Fashioning Royal Style, 1870-1939 Part 2

For part 1 see here

Queen Mary (1910-1936)

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.”

may-of-teck

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.

queen_mary_with_princess_elizabeth_and_margaret

queen-mary

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.

duchess-of-york

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.

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NPG x24413; Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother by Cecil Beaton
by Cecil Beaton, bromide print, 1939

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.

 

Further Reading:

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)

http://orderofsplendor.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/flashback-friday-white-wardrobe.html

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