As mentioned in part 1, I have resigned myself to having low expectations about Victoria and the next two episodes didn’t disappoint. Having ditched the idea of a regency, attention has now shifted to the question of who the Queen should marry. Her Uncle Leopold (Alex Jennings), King of the Belgians arrives to foist his nephew Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Tom Hughes) on her while her other uncle (the Duke of Cumberland) believes that she should marry Prince George of Cambridge (Nicholas Agnew). Of course there is a lot at stake here as everyone knows that a marriage to a foreign prince will be unpopular but the union between the British queen and a British prince would be well received by the public.
Queen Victoria declares that she has “no intention of marrying” and Daisy Goodwin, again echoing Julian Fellowes, can’t resist beating the viewers over the head. It seems that every five minutes there’s always someone mentioning marriage along the lines of “a husband and children will steady her” or variations thereof. As if the constant refrain of marriage needed to be made any clearer, there were obvious and constant references to Elizabeth I with Victoria even costumed as the Virgin Queen during a ball held in honour of her uncle Leopold.
Once Prince George has removed himself from contention, King Leopold launches Operation Albert with the same dedication and cunning as Wile E Coyote attempting to catch the Road Runner: and unsurprisingly Victoria digs her heels in which doesn’t surprise. Having spent years under the control of her mother and Conroy, she resents other people telling her what she can and can’t do. There’s also another reason for her reluctance and it’s to do with Lord Melbourne and this is where my boo-boo radar started to overheat due to its glaring historical anachronism given that the real Victoria and Melbourne’s relationship was more of a father-daughter or teacher and student.
As we move on to episode four, the series veers into romance novel territory where the Victoria and Albert scenes fall into the standard predictable fare that we see not only with romance novels but even with chick lit and romantic comedies. Man meets woman, they take an instant dislike to each other, they dance at a ball and realise that they are falling for each other followed by a scene running and laughing along a forest with a little obstacle in the form of a little tiff and finally when she proposes marriage, he accepts. So far so good, all boxes ticked.
Generally I have no problems with the characterisation with Prince Albert here. He’s depicted as someone who could be stiff and awkward in contrast to his older brother Ernst (David Oakes) who is charming and not at all shy. The Albert we see here is someone who is artistic, cultured, strongly interested in the potential of new technology and new ways of doing things. Crucially and in contrast to Lord Melbourne, he has a strong social conscience and is concerned about the conditions of the poor.
Having reached halfway through this drama, it’s clear that the downstairs side of the narrative is the weakest and yet again Goodwin seems to plunder Downton Abbey for storylines. There’s Mrs Jenkins’s nephew who is involved in the Chartist movement and would have been hanged if it not for some timely intervention. There’s also Miss Skerrett’s private life which is veering more and more into soap opera territory when the real Marianne Skerrett was one of the few servants who was with Victoria from the very beginning until her death in 1887. She came from a family who had been in royal service since the days of King George III and was not only Victoria’s principal dresser and lady’s maid but was also in charge of the more junior dressers and was responsible for liaising between the Queen and tradespeople, suppliers, artists and engravers. In short, she was a highly valued and trusted servant whose role went beyond that of a lady’s maid.
And lastly there’s Albert and Ernst’s valet who constantly complains to Lehzen in German about British food and the way things are done at Buckingham Palace until he is finally put in his place by Mr Penge who answers back at him in his mother tongue. Yet again one wonders why all this padding is needed when there’s more than enough to fill out the main narrative.
My two main issues with these two episodes was first the absence of Baron Stockmar which to me is a major omission. He was Ernst and Albert’s tutor and together with King Leopold was the architect in bringing together Victoria and Albert. He stayed on as adviser to the royal couple and was instrumental in helping Prince Albert develop his ideas about kingship and the role of the royal family in a changing society. The second one is with regards to Victoria and Lord Melbourne which read straight from the Fellowes book of How to Write a Historical Drama. Of course a lot of people are now going to think she wanted to marry Melbourne and proposed to him, when in reality she was quite keen on the idea of Albert especially after meeting him again where she confided in her diary that he was “beautiful”.
Perhaps the only good scene was in episode 3 when after Victoria berates her uncle Leopold for his meddling, she coolly reminds him that whilst that she’s from a long line of monarchs stretching back to a thousand years, he’s king of a country that is barely a decade old. He retorts that while that as much is true, the political and social realities of the present means that not even the British Crown is secure and one false move could render it vulnerable. Leopold should know with his adopted country being forged out of the Revolution of 1830 which saw one king deposed (Charles X of France) and others forced into making concessions with their subjects to keep their thrones.
With the threat of revolution hanging in the air and Britain in late 1830s being on the cusp of social change, it baffles me why the need for the narrative to be “spiced up” with unnecessary bits and pieces. It’s like a stew where the cook can’t resist adding more and more ingredients to the point where it becomes unrecognisable. And this I believe is Victoria’s main weakness. Goodwin seems to have absorbed the Fellowes philosophy that the viewer is too stupid to appreciate real history and wants the narrative in ninety second bursts rather than something sustained yet entertaining without detracting from the main narrative.
The reign of King George V was marked by a world war and tumultuous change, not least in women’s fashions – hemlines went up, many women began to cut their hair short and corsets were gradually being abandoned for brassieres, reflecting the greater freedoms and opportunities women gained after the First World War. Greater disposable income, the expansion of the retail sector and the motion picture industry fuelled a boom in the demand for fashion, accessories and cosmetics on a greater scale than before 1914.
However the King’s wife, Queen Mary remained immune from these changes sweeping fashion. She remained resolutely wedded to the styles of the pre-World War 1 era which to today’s eyes could be seen as a disregard for and lack of interest in fashion. The reality was far more nuanced than that. Born Princess May of Teck, the only daughter of a minor German princeling Franz Duke of Teck and his wife Princess Mary Adelaide of Cambridge, she grew up in genteel poverty moving from one house to another with her family, even spent a few years abroad to escape their creditors and economise on their standard of living. With her lack of money and her less than royal antecedents (her paternal grandmother was a Hungarian countess who married a younger son of the King of Wurttemberg), Princess May would have most likely seen out the rest of her life as a spinster were it not for Queen Victoria seeing that she would make a perfect bride for her grandson Albert Victor Duke of Clarence. After a short courtship, he duly proposed and she accepted, but not long after he died of influenza and it was then decided that she should marry his younger brother George Duke of York. Their wedding in 1893 was well documented in the papers and magazines that pored over her wedding gown, trousseau and her wedding presents in great detail. Her wedding gown and trousseau was covered extensively and reflected Princess May’s taste and style. The Lady’s Pictorial commented, somewhat truthfully yet disingenuously by claiming that “Princess May, cannot be called a dressy woman and has no extravagant taste in dress, preferring always to look neat, lady-like and elegant, to keeping in the forefront of fashion.”
Photographs of the new Duchess of York showed otherwise depicting her in the styles of the 1890s – all high necklines, leg of mutton sleeves, tight bodices and gored skirts. As the 1890s gave way to the new century, her look also changed with the new Edwardian age but once she became Queen, the dabbling with fashion seems to have ground to a halt. This became even more acute with the beginning of the 1920s as hemlines went up and cuts became looser, but Queen Mary stuck to her look at the King’s instigation despite her attempts to move with the times as recounted by her lady-in-waiting, Mabell Countess of Airlie:
Her style of dressing was dictated by his conservative prejudices; she was much more interested in fashion than most people imagined, and sometimes I think longed in secret to get away from the hats and dresses which were always associated with her.
Having gifted with perfect legs, she once tentatively suggested to me in the nineteen-twenties that we might both shorten our skirts by a modest two or three inches but we lacked the courage to do it until eventually I volunteered to be the guinea pig. I appeared at Windsor one day in a slightly shorter dress than usual, the plan being that if His Majesty made no unfavourable comment the Queen would follow my example.
The next morning she had to report failure. The King on being asked whether he had liked Lady Airlie’s new dress had replied decisively, ‘No I didn’t. It was too short.’ So I had my hem let down with all speed and the Queen remained faithful to her long skirts. (pp. 128-9)
King George V had none of his parents’ taste for fashionable clothing and being very conservative had a deep-seated loathing for change. James Pope-Hennessy in his authorised biography of Queen Mary detected that the King wanted things to be exactly as they were from his childhood and youth – so the “May” he proposed to should remain forever that “May” and so she deferred to her husband’s wishes. Even after his death in 1936, she remained wedded to the Edwardian styles that had long gone out of fashion.
This became Queen Mary’s signature look. By day, she favoured tailored ensembles in dusky pastel colours accessorised with crown like toques (her experimentation with wide brimmed hats was also vetoed by George V), low heeled shoes and an umbrella clasped firmly in her hand. At night and especially for state and official occasions, she wore heavily beaded gowns in the same colours as her day wear and finished off with copious amounts of jewels. Observers noted that “because of her long, graceful neck, her height, her bearing and her instinctive flair for elegance, had always been able to display an extraordinary quantity of jewels on her person.” Upon her husband’s accession in 1910, her jewellery collection was bolstered by those pieces that Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra designated as crown property and to be worn by a female sovereign or consort.
Unlike her mother-in-law Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary had steadfastly always bought British. As Queen, her clothes were mostly made by Reville Ltd who was responsible for her coronation gown in 1911 and was appointed court dressmaker in 1910 and Madame Elizabeth Handley Seymour. Over the years both Reville and Handley Seymour would turn out variations of this signature look that led society diarist “Chips” Channon to describe her on different occasions as “regally majestic”, “looking like the Jungfrau, white and sparkling in the sun” and formidable in appearance “like talking to St Paul’s Cathedral”.
In retrospect, Queen Mary’s unique style was also reflected by the fact that by the twentieth century and especially after the First World War, royalty ceased to be the arbiter of fashion or set trends. However this removal of royalty from the sphere of high fashion had a resulted in a potent symbolism that curiously perhaps was a factor to the survival of the monarchy, as Colin McDowell wrote:
As a result Queen Mary developed a remarkably stable and stylised form of dress which far from seeming eccentric, became the very embodiment of regality. Such sartorial reliability may have even helped the royal family survive the uncertainties of the abdication crisis. As long as the old Queen was around, looking as she always had, the people felt that the monarchy was secure. (p. 14-5)
Her signature look also allowed her to stand out from the crowd and as Norman Hartnell noted “looked well from a distance”, a winning formula that would be adapted by her successor, Queen Elizabeth and to this day remains the standard template for modern royal dressing.
Queen Elizabeth (1936-1939)
Succeeding to the throne in the wake of his brother King Edward VIII’s abdication, King George VI was far from a promising monarch – shy, stammering, not very intelligent and with a heavy smoking and drinking problem. However he had something in his arsenal that would make up for his shortcomings as king: a charming wife and two personable young daughters. While the bachelor Edward VIII gave up his throne for “the woman I love” here was the married George VI with a family that could help restore faith in the monarchy and royal family to a country shaken by the abdication crisis.
“Us four”, as the king called his immediate family were the perfect model for stability and reassurance in a country still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression and the fretting over the gathering storm of the possibility of another war. And fashion again would be one tool to transmit the new king and queen’s message of stability to their subjects.
When Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married the then Duke of York in 1923, she was the first female commoner to marry into the British royal family since Sarah Fairbrother married the Duke of Cambridge in 1847. In the wake of anti-German feeling during the First World War, King George V had changed the family surname from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor and after the war broadened the pool in which royal princes could find suitable brides. Instead of being restricted to princesses from other countries (they had to be Protestant), brides could now be chosen from the ranks of the British aristocracy.
The new Duchess of York proved to be a popular addition to the royal family. Charming, adept at making people feel at ease and a good listener and communicator; she was dubbed the “Smiling Duchess” by the papers. Although she was not the typical flapper, her clothes as Duchess were very much of the 1920s – loose, low waisted dresses, cloche hats and fur trimmed coats, ropes of pearls and shoes with their mid heels and ankle straps. She could be described as “moderately fashionable” if dowdy – unsurprisingly as majority of her clothes were made by Madame Handley Seymour.
Her image underwent a transformation when her husband unexpectedly succeeded to the throne. Conscious of the need to distance themselves from the short reign of King Edward VIII, Queen Elizabeth “conveyed notions of tradition, femininity and family mindedness” in contrast to the new Duchess of Windsor who was American and childless. However, Queen Elizabeth realised that she could never compete with the Duchess of Windsor (or even the Duchess of Kent) in terms of high fashion and chic and it’s highly doubtful that she even wanted to.
As Colin McDowell observed, Queen Elizabeth even as Duchess of York preferred softness and this is evident from the very beginning when Handley Seymour designed her wedding dress. Although described by the Times “as the simplest ever made for a royal wedding”, one can see from the Medieval inspired dress clues to Elizabeth’s style as she settled into royal life – the use of silk and chiffon and the beading which was used to greater effect when she became Queen Consort. She had never been attracted to tailoring; preferring fluid shapes, drapes and fluttering panels trimmed with fur and feathers which was flattering to her figure which had become matronly by the time her husband came to the throne. Through these “elements she created a larger than life appearance, as if she were on a stage giving a performance.”
Her transformation was overseen in part by King George VI who was very interested in clothes and fashion and had something of the designer in him. He had designed his daughters’ dresses and coronets for his coronation and took a great interest in his wife’s look, determined that she should dress in a manner befitting her new status and in Ingrid Seward’s words “the role he envisioned for her.”
In 1935, the then Duchess of York was introduced to a new designer Norman Hartnell who was making the wedding dress of Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott, the fiancée of her brother in law, the Duke of Gloucester and her bridal party which included Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret of York. His designs made an impression on the Duchess and upon becoming Queen, although Handley Seymour was still her chief designer she began to order a few clothes from this young designer who had his shop in Bruton Street.
In 1938, Hartnell was given the commission to design the Queen’s entire wardrobe for the state visit to France. This would be the first overseas trip for the royal couple and a politically sensitive one at that given the looming possibility of another war. For Hartnell as well, this would be a challenge – how could he dress the Queen in a way that would impress a country whose fashion industry led the way and dictated trends across the globe?
Again King George VI stepped in and gave Hartnell several ideas by taking him on a personal tour of the state apartments at Buckingham Palace particularly in the picture galleries. Hartnell was shown portraits of Empresses Eugenie of France and Elizabeth of Austria by Franz Xavier Winterhalter and suggested that perhaps they could serve as an inspiration for the gowns for the state visit. Although the visit was only for four days, thirty dresses were needed for the full programme of events from morning until night but just as the clothes were nearly ready, the Court went into mourning for the Queen’s mother the Countess of Strathmore. The visit would be postponed for a month but this gave Hartnell time to rework the clothes. As Hartnell recalled asking Queen Elizabeth, “Is not white a royal prerogative for mourning?” referring to the custom of Medieval and Renaissance queens wearing white for court mourning.
This resulted into the famous “White Wardrobe” which would set the template for Queen Elizabeth’s look as queen consort and beyond. As mentioned earlier, Handley Seymour had taken Elizabeth’s love of soft and flowing fabrics as well as inspiration from paintings to create the clothes she wore as Duchess of York and her early years as Queen. However, it was Hartnell who took this one step further to help facilitate the final transformation from royal duchess to queen. The Winterhalter paintings served as the muse for the Queen Elizabeth’s evening look – grand embroidered crinolines that would serve as a backdrop for the magnificent jewels, orders and decorations that she would wear.
It was a resounding success and demonstrated that not only could a British queen charm a normally ambivalent French public but that a British designer could hold his own against the Parisian couturiers who dominated and dictated to the fashion industry.
Since Queen Elizabeth’s figure has become more matronly, Hartnell came up with an “uncluttered silhouette” to make her look taller and slimmer “with coordinating hats, gloves, bags and shoes. Her coats were usually designed without buttons or visible fastenings to be worn over fitted dresses, sometimes with embroidery or detailed work in the fabric.” Hats were also created in mind to ensure that her face was visible to the crowds and dresses and coats were also designed with unrestricted movement of arms in mind.
Hartnell also created what he would term “diplomatic dressing”. The following year, he and Handley Seymour were commissioned to create Queen Elizabeth’s dresses and gowns for the state visit to Canada and the United States where she and King George VI were the first reigning monarch and consort to cross the Atlantic and visit North America. In his memoir Silver and Gold, Hartnell recalled the considerations he had to bear in mind for the 1939 state visit:
This time I was not controlled in design by white monotone, but there were other problems including what may be called ‘dress diplomacy’. This is, of course, a development that has come with the rapid communications of our modern world, including the transfer of photographs by air and radio. The psychology of a vast public that may not always see the Queen in person has to be taken into account.
For instance, should Her Majesty wear a magnificent dress of white satin and turquoise in Ottawa, she would not appear, even for an exactly similar occasion, in that same outfit in Montreal. The people of Montreal would expect a new and different dress and might consider it a slight if the Queen wore the Ottawa dress which they would have seen in their morning newspapers. So the task for the designer of a wardrobe for a State Visit is indeed a responsible one.
For the prolonged tour I was most considerately given, from Buckingham Palace, a complete and detailed itinerary. For each day there would be six or seven occasions demanding a change in costume.
In one instance a suitable dress was needed for the Queen, while travelling by train, to awake and dress into a four o’clock in the morning when the Royal train paused at some railway station. Her Majesty was expected, with the King, to meet and greet the loyal people ranged alongside the platform. Should this be a grand dress as worn at midnight, or a little dress for breakfast? A compromise was found. It was kind of ‘hostess dress’, as they are known in the United States, a long flowing negligee dress in nectarine velvet touch with a narrow band of sable. Dresses had also to be suitable to every extreme of climate, from the sultry streets of New York in a heat wave, through the damp heat of a garden part at the White House, right up to the icy heights of the Rocky Mountains. (pp. 99-100)
Again the clothes were a success and Hartnell’s formula is one that not only has set the template for Queen Elizabeth’s look but also that of the present Queen and female members of the royal family. As demonstrated by the four royal women featured in this blog, royal dressing is more than fashion and style – it is also a tool of communication and more often than not would have more impact than a speech.
Norman Hartnell. Silver and Gold (London, 1955)
Michael Pick. Be Dazzled! Norman Hartnell: Sixty Years of Glamour and Fashion (London, 2007)
Henry Channon and Robert Rhodes James (ed.) Chips: The Diary of Sir Henry Channon (London, 1967)
Anne Edwards. Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor (London, 1984)
James Pope-Hennessy. Queen Mary 1867-1953 (London, 1959)
Mabell (Ogilvy) Countess of Airlie and Jennifer Ellis (ed.). Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie (London, 1962)
Jane Roberts and Sabrina McKenzie. Five Gold Rings: A Royal Wedding Souvenir Album (London, 2007)
Ingrid Seward. The Last Great Edwardian Lady: The Life and Style of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (London, 1999)
William Shawcross. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: The authorised biography (London, 2009)
Deidre Murphy and Cassie Davies-Strodder. Modern Royal Fashion: Seven royal women and their style (London, 2015)
Colin McDowell. A Hundred Years of Royal Style (London, 1985)
Caroline de Guitatut. Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration (London, 2012)
Hugh Roberts. The Queen’s Diamonds (London, 2012)
Cecil Beaton with foreword by Hugo Vickers. The Glass of Fashion (London, 2014)
The present day obsession with dissecting what members of the British royal family wear is not new. Whilst today there is social media, forums and blogs that are devoted to the clothes worn by the Duchess of Cambridge, the Countess of Wessex and even the Queen herself, interest in the fashions worn by royalty has been around since before the age of the internet and mass media. During the 1950s, Princess Margaret could command enormous press attention for her clothes which as one newspaper breathlessly proclaimed that “what she wears is news”.
Although royalty is not expected to be fashionable, the clothes that they wear are highly important. They should be visible enough to the greatest number of people as possible and allow them to stand out from among the crowds. Their clothes should take into account the occasion, the climate and who their audience will be. Accessories are also very important – hats should not obscure the face; bags and sleeves should not get in the way of shaking hands and shoes should be taken into account for the hours of standing and walking. Colours are equally or more so, very crucial as they can send out messages that can have more impact than words.
Currently, the Royal Collection Trust is presenting an exhibition of the clothes of Queen Elizabeth II spread across three royal residences to celebrate her 90th birthday. In this blog, we shall be looking at the sartorial choices of her predecessors and how they have made their own mark though their choices in clothing and style.
Queen Victoria (1870-1901)
By the 1870s, Queen Victoria’s image as a grieving widow was one that the public had been accustomed to. It was also during this decade that she was beginning to emerge from her seclusion and her look was reflecting the prevailing mourning custom then of the transition from deepest or first mourning towards the second stage – crape by this point was less used and she began to wear dresses in black silk.
Although she would time and again return to crape for the deaths of other family members and relations, it was by this point that our enduring image of Queen Victoria began to take shape. Photographs, prints and portraits of her depicted her as a stout woman in a black silk dress or black with touches of white, with her white widow’s cap atop her head and simple jewellery in pearls and diamonds apart from jet.
Even for state occasions such as the state opening of Parliament, Queen Victoria refused to don the state crown and robe of state. Instead she continued to wear her widow’s cap and a simple dress in black and white but as a concession to the formality of the occasion would wear a small diamond crown (made for her by Garrard’s in 1870 and now on display at the Tower of London) which was lighter, fitted well atop her widow’s cap and provided both a compromise for the need of something suitably grand for a state occasion and appropriate for mourning. The sash and star of the Order of the Garter was her only concession to colour.
The same was true with her official photographs and portraits where again she would be depicted in a black silk dress trimmed with white lace, the small diamond crown atop her widow’s cap, the sash and star of the Order of the Garter across her chest and wearing pearl and diamond jewellery. An official portrait of the Queen by Heinrich von Angeli completed in 1875 depicted her wearing a double strand pearl necklace, pearl earrings, small pearl brooch and a pearl bracelet with a miniature portrait of Prince Albert. As pearls were appropriate for mourning, the symbolism of the jewels she was wearing for this portrait was not lost on the public as pearls symbolised “tears” and spoke of her continuing sadness over the loss of her beloved husband.
From the 1880s onwards, Queen Victoria’s dresses were more aligned with the third stage of mourning where ribbons and trimmings in fabrics other than crape were used. Some of her dresses and gowns were trimmed with black beads or embroidered as well as bordered with fine lace. The black of her dresses provided a splendid backdrop for her pearls and diamonds and were suitably grand, presenting a combination of majesty and homely simplicity.
Queen Victoria’s look from the 1870s until her death in 1901 has been described by both Charlotte Gere and Kay Stanilad as “unchanging”. Her clothes could be impressive but overall, her appearance could be described as “frumpy” and could also look older than her years, as Stanilad herself observed, “[s]he had always preferred her clothing to be comfortable, and now, lacking the discipline imposed by wearing fashionable dresses and the controlling influence of Prince Albert, she gradually eschewed the increasingly rigid corsetry required to create a fashionable outline. Photographs frequently show her diminutive but expanding frame enveloped in shawls and mantles. On occasion, however, they also reveal smart, almost chic, outfits, especially mantles and bonnets.”
Much like her granddaughter in-law the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary), Queen Victoria also patronised British dressmakers, stores and fabrics. Her dressmakers included Sarah Ann Unitt, Elizabeth Gieve and Martha Dudley – women who were well-versed with meeting the needs of the more conservative tastes of older women. Stores where she made regular purchases included Morgan & Co, John Redfern, Jay’s, Debenham & Freebody, Marshall & Snelgrove, Liberty’s, Robinson & Cleaver, Romanes & Patterson as well as local shops at Windsor, the Isle of Wight and Aberdeenshire. If the Queen happened to like something, she would order it in multiples which further entrenched her unchanging image.
Towards the last decade of her life, Queen Victoria’s clothes were made with greater practical considerations in mind. Her clothes from this period were fairly distinctive and more or less uniform with variations in trimmings, embroidery and beading. This perhaps stemmed from her dressmaker Mrs Dudley using a master pattern to save time on fittings for which an increasingly infirm and elderly woman might not have much patience. The dresses are made for ease and comfort – requiring minimum to no effort in putting on and taking off while many of the skirts could be raised by use of button and loop to avoid tripping. Bodices were sewn in with pockets to keep a watch attached to a chain, keys and glasses which the Queen began to rely on more as her eyesight began to fade.
When she died in 1901, it marked the end of an era but her image, propagated in various media such as portraits, prints, photographs, stamps, coins and commemorative objects has lived on. As Kay Staniland again noted:
As Queen Victoria’s figure thickened in old age the abiding image of the little old lady in black, ‘the Widow of Windsor’ became powerfully imprinted, so much so that even today, for many people, this is the only picture they carry of her. It is an image which in more recent years has been confirmed by the large quantity of large-waisted black dresses and capacious underwear which survives in public and private possession, the garb of an elderly and rheumatic woman. It certainly exemplifies her last years but distracts from a broader consideration of a long and varied life. (p. 169)
Queen Alexandra (1901-1910)
Queen Alexandra, born Princess Alexandra of Denmark and raised in modest circumstances found herself thrust onto a bigger and grander stage when she married Albert Edward Prince of Wales in 1863. Beautiful and glamorous, the new Princess of Wales was the Princess Diana of her day. From the moment she arrived in Britain, she quickly became popular with the public and following her wedding, the Prince and Princess of Wales became the toast of society, their London home Marlborough House becoming the centre of glittering events: in effect deputising for Queen Victoria who ceased to entertain following the death of Prince Albert. All this was aided and abetted by the new medium of photography and the widespread availability of images of the Princess of Wales meant that her style and clothes could be copied by society ladies and even middle class women.
Considered a tad too slim by contemporary standards, Princess Alexandra however proved to be adept at dressing in a manner befitting her new status, accentuating her best features and disguising any flaws thereby setting trends. She popularised high necklines, “dog collar” necklaces or piling several rows of pearls or diamond necklaces in order to cover a scar on her neck and following a bout with rheumatic fever following the birth of her daughter Louise in 1867 that left her with a limp, some women began to copy this as well by wearing mismatched shoes or purchasing a pair of shoes with unequal heels all while carrying a cane or walking stick.
This spawned a bizarre trend known as the “Alexandra limp” and was criticised by several quarters of the press and public. People tutted about how ugly it looked and the papers were quite scathing, noting how this trend was part of a long line of “remarkably foolish things have been done in imitation of royalty” as well as cruel for its “caricaturing of human infirmity”. As many other fashion trends, this proved to be a flash in the pan.
Princess Alexandra also learned early on that clothes and fashion could be harnessed to send a message. For instance in 1874, her sister the Tsarevna Maria Feodorovna (nee Princess Dagmar) and her husband the Tsarevich Alexander (the future Tsar Alexander III) of Russia made an official visit to Britain. The tsarevna was also a beauty and seen as a fashion icon in her adopted country. The two sisters made public appearances wearing identical clothes which many historians noted was making an underlying political point, that perhaps Britain and Russia did have something in common that could be the basis of a future alliance or understanding between the two countries. This was considered risky with the prevalent mutual antipathy between Britain and Russia especially with regard to the Ottoman Empire and over the border between the Russian empire and India but the public lapped it up: especially as the clothes emphasised their physical resemblance and striking looks.
Unlike her mother-in-law Queen Victoria and other members of the British royal family, Alexandra did not see the need to wear exclusively British designs. Her style and taste remained resolutely continental and she relied on Parisian designers such as Doeuillet, Maison Laferrier, Madame Duboc and Worth for many of her clothes. However she did patronise several British companies especially for her daytime clothes. Despite the fact that Paris was the capital of high fashion, London (and the UK in general) did lead the way for smart tailored wear and the likes of Redfern & Sons, Gent and Son (Birmingham), Durrant of Edinburgh, Albert Phillips and John Morgan and Son all had Princess Alexandra as one of their regular customers.
The death of Queen Victoria in 1901 set the stage for a new era and paved the way for a much more visible monarch. Even as Prince of Wales, King Edward VII was already acutely aware that as the monarch now lacked real political power, he still had an important role to play in the ceremonial life of the nation. He was of the belief that the more people saw their monarch and other members of the royal family, the better it was for both the family and the nation. Clothes were to play an important part in Edward VII’s view of the importance of public ceremonial and duty.
Having already successfully weathered the storms in her life and marriage partly due to her what Kate Strasdin called her “astute sartorial decisions” and “ability to dress appropriately for any occasion”, as queen Alexandra’s wardrobe became even more magnificent. Signalling a break from the past, the new King and Queen set the tone for the new reign by attending the State Opening of Parliament with the full pomp and splendour that had not been seen since Prince Albert’s death in 1861. While King Edward VII donned the Imperial State Crown and robe of state, Queen Alexandra was resplendent in her black gown, pearl and diamond jewellery with the sash and star of the Order of the Garter and Queen Victoria’s small diamond crown atop her mourning cap. The effect was a mix of elegance and respect.
The State Opening of Parliament was a dress rehearsal for a much more important and solemn event. For the coronation in 1902, the part of the Queen Consort in the ceremony and what she would be wearing was problematic as the last Queen Consort to be crowned was Queen Adelaide in 1831 and hardly anyone who witnessed that event was still alive to recall it. While courtiers scrambled to find records of previous coronations to ascertain what role the new consort would play, Queen Alexandra was seemingly unconcerned with precedent as she told one of the King’s equerries that “I know better than all the milliners and antiquaries. I shall wear exactly what I like and so will all my ladies – basta!”
And wear exactly what she liked it was. Her coronation gown was made in Paris by Morin Blossier, a Parisian dressmaker, from fabric designed by Lady Curzon (vicereine of India) and made in India. Her gown, actually two pieces consisted of a boned bodice and a long skirt, was made up of a cloth of gold and over it a net of Indian embroidery containing the motifs of the British Isles and the Empire. Completing the gown were long hanging sleeves and the standing collar that was trimmed with gold lace. Kate Strasdin has studied Queen Alexandra’s coronation gown, now stored at Kensington Palace’s Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, and has noted that the design of the fabric was based on the queen’s romanticised view of India, a country she never had an opportunity to visit but that was seen as the “jewel” of the British Empire. Through her choice of the fabric to be made in India, this demonstrated how important the country was in Alexandra’s mind and like her husband she understood the importance of how her appearance at the coronation would have an impact on her husband’s subjects at home and abroad. The only part of her coronation ensemble that was British made was her robe of state made by Marshall and Snelgrove but instead of the traditional violet and crimson, it was in petunia purple; while she eschewed the traditional four arches atop her crown in favour of the continental eight half arches.
However there was a limit to how much Queen Alexandra could get away with wearing exactly what she wanted. King Edward VII was a stickler for correct dress especially when it came to official and state occasions and in one instance he took exception to her wearing the sash of the Order of the Garter the wrong way round (the correct way is that its worn over the left shoulder down to the right hip) and asked her to wear it the right way before heading downstairs for an official dinner.
Cecil Beaton in his book The Glass of Fashion observed that Queen Alexandra “probably started the modern tradition that British royalty can wear anything. During her husband King Edward’s reign she would wear spangled or jewelled and bead embroidered coats in the daytime, an innovation which has now become an accepted royal habit. Or she might wear half-length jackets covered with purple or mauve sequins and garnished with a Toby frill collar of tulle. These were clothes which most women would have worn at night, but the fact that she wore them during the day removed her from reality and only helped to increase the aura of distance that one associates with the court.”
And this aura of distance continued into the next reign as royalty took a back seat to fashion. Just as King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra used clothes to foster the idea of a ceremonial monarchy especially against the backdrop of political, economic and social changes, their successors King George V and Queen Mary would use their lack of interest in current fashions to project a wholly different image and a response to greater changes that not even his two predecessors could ever have dreamt of.
Bloggers’ note: Although the early years of Victoria’s reign falls before this blog’s specialisation we have decided to review this programme as we believe that the years before 1870 are crucial to understanding the era she lent her name to and how in some ways they affected the twentieth century, even today.
In my old workplace, I had a colleague who had a collection of humorous workplace maxims on his desk. One of them read: “aim low, reach your goals and avoid disappointment” and this came to my mind when I read in the papers that ITV had commissioned a drama about Queen Victoria’s early years with the script being written by Daisy Goodwin. Given that she is a historical romance writer known for such novels as My Last Duchess and The Fortune Hunter, I guessed early on that Victoria will dwell more on romance and skirt over the pressing issues that bedeviled the early years of the queen’s reign and which would set in motion the changes that would take place over what turned out to be a long reign.
Two episodes down and I have been proven right. The chryon in the opening episode already gives away that this would be long on drama and short on historical accuracy – “1837: The monarchy is in crisis” and sets the stage for the new queen Victoria who had just turned eighteen only a few weeks’ before, pitted against Sir John Conroy, her mother the Duchess of Kent and her uncle the Duke of Cumberland who for reasons of their own all want a regency. Complicating matters is the presence of Lord Melbourne the Prime Minister who Victoria comes to heavily depend on leading to talk among society and sniggerings about “Mrs Melbourne”. Her determination to break free of her past and hang on to Melbourne at all costs as demonstrated by the Lady Flora Hastings scandal and the Bedchamber crisis were touched on lightly as it became clear that the main drama would be the supposed attraction between the Queen and Lord Melbourne.
Before telecast, the press had been hyping this as the “new Downton Abbey” and seeing the first two episodes, it’s easy to see why. We are treated to the machinations of some of the servants -particularly the steward Mr Penge (Adrian Schiller), the lady’s maid Miss Jenkins (Eve Myles), her deputy Miss Skerrett (Nell Hudson), Brodie the footman (Tommy Knight) and Francatelli the chef (Ferdinand Kingsley). When Baroness Lehzen (Daniela Holtz) tartly informs Mr Penge that she is now in charge of the household the grumbling between Penge and Jenkins afterwards is reminiscent of Thomas and O’Brien while Skerrett’s mysterious past has parallels with Baxter as do her interactions with Francatelli which has a whiff of Baxter and Molesley about them. The subplots involving the servants are mostly fillers and don’t really add much to the narrative so its baffling why they are included at all unless as a nod to Downton and a belief that viewers want to “identify” with characters and are more likely to do that with downstairs.
The acting is mostly hit and miss, Jenna Coleman does strike a fairly good balance with Victoria’s girlishness yet strong will but she does seem to lack the gravitas say demonstrated by Emily Blunt (The Young Victoria) and especially Annette Crosbie (Edward the Seventh). Peter Firth (Duke of Cumberland) and Paul Rhys (Sir John Conroy) are out and out pantomime villains supported by Catherine Fleming (Duchess of Kent) and Alice Orr-Ewing (Lady Flora Hastings). German actress Daniela Holtz makes a brisk Baroness Lehzen but the best actor so far is Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne. He might be too young to play the ageing Prime Minister and bon vivant but he brings a depth to Melbourne that goes beyond the sappy script. A scene where he recalls his late wife Lady Caroline is one of his best in my opinion and he conveys grief through gestures with no need for words.
The CGI shots of London also looked fairly unconvincing save for the external shots of Buckingham Palace as it existed then with Marble Arch serving its original purpose – as the main entrance to the Palace. It was well done and for me it brought to life how the Palace would have looked just as its’ architect John Nash envisioned it.
Over all the script is very uneven, while there are a few flashes of good dialogue such as an exchange between Melbourne and Sir Robert Peel (Nigel Lindsay) where the former gives the latter some advice on how to deal with the Queen (a foreshadowing of Gladstone and Disraeli); others were verging on the hammy and straying into cliché territory. Goodwin also can’t seem to resist beating the viewer over the head – the Duke of Cumberland’s constant mutterings over his father George III’s madness was irritating as is the tug of war between Penge and Lehzen over whether Buckingham Palace should convert to gas lighting.
Historical accuracy has also gone out of the window here for the sake of the drama. I can understand why certain liberties are taken for the sake of the narrative but to say that the monarchy was in crisis in 1837 is an exaggeration. The only “crisis” was that the new queen was 18 and totally inexperienced; everyone was looking forward to getting shot of the gouty dissolute old men who had preceded her. Her youth was seen as a breath of fresh air and she was generally preferable to her unpopular surviving uncles. The early years of Victoria’s reign is ripe for exploration of the political, social and economic conditions during that period and yet that was barely touched on. Another niggle that I have is why Lord Melbourne was not wearing court uniform especially in the scenes where it would have been necessary to wear it – during the Coronation and Queen Victoria’s first Privy Council. It’s a little detail but the court uniform would have helped establish Lord Melbourne’s character and his position.
I’d like to think that somewhere in this programme is a decent drama and one that can help viewers learn and appreciate more about a pivotal period in British history but I get the feeling that Daisy Goodwin is not exactly the writer who will do that. As for what will follow next, who knows but in the meantime, I will stick to that maxim of aiming low to avoid disappointment.
Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria
Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne and the real Lord Melbourne by John Partridge at the National Portrait Gallery London (photo taken by blogger)
A detail of Queen Victoria’s First Council at Kensington Palace by Sir David Wilkie showing Queen Victoria and Lord Melbourne, currently on display at the Queen’s Gallery London (photo taken by blogger)