In 1883, Alva Vanderbilt, tired of the snubs from New York society, carefully planned a ball that would finally throw open the doors of the “400” to her and her husband William Kissam Vanderbilt. She decided on a costume ball, a type of event that had not been held for years, and her guest of honour would be her dear friend, Consuelo Drogo Montagu Viscountess Mandeville and future Duchess of Manchester. The viscountess was born Consuelo Yznaga, and Alva had known her since they were children growing up in the South during the heady days before the Civil War would shatter the world they knew.
For weeks people talked about nothing but the ball and it emerged that the doyenne of New York society Mrs William Backhouse (Caroline) Astor was not invited. The reason for this is because the two women had not been formally introduced and etiquette dictated that the more senior woman would call on her junior counterpart first then a reciprocal call would follow. After learning that her granddaughter was eager to be invited and had been hard at work on her dancing lessons, Mrs Astor made the first move followed by Mrs Vanderbilt and sure enough, an invitation to the ball appeared.
The farce above demonstrated how far the likes of Alva Vanderbilt were prepared to go to break into society, and having Mrs Astor call on her was a social triumph. But for the ambitious Alva, that wasn’t enough. She also began grooming her daughter Consuelo for a grand match: and that meant following in the footsteps of her godmother Lady Mandeville who finally became Duchess of Manchester in 1890.
Alva’s machinations are one of the many case studies chronicled by Anne de Courcy in her latest book, The Husband Hunters. Subtitled Social Climbing in London and New York, not only does it deal with the well-trodden path of analysing and chronicling the numerous American heiresses who traded dollars for a title and status, but also how their parents – especially the mothers – made it their life’s mission to break into the upper echelons of American and above all New York society.
By the 1870s America was experiencing an economic boom made possible by the end of the Civil War, industrialisation and population movement to the west in search of better work prospects especially in farming, mining, herding and railways among others. Many people rose from grinding poverty to wealth beyond their wildest dreams and soon began to acquire the trappings of wealth – mansions, yachts, trips abroad, jewellery, clothes, works of art and ostentatious entertaining. It was the period of the Gilded Age where luxury, vulgarity and ostentation were watchwords.
The old rich in places such as Boston, Philadelphia and especially New York City looked on these nouveau riche arrivistes in horror. To the old guard, wealth was not to be flaunted and should be balanced by good works and serving as a pillar to the community, but these newbies believed that social acceptance could be bought if the price was right, and de Courcy describes how this was all done.
New York society was especially difficult to penetrate and even more so under Caroline Astor, its self-styled doyenne. She was aided by Ward McAllister, a journalist who became her confidant and assisted her with planning her parties and balls. Through his journalism, he penned articles advising on behaviour, etiquette, dress and deportment but today he is best remembered for coining the myth of the “400” as a reference to the number of people who could fit into Mrs Astor’s famous ballroom and which became a byword for exclusivity. It became the goal for many a pushy social climber to break into its ranks because to be invited by Mrs Astor signalled social acceptance.
One roundabout way to secure that all important invitation was to marry off a daughter to an impoverished European aristocrat. The British were preferred – not only because of a common language but also due to the exclusivity of British titles. Thanks to primogeniture the pool of titled men (both for the peerage and baronetage) was smaller than their continental counterparts and to aristocrats in need of money the nouveau was less important than the riche. And this is precisely what happened: from the 1870s to 1910, a large percentage of the peerage married American heiresses and not even Mrs Astor would dream of snubbing a titled aristocrat and his American heiress wife.
De Courcy makes a convincing case for the appeal of the American heiress to cash-poor peers. Not only were they treated equally under American inheritance laws but they were perceived as lacking the airs and graces that were the hallmark of aristocratic society. Thanks to their father’s money, they had the best money could buy in terms of clothes, jewels and experience. Many of them were also well educated and well-travelled thus being more sophisticated, confident and more at ease in conversing with people. Others had quirks and traits that allowed them to break down social barriers such as Consuelo Duchess of Manchester who could play the banjo which enlivened many a house party or dinner.
However not all American heiresses were beautiful or sophisticated or intelligent. Looking at some of the photographs in the book, it is hard to believe that they would have turned heads by virtue of their looks. In the end, one can argue (and de Courcy does not shy away from saying) that money was the main deciding factor for these matches. If the heiress was intelligent, beautiful and talented it was seen as a bonus and an asset but these marriages were a straightforward exchange of status and cash. Happiness and compatibility were also not major concerns and unsurprisingly a lot of these transatlantic marriages were unhappy, with some ending in divorce.
While the travails and tribulations of the American heiress turned British aristocrat has been well trodden, De Courcy also trains her eye on their mothers. American society was matriarchal, the men might have made the fortunes that raised the family’s economic status but it was the women who used the money in order to cement the social standing that they believed should go hand in hand with their newfound wealth. The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” springs to mind as the women vied with each other to build bigger houses; acquire jewellery, works of art and paintings; wear the latest fashions and throw the most lavish balls of the season. The men were pretty much reduced to being human cash machines and had virtually no say when it came to family matters even with their daughters’ futures. It’s not surprising that many of these millionaires resorted to escaping from their own marriages metaphorically and literally.
The fierce competition and relentless ambition became too much but as the 1890s rolled along, the criticism became much more strident and as the United States became embroiled in an economic recession, the conspicuous consumption of these Gilded Age personalities left a bitter taste in the mouth. By the beginning of the twentieth century there was a backlash against these transatlantic marriages and as America increasingly began to play a role in international affairs, more and more people began to realise that they didn’t need aristocratic marriages for social validation.
De Courcy charts the rise and fall of the transatlantic marriage and social climbing phenomenon in thorough detail. In the end while the money the American heiresses brought into their marriages did save many a crumbling estate and some were the mothers to figures who made an impact in our history, in the long run their presence did not arrest the decline and fall of the British aristocracy. Instead they served as sticking plasters, delaying the inevitable but nonetheless nothing more than a short-lived social phenomenon.
One of the main displays in the current exhibition at Chatsworth House is about the Devonshire House Ball of 1897. The Great Chamber contains displays pertaining to the ball together with life sized images of some of the famous guests at the ball such as the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King George V and Queen Mary), Victor Cavendish (the future 9th Duke of Devonshire) and Mrs Arthur Paget, while next door in the State Drawing Room was a display of some costumes worn during that evening.
The ball was held at Devonshire House in Piccadilly, London on the 2nd of July, during the height of the London Season. What made this ball special was that it was held in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and as Deborah, the 11th Duchess observed, at a time when there were balls almost every night during the height of the Season, for a ball or event to stand out and generate interest, it had to be special. And indeed it was special – invitations were sent out and the dress code was “allegorical or historical costumes before 1815”. This was an encouragement to the guests to give their imaginations full rein for the costume that they planned to wear that evening.
The hosts of the ball were Spencer Compton Cavendish, 8th Duke of Devonshire and his German born wife Louise. The 8th Duke was a politician: as Marquess of Hartington he served as a Member of Parliament and a cabinet minister as a member of the Liberal Party. He also turned down the opportunity three times to become Prime Minister. By 1897 and now Duke of Devonshire, he was sitting in the House of Lords and had split with the Liberal Party over the issue of Irish Home Rule. With his personal life, the 8th Duke would have made a prime example of the saying “appearances can be deceiving” for his intellect and sense of duty was masked by a languid appearance and indifference towards the social side demanded of his position. He was known to be forgetful, shabbily dressed and had the habit of sleeping anywhere and everywhere. Once, finding the ministerial bench at the House of Lords fully occupied, he found another bench and promptly fell asleep. When he woke up and saw what time it was, he exclaimed, “Good heavens, what a bore, I shan’t be in bed for another seven hours.”
His appearance and bearing also masked a complicated personal life. A bachelor of many years standing, he carried on a long term affair with Louise Duchess of Manchester but during the 1860s was also involved with the noted courtesan Catherine (“Skittles”) Walters who was known for her prowess as an equestrienne and on the hunting field. The then Marquess of Hartington was smitten with her, provided her with a home in Mayfair and together was openly seen out and about in events such as the Derby. As Sophia Murphy observed that, Lord Hartington “made no secret of his love for her” but in the end their affair was mentioned in the papers (albeit in the form of coy blind items) and coupled with the weight of disapproval from the highest echelons of society, the affair ended, but he made sure that she was well provided for. Catherine for her part, left for France, only returning to Britain once memories of the affair had faded, and her discretion was rewarded by the Cavendish family who carried on forwarding the annual sum promised to her until her own death in 1920.
The main driving force behind the ball was Louise Duchess of Devonshire. Known as the “Double Duchess” because until only a few years before, she had been Duchess of Manchester. Born Louise von Alten, she was the daughter of a German count and in 1852 had married William Drogo Montagu Viscount Mandeville, heir to the Duke of Manchester. Three years later they became Duke and Duchess of Manchester. Beginning in the 1860s, she began an affair with Lord Hartington with the full connivance of her husband; their affair followed the usual pattern, it began long after she had provided her husband with the requisite sons to carry on the family line and was conducted discreetly among the whirl of dinners, balls, teas and shooting parties. Louise also maintained her dignity even when Hartington had other women and she never allowed her affair to threaten her own relationship with her husband. Such behaviour today would be seen as hypocritical but they scrupulously observed the rules governing their class and so long as those rules were observed there was no scandal and everything went smoothly.
Louise quickly assimilated into her adopted country and through her entertaining advanced the political careers of both husbands. Although all her life she identified with her first husband’s political party, the Conservatives, her circle of friends and acquaintances was politically diverse. She didn’t hesitate to ensure that her dinners and balls were filled with leading politicians, regardless of their political affiliations and persuasion; her objective was that her home should be a meeting place for politicians of all stripes where they could talk in a more relaxed atmosphere away from the pressures of Westminster. Above all, she wanted to be surrounded by people who were interesting and who she liked and to ensure that they had a good time.
She also gained a reputation for being a skilled political hostess who became a sounding board for leading politicians and statesmen, and although she was dismayed that the 8th Duke of Devonshire three times turned down the opportunity to become Prime Minister, his status and wealth as well as his ability meant that Louise could entertain in style and befitting their position in the social and political life of the country. Louise’s marriage to the 8th duke which finally happened in 1891 meant that her position was more secure. As Duchess of Devonshire, she was chatelaine of seven houses (Chatsworth, Devonshire House, Bolton Abbey, Lismore Castle, Hardwick Hall, Chiswick House, Compton Place) and had large funds at her disposal which meant that she had a wider scope for her social talents. Esther Simon Shkolink in her study of late Victorian and Edwardian political wives noted that contemporary accounts were more or less unanimous in their praise of Louise’s entertaining with her “charm and attentiveness as a hostess but also her careful attention to detail.” Her guest list was always eclectic and came from different political parties and social classes as the Devonshire House Ball would later demonstrate.
The Devonshire House Ball in honour of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was part and parcel of Louise’s pattern of entertaining. She and the Duke were fond of horse racing and annually held a dinner and a ball during and after Derby Day, regularly entertained the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) and gave lavish parties for special occasions, but the Diamond Jubilee gave Louise the idea to push the boat out – throw a ball but with a twist in the form of a fancy dress party.
Fancy dress balls had been a fixture at least since the sixteenth century; costumed masked balls were popular in Italy, particularly Venice, from where they spread to the rest of Europe. During the eighteenth century, they became popular at the various royal courts, especially in France, while in Britain costume masked balls were ticketed events held in pleasure gardens and assembly halls in major cities such as London and Bath. In these balls, attendees would usually be cloaked and masked (either with one covering half their face or one trimmed with silk or lace to cover the whole face) or dressed as characters from the past or from popular entertainment such as the commedia dell’arte. In the nineteenth century, theme balls became popular – Queen Victoria and Prince Albert threw three lavish themed costume balls during the 1840s and 1850s. The first was a medieval ball where the hosts and their guests were dressed in the style of the court of King Edward III; the second featured a Georgian theme while the last, held in 1851 had the court of Charles II as the subject. As Queen Victoria withdrew from social life following the death of Prince Albert, the mantle of royal entertaining passed onto her oldest son the Prince of Wales and his wife Alexandra, and during the 1870s they hosted a lavish costume ball at their London home Marlborough House which was heralded as a success and ensured the continued popularity of such events.
For her own ball, Louise decided that the theme would be “court or allegorical costumes before 1815” and as a later Duchess of Devonshire, Deborah mused in an article she wrote:
“It was not difficult for Louise Duchess to mobilise her female guests – they can have had little else to do but arrange themselves for such an occasion and one can easily picture the excitement and pleasure it gave. But even clever old Louise must have been surprised at managing to persuade a lot of middle-aged men to order their costumes and suffer the tedium of trying them on.”
Fortunately help was at hand. Due to the popularity of fancy dress balls, there was a plethora of books and specialist hire shops on hand to offer advice. One such book was entitled Fancy Dress Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls by Ardern Holt and it went through several editions. It gave descriptions of the most popular costumes which ranged from historical personalities to characters from fiction, myth and legend down to allegorical and national costumes from various parts of the world. In addition, the book also gave recommendations of what costumes would suit a particular hair colour, skin complexion and age.
The ball was eagerly anticipated and as Sophia Murphy observed that “[a]n invitation to the fancy dress ball confirmed membership of the ‘smart set’, and was therefore much sought after. Apart from this, everyone was eager to witness what promised to be one of the most lavish spectacles of the century; since it was the main subject of interest that season, everyone wanted to have the fun of trying to keep their outfits a secret while at the same time trying to discover what the others were wearing.” Many of the guests came together as a group and organise a procession and in the end five main groups or courts were organised: Elizabeth I of England which was led by Lady Tweedmouth; Maria Theresa of Austria under the Marchioness of Londonderry; Queen Guinevere & the Knights of the Round Table led by Lady Ormonde (she ended up being unable to attend due to bereavement so Lord and Lady Rodney went as King Arthur and Queen Guinevere); Louis XV & Louis XVI of France under Lady Warwick (as Marie Antoinette) and the court of Catherine the Great of Russia led by Lady Raincliffe.
Three other groups more loosely defined were categorised by the costumes they were wearing such as the Italian, Oriental and Allegorical. Many other guests however decided not to join any group or procession as they went in an assortment of costumes ranging from their ancestors to those modelled from famous paintings or historical figures that did not fit into any of the groups or courts organised. With her customary attention to detail and zeal, Louise planned everything down to the last detail and even the servants on duty were in costume – the men were dressed in in Devonshire livery from the 18th century while the female staff were dressed in costumes from the Elizabethan period. Due to the large number of guests, it was necessary to hire outside staff for the night and Louise had them dressed in either Egyptian or Elizabethan dress.
On the night of the ball, the guests were greeted by Louise herself and her costume was described by The Times in great detail:
“The Duchess of Devonshire, as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, wore a magnificent costume. The skirt of gold tissue was embroidered all over in a star-like design in emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, and other jewels outlined with gold, the corners where it opened in front being elaborately wrought in the same jewels and gold to represent peacocks outspread tails. This opened to show an underdress of cream crepe de chine, delicately embroidered in silver, gold, and pearls and sprinkled all over with diamonds. The train, which was attached to the shoulders by two slender points and was fastened at the waist with a large diamond ornament, was a green velvet of a lovely shade, and was superbly embroidered in Oriental designs introducing the lotus flower in rubies, sapphires, amethysts, emeralds, and diamonds, with four borderings on contrasting grounds, separated with gold cord. The train was lined with turquoise satin. The bodice was composed of gold tissue to match the skirt, and the front was of crepe de chine hidden with a stomacher of real diamonds, rubies and emeralds and jewelled belt. A gold crown incrusted (sic) with emeralds, diamonds, and rubies, with a diamond drop at each curved end and two upstanding white ostrich feathers in the middle, and round the front festoons of pearls with a large pear shaped pearl in the centre falling on the forehead.”
One of the guests Margot Asquith (wife of the future Prime Minister Herbert Asquith) expressed surprise at her host’s choice of costume. For her, Zenobia evoked beauty and romance but Louise in her view was neither. In her youth, Louise was known and praised for her beauty but as she grew older, her looks faded while her features became coarse and her figure grew rounder. As Duchess Deborah wrote: “The ‘Double Duchess’ was considered a great beauty, though with her frizzed up hair and short, thick neck it is hard to recognise her beauty in most of the likenesses we have of her. The people I have talked to who saw her only remember the crazily cracked make-up plastered thickly over her face, which made a bizarre effect on this grande dame receiving at the top of the staircase at Devonshire House.” Her costume was designed by the House of Worth and such was the skills of that venerable fashion house that they managed to make Louise a stately and imposing Queen of Palmyra rather than fat and coarse.
The Duke of Devonshire was dressed as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V based on his portrait by Titian and keeping up with his modest tastes, the Duke’s costume was simple and the only adornment was the badge of the Order of the Golden Fleece which had been lent to him by the Prince of Wales for the evening and which the duke wore around his neck.
Among the guests were Lady Randolph Churchill (nee Jennie Jerome) as the Empress Theodora, Mrs Arthur (Minnie) Paget went as Cleopatra, the Duchess of Sutherland was costumed as Jane Seymour, the former Prime Minister the 6th Earl of Rosebery who was dressed as a gentleman from the 18th century (he wasn’t amused when some of the papers said that he was costumed as Horace Walpole), Lord Rownton who went as an archbishop and Arthur Balfour (future Prime Minister) as a Dutch gentleman. The Cavendish family meanwhile was represented by the Duke’s nephew and heir Victor who was costumed as Jean de Dinteville from Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors while his wife Evelyn went as a lady from the court of Maria Theresa. Consuelo Duchess of Manchester, Louise’s daughter-in-law from her first marriage went as Anne of Austria “in a very striking gown of white and silver satin, decorated with swags of gold satin. On her head she wore a diamond crown with a large single pearl ornament in the centre of her forehead.”
As the ball was in honour of Queen Victoria (who did not attend), she was amply represented by members of her family. The Prince and Princess of Wales (who were costumed as a Grand Prior of the Order of St John of Jerusalem and Marguerite de Valois respectively) together with their children and in-laws attended as well as the Duke andDuchess of Teck and Prince Alfred of Edinburgh and Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Foreign diplomats such as the Portuguese ambassador the Marquis de Soveral (a close friend of the Prince of Wales) and the Austrian ambassador Count Albert Mensdorff were also present and it’s no wonder that with such a guest list, the Devonshire House Ball was seen as the event of the 1897 London Season.
Many guests did take much time and effort with their costumes. It was said that one guest who wore an Oriental dress wanted to make an entrance via an elephant and enquired London Zoo about the possibility of borrowing one. The zoo authorities however refused on the grounds that the elephant would be unable to cope with the crowds and traffic of London. One can simply conclude that she made her entrance via the usual horse and carriage. Others in their desire for accuracy and to stand out suffered through the evening with uncomfortable headdresses and props – such as the Hon Mrs Reginald Talbot who went as a Valkyrie and who developed a headache due to the metal winged helmet she was wearing but refused to take it off as it might ruin her hairdo. There was the Countess of Westmoreland costumed as Hebe cupbearer of the gods who was restricted with her movements the entire evening due to the huge stuffed eagle on her shoulder: while Lady Wolverton who attended as Britannia would have had to contend with not only a feathered helmet but also a triton and shield.
While some male guests such as Herbert Asquith went to the ball grudgingly and made little effort with their costumes, others threw themselves wholeheartedly into the spirit of wearing fancy dress sometimes with even more enthusiasm than their wives. One of the most expensive costumes was worn by the 9th duke of Marlborough who went as the French Ambassador in one of the courts. It was made by House of Worth, a confection of velvet embroidered in silver, pearls and diamonds with a waistcoat made out of white and gold damask. The whole costume was mostly embroidered by hand as well as the pearls and diamonds and cost 5,000 francs. As Jean Philippe Worth later recalled, even he was shocked by the bill as he presented it to the duke.
Outwardly the ball can be seen as the pinnacle of aristocratic dominance both in the political and social scene but in reality, the ball reflected the gradual changes happening in society. It was observed that society was “less clearly defined than it had been twenty years before” and the guest list reflected Louise’s wide circle of friends and acquaintances that crossed the political divide. More crucial however was the presence of men and women whose origins and occupation would have barred them from other aristocratic homes but who were invited to the Devonshire House ball while most of the aristocratic old guard were not. Examples of these were Ernest Cassel and Alfred Beit both of whom were Jewish and were in banking; the Earl of Iveagh and Lord Rothschild both of whom made their fortunes in commerce and finance; the actor Sir Henry Irving and the American born singer Mrs Ronalds who appropriately came as Euterpe, “the Spirit of Music” in a costume decorated with the musical score from Verdi’s opera Un Ballo in Maschera.
The ball in 1897 was the last major event held in Devonshire House and with the 8th Duke’s death in 1908 followed by Louise three years later marked the end of an era for the Devonshires. The 9th duke was faced with crippling death duties from his predecessor’s estate as well as debts from the 7th duke’s failed investments. In order to economise, the 9th duke accepted the position of Governor-General of Canada where he served from 1916 to 1922. While in Canada, negotiations for the sale of Devonshire House had begun and it was finally sold in 1920. Not long after the house was demolished and an office block now stands in its place.
The sale of Devonshire House showed that following the end of the First World War not even the grandest and wealthiest of the aristocracy were immune from the changes sweeping through the aristocracy as well as feeling the financial pinch. In the years following the sale and demolition of Devonshire House, other aristocratic townhouses were sold to be demolished, converted into office spaces or museums. At the same time, aristocratic entertaining also changed – many in the aristocracy could no longer afford to entertain on the same scale as their predecessors and balls and dinners were ceasing to become extensions of cabinet meetings and parliamentary sessions. The Devonshire House Ball of 1897 would certainly be the last of its kind and one that would never be repeated.
Photos from the House Style exhibition at Chatsworth House taken by blogger
Deborah (Cavendish) Duchess of Devonshire. Home to Roost and Other Peckings (London, 2009)
Deborah (Cavendish) Duchess of Devonshire. Chatsworth: The House (London, 2002)
Ardern Holt. Fancy Dress Described or What to Wear at Fancy Balls (London, 1881)
Sophia Murphy. The Duchess of Devonshire’s Ball (London, 1984)
Sophia Topley. ‘The Devonshire House Ball’ in Laura Burlington and Hamish Bowles (eds) House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth (New York, 2017) pp. 123-139
Esther Simon Shkolink. Leading Ladies: A Study of Eight Late Victorian and Edwardian Political Wives (New York and London, 1987)
David Cannadine. The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1990)
I first came across Chatsworth House while reading David Cannadine’s The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy and when I moved to the UK to do a postgraduate degree at the University of Manchester, one of the things on my list was to visit Chatsworth – which I finally did in 2006. I enjoyed my day trip so much that I resolved to return which I did in May this year, nearly 11 years after my first visit.
Known as the “Palace in the Peak” owing to its location and grandeur, Chatsworth House has been lived in by members of the Cavendish family since the sixteenth century. The present house stands on an earlier structure built by the formidable Elizabeth Hardwick (also known as “Bess of Hardwick”) and her second husband Sir William Cavendish and since then it has been the home of the Earls – later Dukes – of Devonshire and their family. Nothing much is left of the original Elizabethan structure and what took its place can be considered as one of the finest Baroque buildings in the country today. As the present Duke and Duchess wrote in their introduction to the visitor’s guidebook, “Chatsworth was built to welcome guests and to be seen” and the house has been open to visitors since the 1600s, welcoming visitors from all over Britain and then from all over the world. One noted visitor was a certain Jane Austen whose visit to Chatsworth would help inspire her best known novel – Pride and Prejudice.
There is so much to see and do at Chatsworth that one day is not enough. There are 30 rooms on the visitor route alone, each of them showcasing stupendous interiors, furniture and objects as well as a collection of art ranging from Old Masters to family portraits done by some of the biggest names in British art and modern and contemporary art collected by both the 11th and 12th dukes. And what has made this year’s visit even more memorable is a special exhibition that has been described as the “most ambitious to date.”
House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth, created and curated by the Countess of Burlington together with Vogue Editor Hamish Bowles looks at the history of the Cavendish family through the prism of fashion, with the exhibition spread throughout the visitor route of the house. Alongside actual clothes worn by various members of the family; there are accessories, jewellery, paintings, photographs, drawings and archival material. Various rooms feature clothes that would have been appropriate for their surroundings; for instance the chapel displays wedding gowns worn by Cavendish brides especially during the last 40 years, as well as christening dresses while the dining room features formal gowns and dresses that have been worn to balls and parties by various members of the family.
There is the wide diversity of fashion on display showing members of the family as trend setters – there is an emphasis on Georgiana wife of the 5th duke who during her lifetime was dubbed the “Empress of Fashion” and whose clothes and hairstyle were eagerly scrutinised and copied by other women. As a political hostess, she used her clothes to make a statement: most notably when she was campaigning for Charles James Fox where she was depicted in caricatures wearing a riding habit with a hat trimmed with blue and buff feathers shaped like a fox’s tail. The message was very clear and her riding habit with its masculine cut can be taken as an attempt to play her part in what was essentially a male sphere.
Several family members were also known for their personal style; Deborah wife to the 11th duke was both at ease with simple practical clothes and grand ball gowns particularly in the 1950s and 1960s when her husband was Lord Mayor of Buxton and a government minister. She was particularly fond of brooches and had a good collection most of them in the shape of insects which she would pin several on a jacket in one go. Andrew on the other hand, kept up with his ancestors’ frugal ways by insisting that his jackets be patched up and shoes be re-heeled and re-soled until they could no longer be worn. Also known for his sense of humour, he had a collection of several navy blue jumpers embroidered with colourful slogans such as “Never Marry A Mitford”, “Bollocks!”, “After All We’ve Been Through” and “Far Better Not”.
Other members of the family developed a reputation for being badly dressed, for instance the 10th duke was described by his one of his daughters-in-law as someone who “wore paper collars, did not possess an overcoat and would stand, oblivious of the weather, in the freezing wind on Chesterfield station in a threadbare London suit” while his cigarettes which he kept in his pockets resulted into blackened holes in his suits “which he would never dream of replacing.” It is no wonder that he was often mistaken as a tramp or a dustman by people who asked him for directions.
Another category of the exhibition features clothes from two members of the family who have worked in the fashion industry, first as models and presently as designers and buyers respectively. Two of the most striking clothes from this selection have been worn by Stella Tennant, the first being a “black wool, bias cut, polo neck dress” designed by Alexander McQueen and worn by Tennant to a British Vogue fashion editorial in 1993; and the other was a gown by John Galliano for Christian Dior created in 1998 and exhibited next to a portrait of Duchess Georgiana by Maria Cosway, showing how much Galliano during his tenure as head designer for Dior was very much influenced by eighteenth century fashions.
As this blog focuses on a particular time frame which spans the years 1870 to 1939, my main interests in the exhibition fell into the third category. These are the clothes associated with the public role of a Duke or Duchess of Devonshire. The centrepiece in the Painted Hall is the embroidered robe worn by both Duchess Evelyn and her daughter-in-law Duchess Mary in their capacity as Mistress of the Robes to the 1911, 1937 and 1953 coronations. Ever thrifty and resourceful, both duchesses had the robe patched up and repaired in 1937 and 1953, the former by recycling ermine from old clothes dating from the Edwardian period. However, the presence of two duchesses in 1953 presented a problem – Duchess Mary would wear the robe used by her mother-in-law but what of Duchess Deborah? In 1953, Britain was exhausted by the Second World War and punitive taxes and death duties meant that the Cavendish family wasn’t immune to the economies being made in order to meet these financial obligations. Ordering a new robe was out of the question but help came from an unlikely source – while rifling through old uniforms and livery that had been kept in storage, Deborah and her mother-in-law found a peeress’ robe that had been made and worn for the coronation of William IV in 1831. Owing to its out of date style which did not conform to the prescription laid out for the robes to be worn by each grade in the peerage, royal permission had to be sought and granted for the robes to be worn. This robe is also on display in the Painted Hall.
The Grotto contains uniforms worn by successive dukes, with the main focus being on the full court dress worn by the 9th duke and the robes of the Order of the Garter worn by successive dukes, the most recent being the 11th duke after being awarded with England’s highest order of chivalry in 1996. Next door along the chapel corridor are accessories, ephemera and photographs used as a time line to chronicle the life and times of the Cavendish family from Bess of Hardwick to the present. Of particular interest to me were Duchess Louise’s embroidered evening bag, a badge bearing Queen Mary’s portrait that denoted Duchess Evelyn’s position as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes and the frame of the Garter Star belonging to the 8th duke where the stones had been taken to make a diamond tiara for his wife. Again the accessories and ephemera tell us something of the person who owned and has worn them: from the gold locket containing her husband’s photograph that belonged to Kathleen Marchioness of Hartington to the chatelaine that was in Duchess Georgiana’s possession and a pair of slippers embroidered with the image of Elvis Presley that was one of the Duchess Deborah’s treasured objects.
My favourite however has to be the dresses on display worn for the 1897 Devonshire House Ball especially Duchess Louise’s costume as Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. Made by the House of Worth, the gold, ivory and emerald green gauze and velvet gown is a wonder even after 120 years and it was wonderful to see the fine detail and colour of the gown considering I have only seen it previously in black and white photographs.
After going round the exhibition twice, it was time to go for a stroll round the gardens. It had just rained so everything looked even more lush and green. Chatsworth’s gardens like the house are also world renowned and reflects the changing times and fashion with regards to garden designs. Whilst parts of the Baroque gardens survive, much of it today is based on the more naturalistic designs by William Kent and Lancelot “Capability” Brown during the 18th century and Joseph Paxton during the 19th. Since the 1950s when the 11th duke and duchess took up residence at Chatsworth, more improvements and work has gone into the garden and the modern sculpture dotted around were an excellent focal and talking point. The fountains of course are a sight to behold especially with the famous cascade and the Emperor fountain.
Before I knew it, it was nearly time to close and there wasn’t much time to explore the rest of the gardens. A return visit in the near future is certainly on the cards but hopefully I won’t have to wait for another eleven years.
When visited: 19 May 2017
Photos taken by blogger
House Style: Five Centuries of Fashion at Chatsworth is on until 22 October 2017 and is included in the admission ticket to the house. For more information, please go to https://www.chatsworth.org/events/house-style/
There was a time when the aristocracy dominated the social landscape and set the tone for the rest of society to follow. However, while their grip on society was challenged by the new rich both in the UK and the US, between the wars their comings and goings and activities were still reported by the press and society hostesses just like their predecessors entertained on a lavish scale with their events graced by people who mattered.
Six of these interwar society hostesses are the subject of a book by Sian Evans: Nancy Lady Astor, the first woman to sit in Parliament; the Hon Mrs Ronald Greville (nee Margaret Anderson); Edith Lady Londonderry; Sibyl Lady Colefax; Maud (later Emerald) Lady Cunard and Mrs Laura Corrigan. The backgrounds of these women were as diverse as the people they entertained – three of the so-called Queen Bees were American while Sibyl Colefax came from a middle class background. Edith Londonderry on the other hand came from an aristocratic family while Margaret Greville was the illegitimate daughter of a brewing magnate turned Member of Parliament.
The diversity of their backgrounds characterised the change happening in society where birth increasingly didn’t matter – Maud Cunard and Laura Corrigan came from working class stock while Nancy Astor and Sibyl Colefax were middle class and a huge question mark hovered over Margaret Greville’s parentage especially who her father really was. Each of these women managed to make their way through society through marriage, calculation and chutzpah. Having money helped too especially in the case of Mrs Greville and Mrs Corrigan whose funds came from the brewery and steel business respectively. And while their paths would have crossed, each of the hostesses had their own “crowd” with both Nancy Astor and Edith Londonderry entertaining politicians, while Margaret Greville courted royalty (she had selected the Duke of York to inherit her country estate Polesden Lacey), and Maud Cunard through her affair with the noted conductor Sir Thomas Beecham championed classical music particularly opera. Sibyl Colefax was drawn to writers and artists and Laura Corrigan preferred the Bright Young Things and ferocious social climbing.
Rather than give each woman her own chapter, Evans prefers to lump them as a group and while this is useful in order to have the narrative in chronological order, the number of names can be overwhelming and in the end it can be rather confusing as the narrative jumps from one Queen Bee to the next and back again. The main strength of the book is the interesting details and anecdotes such as for instance Nancy Astor’s legendary spats with Winston Churchill where on one occasion she told Churchill that if she was his wife, she would put poison on his coffee. To which the future prime minister retorted, “And if I was your husband, I would gladly drink it.”
That same bitchiness could be seen with Margaret Greville. On holiday in France, Greville and her “frenemy” Grace Vanderbilt suffered a car crash which injured the chauffeur and ended up stranded in the forest of Fontainebleau. While Greville thought that they should flag down the next passing driver in order to get the chauffeur to the nearest hospital, Vanderbilt wasn’t convinced: “But supposing we were to be taken for two cocottes?” Back came Greville’s crisp reply, “I think, my dear, that we may take that risk.”
There were also Laura Corrigan’s desperate attempts to ingratiate herself into society. Snubbed in the US for her plebeian origins, she headed to Britain where the millions she inherited from her late husband meant that she could entertain in a way that many in British society could no longer afford. While society eagerly flocked to her parties, behind her back they sniggered at her appearance (all flamboyant wigs and heavy make-up) and her lack of intellect, and there was a jibe going round society that on a quiet night all that could be heard was Mrs Corrigan climbing. However, Corrigan had nothing on Sibyl Colefax who was the inspiration for Mary Borden’s short story entitled “To Meet Jesus Christ”, about a hostess who invites the Son of God as the guest of honour to one of her dinner parties. Just as with Corrigan, people enthusiastically accepted Colefax’s hospitality but some couldn’t resist playing practical jokes at her expense. One of them had someone invite Colefax to “meet the P of W”, who turned out to be the Provost of Worcester College rather than the Prince of Wales she was expecting.
Although filled with interesting detail and anecdotes, Queen Bees makes exaggerated claims about the women’s importance. While it’s true that their parties and events made it to the papers, today one is hard pressed to name who they were much less any of their achievements and contributions they made. Despite Astor and Londonderry’s work with the poor and the marginalised as well as Colefax’s success in her career and helping turn interior decorating into a respected profession, the snobbishness, vacuousness and desperation to keep the status quo exhibited by the Queen Bees makes a mockery of Evans’ claim that they had a “profound effect on British history” and helped bring about “social revolution”. It was nothing of the sort but unsurprisingly these women would have been labouring under the delusion that they had political influence and could bend the will of politicians and statesmen with champagne, cocktails and weekends in country estates.
And this delusion led these women to flirt with appeasement, Fascism and Nazism – Nancy Astor and her so-called “Cliveden Set” were pro-appeasement while Margaret Greville, Edith Londonderry and Emerald Cunard were enthusiastic admirers of Mussolini and Hitler; the former two lavishly entertained the German ambassador to Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop and members of the Nazi high command such as Hermann Goering. In return both Greville and Londonderry were invited to Germany and were Hitler’s guests of honour at various Nazi party events such as the infamous rallies at Nuremberg. Only Sibyl Colefax refused to jump on the bandwagon of toadying up to Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Always more left leaning and progressive than her fellow Queen Bees, Colefax saw through the Nazi Party’s real motivations and actively refused to socialise with their representatives.
None of the women end up likeable or sympathetic save for Colefax – mostly for her efforts to turn interior design into a proper profession and serving an example for upper class and upper middle class women that it was acceptable to work and have a career as well as her principled stand for what she believed in. In the end however, despite Evans’ claim, these women never did have a “profound effect on British history”, they were simply entertainment fodder for the masses and nothing else, and today are largely forgotten except as footnotes in the social history of the 1930s.
The transatlantic marriage phenomenon – whereby cash strapped British aristocrats married the daughters of American nouveau riche families – has been the subject of novels (The Buccaneers by Edith Wharton and My Last Duchess by Daisy Goodwin to name a few), period drama (Downton Abbey) as well as academic and popular studies from the likes of Maureen E. Montgomery and Charles Jennings. Studies on the British aristocracy from the likes of David Cannadine have also touched on this occurrence. The latest comes from journalist Julie Ferry with The Transatlantic Marriage Bureau.
Subtitled “Husband Hunting during the Gilded Age”, Ferry examines the motivations and objectives of American heiresses and their families in crossing the Atlantic to find husbands. Her book focuses on the year 1895 which has been generally characterised as the apogee of the transatlantic marriage phenomenon. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s eventual marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough is the linchpin of this narrative and the main focus is on how this marriage came about. And a love match this wasn’t, it was arranged for all intents and purposes with a great deal of calculation, chutzpah, planning, even threats and bullying by Consuelo’s mother Alva Erskine Smith, herself from an old Southern family who lost their money in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Her marriage to William Kissam Vanderbilt, a member of a wealthy family who made their fortune in the railways, bought her wealth but not the social acceptance that she also craved. The Vanderbilts were shunned by New York society for making their money in trade and in order to be accepted by the so-called “400,” Alva planned her assault on society carefully. She persuaded her husband to build Marble Hall, which was to be their summer home in Newport; threw lavish dinners and balls; was seen at the right parties and public spaces and carefully cultivated friends and allies who could help her conquer society and secure the approval of the ultimate arbiter of New York society – Mrs Astor. Despite her efforts, she knew that the best way to secure this entrée to society was through her daughter Consuelo making a socially advantageous match. And not just any husband but a titled one – preferably British – and not just titled but a duke.
Alva turned to two friends to make this dream come true – Mrs Arthur Paget and the Duchess of Manchester who happened to be Consuelo’s godmother. Born Minnie Stevens and Consuelo Yznaga respectively, both women were part of the first wave of American heiresses to marry into the British aristocracy and through their beauty, charm and novelty managed to gain acceptance into society through their friendship with Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. Being part of the Marlborough House set placed Minnie and Consuelo in a unique place. Ensconced firmly in the bosom of high society in Britain, they were in an ideal position to help Alva Vanderbilt and other pushy nouveaux riche mothers who were determined to marry off their daughters into the British aristocracy in the teeth of opposition from home grown heiresses and their match making mothers. The American heiresses and their mothers were advised on what to wear, where to rent a house for the season and how to navigate the complex etiquette and rules governing society. Minnie and Consuelo also hosted teas and dinners at their homes so that their fellow Americans could be introduced to eligible bachelors and their families.
Both women were rewarded handsomely for their efforts. It was seen as vulgar to exchange cash outright but gifts, generous discounts and settled bills certainly eased any financial difficulties that Minnie and Consuelo encountered. Helping broker these marriages allowed Minnie Paget and Consuelo Manchester to live and entertain in the lifestyle they were accustomed to and that was expected of the class they married into.
While the book isn’t exactly large, it’s packed with loads of details. Ferry charts the history behind the growth of society in America especially after the Civil War and how a system developed in order to regulate the flow of newcomers who wanted to break into established society. The rules were rigid and those who were unable to penetrate the likes of the New York Four Hundred headed to Europe where the cash-strapped aristocracy, despite prejudices against Americans, were prepared to welcome these interlopers because of the wealth they could bring to shore up their bankrupt and dilapidated estates.
Ferry also delved into newspapers and magazines of the period to demonstrate how these new rich arrivistes became the celebrities in their day. Their activities, homes, clothes, jewels and even their scandals were reported and commented upon: which horrified the old guard and traditional society who believed in thrift, modesty and propriety. Then as now, the papers were not averse to sensationalising stories, while some were embellished in order provide a talking point, other stories were outright lies and fabrication.
The result of these transatlantic marriages was mixed. While there were some who found love and happiness, others simply jogged on for the sake of family and duty. There were couples however who couldn’t simply maintain appearances and in the end decided on a separation or heaven forbid a divorce. The Marlboroughs were an example, after providing her husband with two sons to secure the family line, Consuelo and “Sunny” Marlborough began to lead increasingly separate lives and affairs on both sides led to a formal separation in 1906 and finally divorce in 1921. By the early 1900s, it was clear also that the novelty of marrying American heiresses was wearing off and even in America itself there had long been a backlash against their citizens marrying into the British aristocracy.
The book contains no new or ground breaking research but it makes a good introductory read to an era in history where the British aristocracy attempted to arrest their decline by looking across the ocean for that injection of cash while the American new rich were hungry for social validation. In the end, it proved to be a chimera – the decline of the aristocracy was irreversible while growing influence abroad would make Americans realise that they didn’t need coronets and titles to be accepted.
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.
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)