As March is Women’s History Month, here are some of the previous entries we have done regarding women and their place in British history:
As March is Women’s History Month, here are some of the previous entries we have done regarding women and their place in British history:
For part 1 – see here
Delayed Reaction – food rationing
Another example of this delayed reaction I mentioned before is with regards to shortages and rationing. As early as late 1914, the difficulty in obtaining goods from other countries resulted into price hikes for both essential and non-essential goods. By around 1916 there were already fabric shortages that helped accelerate further the demise of Victorian mourning customs. There was also less coal to go around so several households resorted to burning “waste paper bricks” or installing “coal saving” chimney pots. Crucially however was in 1917 when the Germans decided to engage in unrestricted U boat warfare to starve Britain into submission. In April 1917 alone Britain lost 800,000 tonnes of shipping – Germany knew that the UK depended a lot on imported food from abroad and decided to strike where it would hurt Britain the most – as Georgina Lee noted on 29 January:
The submarine menace is now acute. These islands are faced with a real shortage of food….[t]he daily toll of ships is growing heavier, and the Germans are seizing upon the U-boat as their last chance.
The submarine menace is now what we fear most. It really marks the death grapple between Britain and Germany.
By the end of April, Lillie Scales noted in her diary that “last Wednesday 40 ships over 1,600 tons were reported as having been torpedoed or mined,” Lord Devonport, the food minister initially called for voluntary rationing and Britain was forced to have two meatless days a week, while from October 1917 bakers were allowed to add potato flour to bread. Georgina Lee on 2 February 1917 recalls the amount of food consumed by her household:
We do not exceed this liberal allowance already, at least we have not lately. As we are seven in the house, I reckon we can have weekly:
13 loaves of 2lbs each, with
1½ lb Flour for puddings etc.
1/2 lb Flour for Cake
As for sugar, for weeks past I have imposed a limit of 5lbs for the household. Now I see I can use another 1/4lb, if I can get it! It has been very difficult to procure sugar at all, most grocers absolutely refusing to supply any. But my dear Army and Navy stores allow a certain fixed proportion on grocery orders.
The meat will be more difficult as the 2 ½ lbs include bone. It includes bacon for breakfast and ham so it will mean a great deal of goodwill and patriotic loyalty on the part of women, because these rations are at present left to our honour to enforce. There is to be no system of tickets yet, as in Germany. But the Government will resort to compulsion if the country does not respond.
The inefficiency of British agriculture and the commitment to free trade was one of the factors why Britain imported the bulk of its food from abroad. There were other factors as well as Jeremy Paxman noted, the British, he wrote, “lived by trade, and the growth of imperial power had rendered the country unable to feed itself any longer.” This overdependence on imported food meant that supplies were vulnerable to enemy attack and since the war broke out, people had generally made do with substitutes for staples such as butter, while newspapers and magazines published recipes especially for cakes that required no butter, milk or eggs. But this wasn’t enough and by 1917-18, shortages were becoming more acute and endless queues for even the most basic of food stuffs were becoming common. The government’s initial response was to promote voluntary schemes such as “Eat Less Bread” through the office of the Food Controller led by Lord Devonport with the support and encouragement of the royal family. But these were not really successful and as more ships were sunk, shortages became even became more acute and the cost of food went up even further; the state was forced to come up with compulsory rationing especially on food stuffs such as butter, sugar, flour and later meat. The rationale behind rationing was to ensure that everyone received their fair share and would result into fewer queues in shops and discourage general panic that could damage morale. To help enforce rationing, the government made food hoarding a crime and several prominent and wealthy people fell foul of the law such as the writer Marie Corelli who was fined £50 for hoarding sugar despite her protestations that the sugar was for jam she intended to give away. A massive fine of nearly £700 was imposed on a Newcastle shipping magnate Rowland Hodge after he and his wife were caught hoarding over a ton of food including sugar and flour.
Apart from making food hoarding a crime, the government also extended the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA) to cover food production. Other legislation were introduced such as the banning of throwing rice at newlyweds, fines for wasting food (by 1918, nearly 30,000 people were fined for such an offence), regulating what farmers could feed their livestock and setting minimum prices to discourage war profiteering as well as making the latter punishable by fines or imprisonment. But there was more to rationing than coercion and employing the stick, for instance the Game Laws were relaxed to ease food shortages, as Georgina Lee recalled in her diary:
The Game Laws of England! They too have had to make way for the necessities of England at war. Not only is it illegal to feed game birds on corn or maize, but game is no longer protected. Anybody can shoot pheasants and any other game on the land on which he is tenant. This is partly to use all available food, and also to prevent these birds eating the precious crops. Some few weeks ago it was the shooting of all hunting packs, to save their food; and naturally too of foxes to prevent them eating poultry.
There were also campaigns to encourage people to plant vegetables no matter how small the patch of land was (and yet again, the royal family did set an example by using the gardens at Buckingham Palace and other royal residences to plant potatoes and the like) as well as exhortations to eat bread substitutes such as rice and maize and using less refined flour or potatoes to bulk out homemade bread. Magazines, newspapers and cookbooks were on hand to offer advice on how to eat well despite rationing – a noted example was May Byron, a writer known for her popular biographies and cook books. As she exhorts in her war time cookery book, May Byron’s Rations Book, “[i]f you cannot have the best, make the best of what you have” and her recipes were filled with tips on how to stretch out meagre rations and using substitutes for ingredients that were expensive or hard to obtain.
The fact that Britain was importing most of its food from abroad and that the war had meant both rising costs and later food shortages makes a nonsense of Jessica Fellowes’ claim that “food was relatively plentiful” and that “rationing didn’t come in until near the end of the war,” (but perhaps she didn’t notice that those two statements contradict each other). Certainly voluntary rationing was encouraged and official rationing and the issue of ration books did not start until the beginning of 1918 with the issue of ration books with coupons for sugar, butter or margarine and meat. Throughout 1917 and 1918 regulations and penalties against waste, hoarding and profiteering became increasingly stringent, which does not suggest that food was “relatively plentiful”. It’s true that the Crawleys would have been cushioned by the fact that there was a home farm that supplied nearly all the family’s food but they would have still been subjected to government legislation concerning what to feed and not to feed their livestock, there would have been fewer men working on the farm and given that the Crawleys seemed to have resisted mechanising and implementing more efficient means of farming then there would have been less food to go around. Crucially there would be difficulties with imported essentials such as flour and sugar as well as coal. We do not see the Crawleys really coping with shortages in the same way as majority of their real life counterparts did, and yet again we don’t see them taking the lead and initiative when it comes to offsetting and easing shortages in food. Also, if the Crawleys haven’t mechanized (and a comment in series 1 suggests that haven’t), they are reliant on horses, and many of these horses would have gone, having been requisitioned by the army. The ones that are left are the old ones and they work less hard and need more care and feeding, hence less food is produced.
Even before compulsory rationing had been introduced, many real life aristocrats had been finding ways to cope with shortages. As Pamela Horn writes, as early as 1915, the duke of Marlborough had already introduced sheep into the formal gardens at Blenheim to replace the gardeners who had enlisted, and turned over the gardens for the planting of vegetables. Mabell Countess of Airlie, apart from her duties as a lady in waiting to Queen Mary and war work involving nursing training, was also holding the fort at the Cortachy estate as her sons and many of the estate workers had gone off to fight. She was heavily involved in ensuring that the estate was doing its part in the nationwide drive to be more self-sufficient in terms of food. In her autobiography Thatched with Gold, she recalled: “My entire horizon was bounded by potatoes. Every vine house was stuffed full of them; even the little hut at the back of the gardens was stacked with potato boxes from the floor to the roof.”
As mentioned in part 1, the Crawleys being the leading local family would be expected to be following the rules and seen to be following the rules, and that would include food rationing as well. Even before the diktat from the government arrived, Robert and Cora should have been leading by example and instructing Mrs Patmore and the rest of the kitchen staff to ensure that nothing was wasted: and even before the food shortages became noticeable and unavoidable, rising costs on goods and services as well as increase in taxation would mean that the Crawleys would have to resort to belt tightening measures long before 1917. It’s all well and good for Carson to pontificate that “keeping up standards is the only way to show the Germans they will not beat us in the end” but as the war dragged on, the casualties mounted and food became increasingly scarce Carson’s concern about proper place settings and objecting to maids serving at the table are not so much amusing as irrelevant and petulant. However, the rationing only becomes a plot bunny for when Matthew is set to marry Lavinia Swire and Mrs Patmore has to make the cake for the festivities. Rationing then becomes a crude bolt on plot device and trivialises the fact that Britain could have lost the war and that revolution could have been possible if it wasn’t for rationing both voluntary and through legislation, the convoy system and the realisation that to survive, people would have to rely more on home grown food and be canny and flexible. As May Byron confidently asserted:
Now, when faced with a crude incontrovertible fact that we live in an island, and that nearly all our food has been coming for outside that island, there is no doubt that the present rude awakening should be – in the long run – be very much to our advantage. ‘It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good.’ To begin with, a fools’ paradise is a weakening and demoralising habitation; to go on with, we are now compelled, willy-nilly to learn the use and value if expedients, of substitutes, of skilful cookery….I conjecture that, sooner or later, we shall emerge from this dire emergency a great deal cleverer than we were before; having acquired all sorts of knowledge, and exploited all manner of possibilities, which we should have regarded with a stare of blank bewilderment in 1913.
The servant problem – grabbing opportunities with both hands
When the First World War broke out, men of all classes rushed to enlist and this meant particularly for the aristocracy that their male servants both outdoor and indoor as well as estate farmers and tenants went off to fight; leaving them with those who were too old or too young to enlist (although this didn’t stop those who were too young from lying about their age). Outdoor members of staff such as carpenters, gardeners, gamekeepers, chauffeurs, coachmen and grooms particularly were valued by the armed services as they had skills that were useful and needed in a time of war. Country house servants were also generally seen as fitter and healthier than their counterparts in the city and were attractive recruits. There was also the appeal to patriotism – as Country Life asked its readers not long after the outbreak of war:
Have you a Butler, Groom, Chauffeur, Gardener or Gamekeeper serving you who, at this moment should be serving your King and Country? Will you sacrifice your personal convenience for your Country’s need? Ask your men to enlist TO-DAY.
The aristocracy also heavily encouraged their servants and estate workers to sign up; offering incentives such as keeping their jobs open for their return when the war ended (and the expectation was it would be over before Christmas), extended pay and continuing to pay their salaries to their dependents. More encouragement came from the state through the establishment of Pals’ Battalions and propaganda posters depicting German bombings of British towns and cities. Finally in 1916, the government introduced conscription which meant that men who fitted the criteria determined by the government had to fight. Conscription meant that more able bodied men went away to fight and with a few exceptions many aristocratic households found their homes almost exclusively staffed by women.
The war however also took away many of the female servants. Better pay and shorter working hours led many maids to leave service and take on work in munitions factories. Although the work could be difficult, dirty and dangerous the benefits included weekends off and nutritious and filling meals served on site. For the first time, many of these women had more money, more free time and were not in the beck and call of someone nearly 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The munitionettes eagerly partook in the nascent consumer culture of the period as they went to the pictures, tea rooms and restaurants as well as purchasing cosmetics, scent, clothes and accessories. Manufacturers and service providers realised that there was a new market to be tapped and the munitionettes would help pave the way for the growth of a consumer culture among the working class following the war.
Although the servant problem began during the late 19th century, the war further accelerated this issue. As the men went away to fight and the women moved on to more profitable war work, the country house many of which were located in the middle of nowhere suddenly was seen as limiting and it was preferable to be at the trenches or in a noisy factory. Rising costs and higher taxes meant that it was unaffordable for the aristocracy and upper middle class to keep the same number of servants before the war and resulted in many of them being unable to keep their promise of holding jobs open for those who had gone off to fight.
In light of this, it’s baffling that apart from Thomas and later William, none of the downstairs staff at Downton Abbey has expressed any interest in leaving the confines of the Abbey to either serve at the front or head off for more lucrative work. More so especially the women as Fellowes and the PR (especially during the last three series) have been yammering about “strong women” who are “substantial individuals” and are not “wilting damsels:” except we don’t see that either with the upstairs or downstairs female characters. Someone like Anna or Daisy would have been prime candidates to leave the Abbey to find better opportunities elsewhere but instead we get Anna snivelling and pining for Mr Bates as part of what would become a long running misery saga, and Daisy does nothing but whine and sulk despite the efforts of good Samaritans such as William and Jane.
There’s Ethel the second housemaid who constantly goes on about “wanting the best” but yet continues to stay in service when she could go to a munitions factory and get paid more and work shorter hours and days. Of course there is the irony that her story line which involves her getting pregnant out of wedlock by one of the officers who is a patient at the hospital and getting sacked as a result is accurate and could have happened: especially as pregnancy out of wedlock was frowned upon by all social classes and a working class woman like Ethel would have much to lose.
Another irony is that the most accurate story lines in this series featured those downstairs. Apart from Ethel, there’s William being conscripted and his belief that they are fighting a just war, Lang the valet who was invalided out of the army and suffers from shellshock, and war widow Jane who replaces Ethel and finds a kindred spirit in Robert. However it’s a shame that many of these story lines were not explored more thoroughly and this was not helped by the ropey timeline and the speed with which Fellowes explores the First World War.
Conclusion and aftermath:
In his notes on the script for the 2011 Christmas special, Fellowes claimed that he set the special at the end of 1919 with the traditional servants’ ball held after New Year in 1920 in order to “allow the audience to grasp that the next series would take them into yet another era, leaving the war far behind.” And that in my view was a foreshadowing of the problems that would plague the programme in the last four series, especially the last three after Dan Stevens decided not to renew.
From series 3 onwards, there was a collective amnesia about the war in Downton Abbey. As one critic has pointed out, Downton simply retreated to the past when money was still plentiful and they could party like it was 1912 all over again. We do not see any war veterans begging in the streets, there’s nothing about unemployment going up as soon as the demobilised men return from the front, no mention of maimed veterans or further rises in taxation or sales of land and property and as many viewers cheekily pointed out, no disabled war vets among Mary’s suitors: and none of the paranoia about revolution, Bolshevism and socialism. Watching Downton you could be forgiven for not knowing that by 1918 three major ruling dynasties – Habsburg, Hohenzollen and Romanov – had been overthrown, in the case of the latter, bloodily and violently, nor the widespread fear that revolution and radical social change was likely to happen in Britain. Unlike real post-war Britain, the war becomes forgotten until it’s used as a plot bunny in series 5 to give redundant characters something to do and even then it was a delayed reaction – why does it take until 1924-25 for the village to have its war memorial when similar edifices were already springing up across the country as early as 1919 and the Cenotaph in London was built and dedicated in 1920 following the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Westminster Abbey?
Although with hindsight series 2 is seen as one of the more decent series (the other being series 1), this marks the start of the often baffling swerves in characterization for the sake of the plot, Robert in particular. A man like him who was in the regular army would have been recalled to the colours as soon as possible or if sending him to the front was not possible, then he would be placed in charge of a training depot responsible for training some of the volunteers who have signed up. One can see how Fellowes writes to the plot and not the character from that and what happens in series 3 when apparently Robert – a Lord Lieutenant and representative of the Crown – can barge into the Home Office and DEMAND that the Home Secretary perverts the course of justice for a Fenian rebel – which is something that I think a lot of people didn’t realize he was doing. Not to mention as well indulging in breaking in and forgery in order to stop a putative royal scandal in the 2013 Christmas special, a plotline so thin and so ridiculous that people laughed at it for its lack of credibility and sheer ludicrousness. If he can do all of that, then he can confront the War Office and demand a posting. But that wasn’t the plot so it didn’t happen although it was likely that Fellowes didn’t even think of him doing that.
A family like the Crawleys would have been expected to step up to the plate and do their bit. They would have taken the initiative and not wait until 1917 to be dragged kicking and screaming to open their house as a hospital when in reality a lot of homes were already ready to receive casualties not long after the outbreak of war. In the end, the war was simply treated as if it was a little local difficulty in the way of Matthew and Mary getting married – it barely inconveniences the family for all their foot-stamping over the hospital – and for all the yammering about “Downton at war” and claims that the programme is chronicling a time of rapid change, we barely see any of it. All the changes are simply cosmetic, there are no attempts to really explore what the war meant for everyone and how they were affected. The servants and family assemble to mark the armistice on 11 November 1918, Robert makes a poignant comment about how many men have been killed on the estate and that’s all, folks. Global war and slaughter on an industrial scale done, dusted and dealt with. Once the war is over Downton Abbey reverts to the old ways as if nothing had happened, and as many viewers pointed out, the 1910s where so much happens is covered in 2 series while the 1920s where nothing major really happens is dragged out for four. So much dramatic and narrative potential, and all wasted.
It seems that nothing must stand in the way of derailing the destiny that has been set for Matthew and Mary – to the point of staging a mis-diagnosis and miraculous recovery for Matthew so he can marry his true love and sire the next generation – as well as what Professor Katherine Byrne calls the programme’s “socially conservative” message. I will even go one step further to say that the war must not stand in the way of the fairy tale that has been constructed around Downton as demonstrated by the collective amnesia about the war afterwards except in series 5 as a plot point, when in reality it was still present in people’s minds right up to 1939 and of course beyond to the present day.
Gavin Roynon (ed) Home Fires Burning: The Great War Diaries of Georgina Lee (Stroud, 2006)
Jerry White. Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War (London, 2014)
Terry Charman. The First World War on the Home Front (London, 2014)
Kate Adie. Fighting on the Home Front (London, 2013)
Lucy Lethbridge. Servants (London, 2013)
Fiona (Herbert) Countess of Carnarvon. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle (London, 2011)
Julian Fellowes. Downton Abbey: The Complete Scripts Series 2 (London, 2013)
Jeremy Paxman. Great Britain’s Great War (London, 2014)
May Byron (with introduction by Eleri Pipien). The Great War Cookbook (Stroud, 2014)
Lillie Scales. A Home Front Diary, 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)
Brian and Brenda Williams. The Pitkin Guide to the Country House at War 1914-1918 (Stroud, 2014)
Jessica Fellowes. The World of Downton Abbey (London, 2011)
Simon Greaves. The Country House at War (London, 2014)
Jane Dismore. Duchesses: Living in 21st Century Britain (London, 2014)
Diana Cooper. The Rainbow Comes and Goes (London, 1958)
Ian Kershaw. To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 (London, 2015)
David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)
Andrew Marr. The Making of Modern Britain (London, 2009)
Anne de Courcy. Society’s Queen: The Life of Edith Marchioness of Londonderry (London, 1989)
Mabell (Ogilvy) Countess of Airlie and Jennifer Ellis (ed.). Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie (London, 1962)
Pamela Horn. Country House Society (London, 2013)
Katherine Byrne. ‘Adapting Heritage: Class and conservatism in Downton Abbey‘. Rethinking History: The Journal of Theory and Practice Vol 18 no 3 (Aug 2013) pp. 311-327.
In The Pursuit of Power, Professor Sir Richard J. Evans noted that “British industrialists seemed to many to be to be too keen on ploughing their fortunes into becoming country landowners, rather than reinvesting them into productive technological innovation,” and this observation is noticeable in Adrian Tinniswood’s The Long Weekend which charts country house living between the wars. Although the First World War’s economic and social effects further accelerated the decline of the British aristocracy that began in the 1870s, Tinniswood’s latest tome demonstrates that the country house and the old ways of living were not yet in their death throes but still surviving: albeit on a form of artificial life support.
It is true that the high taxes imposed following the war and the loss of a generation led to the selling off of huge tracts of land and sometimes entire estates. Houses were also sold and while some were converted to other uses such as for housing, offices, schools, museums, hospitals and even as monasteries and convents, others were demolished and only live on in old photographs and magazine features. However despite the destruction of a large number of country homes and the dispersal of several estates, many of these homes and estates found new owners while some like the Duke of Portland were even able to expand their homes.
The building and acquisition of country houses during this period was spearheaded by the royal family and the new rich drawn from the banking and entrepreneurial class. After the First World War, King George V had broadened the pool by which his children could find suitable spouses: which meant that, unlike previous centuries, members of the aristocracy were no longer out of bounds as royal marriage partners. His only daughter Princess Mary married the heir to the earldom of Harewood in 1922 and through this marriage the Princess became chatelaine of Harewood House with its impressive Robert Adam and John Carr interiors and gardens landscaped by “Capability” Brown. The union between royalty and aristocracy was further cemented by the marriages of the Duke of York and Duke of Gloucester to Ladies Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott respectively, which led them to set up homes in the manner befitting their status as royal dukes and allow their wives to continue living the lifestyle they had been accustomed to. Meanwhile the Duke of Kent’s marriage a foreign royal, Princess Marina of Greece, led him to acquire Coppins in Buckinghamshire (left to him by his aunt Princess Victoria in her will) which served as an introduction to English country life for the Duchess who with her impecunious upbringing was more used to life in the city.
Their bachelor brother the Prince of Wales acquired his own country house, Fort Belvedere and lived a life that combined both the traditional and modern. While he indulged in traditional country pursuits such as hunting (which he gave up in the mid-1920s), shooting and gardening, the way he entertained family and friends was a marked contrast to his parents and the older generation. For a start, the food he served his guests was inspired by his travels abroad particularly America. Cocktails and jazz music interposed with the usual games such as cards and charades was also much a staple of dinners and house parties given by the Prince. He and his guests also swam, played tennis and picnicked in the grounds. Informality and comfort were also watchwords at Fort Belvedere, where guests would help themselves during meals and furniture was arranged in such a way as to encourage free flowing conversation. All these were a far cry from the more staid dinners and house parties at Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral.
As mentioned earlier despite the demolition of several country houses, the interwar years also saw the building of new country houses mostly for those who made their money in finance and trade such as the Sassoons and Courtaulds, as well as Americans such as William Randolph Hearst and Harry Gordon Selfridge. Other Americans were content to purchase demolished houses that were transported brick by brick to America, or fixtures that were incorporated into homes, office buildings and hotels. There is nothing new about the likes of the new rich such as Sir Philip Sassoon acquiring a country house as this was precisely one way by which nouveaux riche arrivistes could be accepted and in time join the aristocracy, but perhaps echoing Professor Evans’ quote that industrialists were more concerned about becoming aristocratic landowners than reinvesting their fortunes into industry was one of the reasons why eventually Britain fell behind further in industry and manufacturing.
These new country homes such as Eltham Palace and Port Lympne were built with the latest comforts: en suite bathrooms, electricity and heating. Two names recur time and again in this book – Sir Edwin Lutyens and Philip Tilden. Both were busy with designing or modernising houses ranging from the magnificent Castle Drogo for the entrepreneur Julius Drewe to Chartwell for Winston Churchill during the years between the wars. This was also the period when interior design was becoming a recognised profession and an acceptable career for aristocratic and upper middle class women who had fallen on hard times. A notable example was Sibyl Colefax who with her eye for design and colour as well as her social contacts became the interior decorator of choice for those in society building a new home or updating an old one.
Tinniswood is a master story teller with an eye for detail and he weaves both into his narrative. There is for instance an account of a day in the life of the future Edward VIII in residence at Fort Belvedere that put paid to King George V’s grumbling that his oldest son only wanted that “queer old place” for “those damned weekends”. Gardening, golf and quiet evenings doing needlework or playing the bagpipes are certainly a far cry from the Jazz Age stereotypes of dancing the Charleston while quaffing copious amounts of cocktails. There are also descriptions of the lifestyle of the likes of the Dukes of Westminster and Devonshire who still carried on as their predecessors had lived; the former especially with his various houses around Britain also had a hunting lodge in northern France and two yachts that could be described as “country houses at sea” with their panelled wood and Queen Anne furniture.
But Tinniswood is at his best when he writes about those who were the engine that kept the country house ticking – the servants. Although service became an even less attractive career after the First World War, the great houses such as those of the Astors at Cliveden still had a full retinue of servants that included a butler, housekeeper, lady’s maid, valet, cook, kitchen staff, maids, footmen and those who worked outdoors. The “servant problem” was more acutely felt among the poorer members of the aristocracy and middle class households but even grand households grappled with their own version thanks to to the high turnover of staff, especially among the junior ranks of maids, footmen and kitchen maids. Using Herbert Parker as a case study, Tinniswood charts the changing fortunes of someone who made his career in domestic service through the eleven households and various country houses Parker worked for and the author brings home the point that the high turnover of servants was down to factors such as desire for promotion, higher pay, ability to get on with the employer and colleagues as well as prestige.
Despite the anecdotes of house parties, shooting weekends and the progress of the likes of the Duke and Duchess of York or the Duke of Westminster, the reality was that they were clinging on to a way of life that was in its death throes and which would come to an end in 1939. The Long Weekend is a poignant look at country house life deftly mixed with the political, social, cultural and even artistic conditions of the interwar period in a way that Downton Abbey had the chance to show but consistently and inexplicably failed to present.
Despite the sexy connotations attached to underwear, the V&A’s current exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is anything but. As the title of the exhibition goes, it traces the history of underwear from the earliest extant piece dating back from the 18th century to the present as well as examining the reasons and motivation for the existence of underwear. They range from reasons of hygiene to protection down to structural support of various parts of the human anatomy. Underwear also reflects and is also subject to the changes in fashion and what has been seen as the ideal body type and shape. As we’ve come to expect from the V&A, it does all this in an informative and yet visually appealing and interesting exhibition.
Cleverly, the displays are not displayed chronologically but according to themes and there is a wide variety of objects on display: not just underwear but advertisements, photographs, prints, packaging and even cartoons. One of the strongest aspects of the exhibition is examining how the emphasis on hygiene, protection and comfort has led to the development of fabrics and materials in underwear design and manufacture. Before the advent of synthetic fabrics, natural fibres such as cotton, linen and wool were used for underclothes for their ease in washing and durability. Wool particularly was singled out for its health benefits as advocated by Dr Gustav Jaeger for its ability to regulate body temperature. However from the late 19th century onwards, techniques were being develop to bolster the durability of natural fabrics such as for instance there was “Ellico” developed by William Elliot and Sons which was marketed as “unshrinkable wool”. By the 20th century, there was the invention of synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester in the middle of the last century down to today’s lycra, tactel and elastine that demonstrate the main function of underwear that is worn for both hygiene and protection.
Just as clothes and accessories have reflected changing trends in fashion and standards of beauty, underwear is the same and nowhere is this more apparent with the corset. Although its basic shape has remained unaltered, subtle changes reflect changing fashions from the “hourglass” shape of the 1850s to the “S-bend” of the 1890s and by the twentieth century, synthetic and elastic materials have replaced whalebone: beginning in the 1920s when the prevailing fashion for fluidity meant that underwear was used to minimise and flatten the body. What is interesting is the variety of corsets on display such as for horse riding and other sports such as tennis, golf and cycling, for maternity and to wear in the tropics – a very interesting point as even as Western women were becoming more emancipated and physically active they were still to some extent constrained, and up to the first world war were still swathed in their voluminous clothes and layers even in the heat of countries such as India, Egypt and the Philippines!
Of course the wearing of underwear is not only for practical or health reasons but also for comfort, aesthetics, allure and mystique so this is where “lingerie” comes in; underwear that is made of silk, lace, applique, crepe de chine and satin mostly hand stitched and embroidered to be used as a tool for seduction. The upper gallery also features underwear that while ostensibly as for comfort such as tea gowns, dressing gowns, hostess gowns and lounging pyjamas are also by their beauty and informality the means of seduction and allure: and the diaphanous fabrics hint to the male admirer of the delights in store for him and that he’s not going to have to fight his way through layers of petticoats and a corset to enjoy them.
Overall the exhibition is fascinating and carefully curated but especially for the last part of the exhibition there is too much emphasis on prestige brands and not enough of high street stalwarts such as for instance Marks and Spencer or Anne Summers. I believe that’s a glaring omission especially as M&S has arguably been the go-to shop for majority of women for underwear for the last 80-90 years. But apart from that quibble, kudos to the V&A for attempting to present the history of the underwear not only from the woman’s side but also to give equal attention to the men as well.
2016 marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and the anniversary an added dimension as it was also exactly a hundred years ago when a film depicting the battle was premiered to picture houses up and down the country. The Battle of the Somme, featuring both actual and recreated footage was a bold and risky move by the War Office designed to rally support for the war effort and it was seen by many people. For the first time, audiences could see the battle unfolding before their eyes on screen rather than reading about it in the newspapers or through letters from family and friends at the Front.
To celebrate both landmark events the Imperial War Museum has mounted the exhibition Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies which documents the history of war movies through objects and paraphernalia such as props, scripts, notes, costumes, film clips and posters. There are also features of real people who have inspired films such as Adolf Hitler (Downfall) and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as well as works of fiction and non-fiction that have made it from print to screen for instance Atonement, War Horse, Empire of the Sun and Full Metal Jacket.
Two of the interesting aspects of the exhibition are the enduring popularity of the Second World War for war movies, with many of the films featured such as The Dam Busters, Carve Her Name With Pride and The Bridge of the River Kwai made during the 1950s when the end of the war was barely a decade in the past; while the 1960s and 1970s saw the release of films featuring all-star casts such as The Great Escape and Das Boot. This fascination has endured to this day with films such as Saving Private Ryan and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.
The other interesting aspect is the production side of making these films where attention to detail and striving for accuracy and authenticity were emphasised. Here we see story boards; annotated scripts; models and interviews with directors, writers and other production people to talk viewers through the process by which a particular scene was shot and filmed and the issues that are at the forefront of a particular film. One of the most fascinating clips was featuring the real Omaha Beach landings on D-Day followed Steven Spielberg’s version in Saving Private Ryan and it was astonishing to see how Spielberg was able to recreate the actual event almost frame by frame.
The last part of the exhibition notes how war films have been received both by the critics and the public. Films such as Oh What a Lovely War and Casablanca have entered our popular consciousness while the likes of Patton and Bridge of Spies have garnered critical praise and awards. What comes out of the exhibition is that while no film can totally be 100% accurate and portray the realities of war, for better or for worse they shape our perception of a conflict. If a film is done well, it can help broaden our understanding of the conflict and even the times we live in today. However, the film industry doesn’t always get in right – Operation Burma and U-571 are two of the most historically inaccurate war films ever made and have the potential to perpetuate falsehoods and misconceptions. As the exhibition quoted The Times “misrepresentation on the screen can do very much more harm than an article in a newspaper” because it “speaks in a language that can be understood by millions” – a very perceptive comment that sums up not only war movies but period movies and TV programmes in general.
Real to Reel is a good exhibition but understandably it won’t be able to cover all aspects of war cinema and the focus is overwhelmingly on British and American cinema (bar Downfall which is a German film). However, there are more than enough to show why war is a popular topic for film makers and how conflicts such as the two World Wars continue to provide a fresh source for storytelling and film making even long after the real guns have fallen silent.
The bloggers visited both exhibitions on 9 September 2016.
Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is at the V&A until 12 March 2017 https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/undressed-a-brief-history-of-underwear
Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is at the Imperial War Museum London until 8 January 2017
For millions of people the simple field poppy has been the symbol of remembrance for the war dead since 1920, and its adoption was inspired by a poem written by Canadian doctor Lieutenant- General John McCrae: who in turn was moved to write it by the death of a friend, Alex Helmer, in the second Battle of Ypres in 1915, when McCrae noticed how poppies quickly grew around the graves of the war dead
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The rondeau was published by Punch in December 1915 and gained immediate popularity for its depiction of the sacrifice of so many men’s lives, and was also used in war propaganda and for motivation and encouragement.
Poppies became popular as an icon of public remembrance through the work of Anna Guerin of France and an American professor and humanitarian named Moina Michael of the USA, who took Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem, and devised a practical way of raising vital funds for wartime charities.
Moina Michael wrote a response to McCrae’s poem entitled We Shall Keep The Faith in 1918.
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
She vowed to always wear a poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war. Michael realised the need to provide financial and occupational support for ex-servicemen after teaching a class of disabled veterans at the University of Georgia, and pursued the idea of selling silk poppies to raise funds for them.
Moina Michael’s efforts inspired Frenchwoman Anna Guérin to suggest to the newly-formed British Legion that they should take on the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. The first ‘Poppy Appeal’ in 1921 used artificial poppies made by women and children in war-devastated areas of France.
Because the money already raised for widows and orphans could not be spent on buying poppies until after distribution to the public, Madame Guerin agreed with the British Legion’s treasury to take responsibility for the poppy order from France on the understanding that they would reimburse her afterwards. The first ‘Poppy Appeal’ ended up raising £106,000. In 1921 Earl Haig set up the Earl Haig fund to assist ex-servicemen, and one of the ways that was done was the sale of paper poppies in the weeks before Armistice Day on 11th November.
The Founding of the Poppy Factory
The Poppy Factory was the brainchild and inspiration of Major George Howson, himself a serving soldier and founder with Jack Cohen MP of The Disabled Society in 1920 in response to the growing need for employment support amongst wounded veterans of the Great War. When he opened the original Poppy Factory in 1922, it was his “to give the disabled their chance.” Thousands of wounded soldiers, sailors and airmen were returning from The Great War without the means of earning a living, despite the promises of ‘a land fit for heroes,’ and Howson was sure he could do something about it.
George Howson persuaded Earl Haig that the Disabled Society should supply the appeal’s poppies to provide paid work for British veterans wounded in the war. Haig accepted and Howson was given a grant of £2,000 with which he set up a small factory off the Old Kent Road with five ex-servicemen. It was here that the first British poppies were made.
Howson wrote a moving letter to his parents of the news of the grant for the factory; “I have been given a cheque for £2,000 to make poppies with. It is a large responsibility and will be very difficult. If the experiment is successful it will be the start of an industry to employ 150 men. I do not think it can be a great success, but it is worth trying. I consider the attempt ought to be made if only to give the disabled their chance.”
The workforce quickly grew to over 40 men and they made over a million poppies in 2 months. The Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) visited The Disabled Society’s Poppy Factory in November 1924. The factory made 27 million poppies that year. Most of the employees were disabled, and by then there was a long waiting list for prospective employees.
Within 10 years, the name had changed to The Poppy Factory and Howson was employing over 350 disabled veterans to make the poppies. The factory moved to Richmond in 1925 and in 1928 Howson founded the annual Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey.
Within just three years, the British Legion Poppy Factory (as it had become known) had outgrown the former collar factory premises in Bermondsey as the demand for poppies increased, so in 1926 it moved to the Lansdown Brewery site in Richmond on the Petersham Road using funds donated by Howson. The charity is still based in Richmond to this day.
After George Howson’s death from pancreatic cancer in 1936, his coffin was taken to The Poppy Factory and surrounded by colourful wreaths and poppies. Every worker then took his turn to hold an hour of silent vigil in his memory.
George Howson founded the first annual Field of Remembrance in the grounds of Westminster Abbey in 1928 with a small band of disabled factory workers. They grouped around two battlefield crosses, familiar to those who had served in Flanders and the Western Front, with a tray of poppies and they invited passers-by to plant a poppy in the vicinity of the crosses. In the first year, there were only two memorials – one dedicated to “Tommy Atkins” – a nickname for a rank-and-file soldier in the British Army – and one to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, who had died in January that year.
In November 2014 the annual order for poppies and wreaths was the largest ever from The Royal British Legion, and the 2014 Poppy Appeal raised a record £44m for the charity. Whereas The Poppy Factory has to fundraise itself to support disabled veterans into the wider world of work, the cost of producing the poppies is recovered from The Royal British Legion. The Poppy Factory’s annual Field of Remembrance was opened in 2014 by HRH Prince Harry, and raised a record £35,000. The money raised at the Field is traditionally donated to The Royal British Legion.
With many thanks to Mel Waters and Bill Kay at the Poppy Factory for permission to use the information and photos on their site.
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.”
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.
Part 2 continues here
Kay Staniland. In Royal Fashion (London, 1997)
Charlotte Gere & Judy Rudoe. Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria (London, 2010)
Beatriz Chadour-Sampson. Pearls (London, 2013)
Norman Hartnell. Royal Courts of Fashion (London, 1971)
Cecil Beaton with foreword by Hugo Vickers. The Glass of Fashion (London, 2014)
Georgina Battiscombe. Queen Alexandra (London, 1969)
David Duff. Alexandra: Princess and Queen (London, 1981)
Richard Hough. Edward and Alexandra (London, 1992)
Frances Dimond. Developing the Picture: Queen Alexandra and the Art of Photography (London, 2004)
Elizabeth Longford. Victoria R.I. (London, 1964)
A.N. Wilson. Victoria (London, 2014)
Matthew Dennison. Queen Victoria: A Life of Contrasts (London, 2013)
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)
Kate Strasdin. ‘Empire Dressing: The Design and Realization of Queen Alexandra’s Coronation Gown’, Journal of Design History, vol. 25 no. 2 (2012), pp. 155-170
Caroline de Guitatut. Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration (London, 2012)
Hugh Roberts. The Queen’s Diamonds (London, 2012)
Royal Cousins at War (BBC documentary) – first telecast 5 February 2014