cousin
THE DATE: 10th of February 1840
THE PLACE: Chapel Royal, St. James’s
THE DRESS: Queen Victoria’s dress, of which numerous photos survive, was made of white satin and trimmed with orange flower blossoms. The headdress was a wreath of orange flower blossoms, topping a cascade of Honiton lace. The cost of the lace was £1,000 and more than two hundred people worked on it for nine months. The satin was manufactured in Spitalfields, East London, a centre for luxury weaving established by the French Hugenots in the late seventeenth century.
THE LEGACY: The tradition of wearing white for weddings is commonly credited to Queen Victoria.
THE ARCHIVE: The dress used to be at the Museum of London, and many websites still list it as such, but it is currently in the collection of Kensington Palace.
THE BRIDE: Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, The Queen Mother
THE GROOM: King George VI
THE PLACE: Westminster Abbey
THE DRESS: The wedding dress was designed by Madame Handley Seymour, former court dressmaker to Queen Mary. The dress was of the fashionable early 1920’s silhouette, as popularised for eveningwear by Chanel.
THE PRESS: You can see a filmreel from the wedding here.
THE LEGACY: Despite following the fashion zeitgeist, the dress has received little celebration for its beauty, and is considered conservative and unglamourous. However, its design is reminiscent of medieval motifs and silhouette, and can be seen to have been a choice with the intention of evoking the heritage and gravity of the monarchy in England.
THE ARCHIVE: Recently, a prototype of the dress sold for £3,500 at auction in Bristol. It sold far above its estimate, and auctioneers Dreweatt’s cite the upcoming Royal Wedding and the popularity of The King’s Speech as factors contributing to the dress’s success under the hammer. The actual wedding dress is held in the collection of HM the Queen, and was exhibited in the Royal Weddings exhibition in 2007-2008 at Windsor Castle.
THE BRIDE: Queen Elizabeth II, 1926-
THE GROOM: Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh
THE DATE: 20 November 1947
THE PLACE: Westminster Abbey
THE DRESS: Norman Hartnell, Court Dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth since 1938 designed the dress. The gown was made of ivory silk and decorated with crystals and 10,000 seed pearls, which Hartnell had sourced in America. The train was embellished with a beaded and embroidered star pattern inspired by Botticelli’s figure of Primavera. This motif was chosen to symbolize rebirth and growth after WWII. In order to make her wedding dress, Elizabeth saved up ration cards to purchase the material needed. This was a public portrayal of the Monarch as being subject to the same wartime restrictions as common people.
THE PRESS: The wedding was broadcast live on BBC Radio and highlights were screened on television later that day. Watch the BBC newsreel!
THE BRIDE: Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, 1930-2002
THE GROOM: Antony Armstrong-Jones, later Count of Snowdon, photographer to the Royal Family
THE DATE: 6 May 1960
THE PLACE: Westminster Abbey
THE DRESS: Norman Hartnell designed the dress, having been a court dressmaker to the Queen for over twenty years. The dress was constructed of white silk organza and comprised a jacket style bodice with long sleeves and V-cut neckline. Its full skirt cinched in at the waist consisted of 40 yards of fabric draped over stiffened tulle petticoats. Despite its volume, the dress was designed to flatter Margaret’s petite frame, and eschewed embellishment in favour of regal minimalism.
THE PRESS: The ceremony was the first royal wedding to be broadcast live on television.
THE LEGACY: Princess Margaret’s is known for being a royal fashion plate and has recently been the muse of some of the UK’s most lauded designers. Christopher Bailey cited Princess Margaret’s style as the direct inspiration for his spring- summer 2006 collection for Burberry Prorsum. The line incorporated the 1960s silhouettes, brocade textiles and pastel palette that were key to Margaret’s look. Christopher Kane’s spring-summer 2011 collection was described by the brand as “Princess Margaret on acid,” and the phrase has become a fashion catch phrase for the contemporary twist on early 1960s demureness.
THE ARCHIVE: The dress is in the collection of Kensington Palace, and was exhibited in the past exhibition Princess Line: the Fashion Legacy of Princess Margaret.
THE GROOM: Charles, Prince of Wales
THE DATE: 29 July 1981
THE PLACE: St Pauls Cathedral
THE DRESS: Diana wore a dress designed by Elizabeth and David Emanuel, who came sharply into the public eye for being favorite designers of the princess. The dress was made of 275 yards of silk taffeta, decorated with lace, hand embroidery, sequins, 10,000 pearls and carried a 25-foot train. The iconically 1980s puff ball wedding dress, sported huge leg of mutton sleeves and frilled neckline.. It was valued at the time of the wedding at £9000.
THE PRESS: The Royal Wedding was watched by a global television audience of 750 million while 600,000 people lined the streets of London to watch the wedding procession.
THE LEGACY: Princess Diana’s wedding dress has been a public favurite above all those worn by other royal and celebrity brides according to a new poll which surveyed 5000 British women.
THE ARCHIVE: Diana’s engagement gown, also designed by the Emanuels sold at Kerry Taylor Auctions for £192,000 to the Museo de la Moda in Chile. The museum held an exhibition of Diana’s clothing in 2008. The wedding dress has been the centrepiece of the exhibition Diana : A Celebration, which is currently on view in Kansas City, MO. The exhibition was organised by Althorp House, the Spencer family home, and the dress resides in their permanent collection.
THE BRIDE: Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, 1959-
THE GROOM: Prince Andrew Duke of York
THE DATE: July 23, 1986
THE PLACE: Westminster Abbey
THE DRESS: The dress was the creation of Lindka Cierach, an African-born British couturier who founded her own business in 1979. The fairy tale dress was created from duchess satin and has a scooped neck, padded shoulders and arabesque beaded bodice. The train was 17-feet long and emblazoned with the letter A, as well as Sarah’s personal coat of arms, the bumblebee, an anchor to represent the groom’s naval career, and a rose.
THE PRESS: Thousands of people lined the streets of London and the ceremony was watched by a worldwide TV audience of 500 million people.
THE LEGACY: Some reports suggest that Sarah’s dress is more elegant and classic than Diana’s, although Diana’s is more popularly celebrated.
THE ARCHIVE: Sarah’s dress is the only one I could find out the provenance of. I did find images of the supposed authentic dress gracing the waxwork sculpture of Sarah at Madame Tussauds.
At time of this post going live, sources revealed to the Daily Mail that Kate Middleton has commissioned three wedding dresses to be made to avoid the consequences of a leak of the dress prior to the wedding date. With rumours that the designers include Sarah Burton, director of McQueen, Jasper Conran and Alice Temperley, there is sure to be heightened speculation in the coming days. I just look forward to seeing all three options exhibited as artefacts of a moment when the world was watching.
I hope this post has either peaked or satisfied your curiosity towards the topic. If you are more a fan of matrimony than of monarchy when it comes to dresses, then look ahead in anticipation to the V&A’s forthcoming exhibition on wedding dresses, slated for 2013. I know it seems a long way off, but in the meantime visit the exhibition web page which describes the show and invites the public to upload photographs of real wedding dresses. Perhaps the exhibition will set out to prove that the fashions of the people, not just of the Royalty, bear a wealth of interest.
A special thanks to all of the linked web resources and sites and also to Beatrice Behlen, Senior Curator of Dress and Decorative Arts, Museum of London, for research assistance.