A few days ago I visited the Fashion Museum, Bath. They are currently running an exhibition of royal women’s fashion, including the wedding dress of Edward VII’s Queen Consort, Alexandra. It opened at the beginning of February and will remain on display until 28 April 2019. It was a must-see event for me and if you’ve previously read my post on the exhibition at Kensington Palace, Diana: her Fashion Story, you’ll know I like a bit of royal sartorial elegance.
The Fashion Museum houses one of the world’s great collections of historical dress, according to the guide Royal Women, and it’s easy to see when entering the darkened exhibit rooms that their acquisitions are both impressive and extensive.
For this exhibition, they have focused on four royal women who were never monarchs, but ‘were close to the throne – a wife or sister of a monarch’. Items shown are from their collections or have been loaned from the Royal Collection with permission from Her Majesty the Queen.
Danish Princess Alexandra was the wife of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, son of Queen Victoria. Bertie, as he was known, was not the most impressive of husbands and had mistresses that included the present Duchess of Cornwall’s great-grandmother. However, Alexandra bore her husband’s philandering with good grace. She was hugely popular with the public, to the extent that she was widely imitated, including a slight limp that she had as a result of a childhood illness.
She disliked the wide crinolines of the day and preferred a more fitted silhouette that can be seen in the clothes on display. She also introduced the fashion for high-necked items for daywear, most likely as she was trying to conceal a childhood scar. For evenings she would use jewellery for the same effect, starting a trend for chokers to be worn around the neck.
As I write this post, it is 155 years to the day that Alexandra wore her wedding dress, 10 March 1863. Her silk dress was exquisitely decorated in Honiton bobbin lace and sprays of roses, shamrocks and thistles, representing England, Ireland and Scotland. Today, without much of the lace and decorative flowers it is hard to tell that it is the same dress. Age has discoloured it, nevertheless, it remains a recognisable wedding gown complete with train. Its pared down shape reflected Alexandra’s own style and towards the late 1860s fashion evolved with the wide hoops of crinolines being replaced by more defined tailoring like the beloved Princess of Wales preferred.
Alexandra used fashion to convey messages much like royal women do today. The tartan dress below was made by Madame Elise, a name that suggested French origins but was in fact a London firm run by a Mr and Mrs Isaacson who had earned a Royal Warrant from Alexandra. The dress is thought to have been worn at the Palace of Holyrood House, Edinburgh.
When her son Albert died in 1892, Alexandra went into mourning and rather than wear the unpopular black that Queen Victoria had favoured from when her husband Prince Albert had died in 1861 she opted to wear half-mourning, including lighter shades of purple, yellow, grey and pink for the rest of her life, contrasting with the bright colours that she’d previously worn as a royal wife.
The lilac watered silk dress with velvet, lace and pearl trimmings above left, is from 1863. The pearls were added for display purposes according to museum practices at the time, after its donation in the 1960s.
The purple silk chiffon dress, above right, is from 1910 and reflects a more regal and lavishly decorated style that Alexandra veered towards after her husband’s accession to the throne. She had become increasingly deaf and at this time her choices of even more luxurious fabrics and richer embellishments may have been to shield her from much public engagement, as her regality maybe limited close proximity, something that she possibly found problematic.
Princess Mary of Teck (a German title) was born in Kensington Palace. Mary was engaged to Alexandra and Prince Albert’s eldest son, Albert Victor, in December 1891, but six weeks after their engagement, Albert Victor died of influenza. In July 1893 she married Albert Victor’s younger brother George. Together they would reign for twenty-six years.
Queen Mary reigned through the turmoil of the Great War and differing from Alexandra, exclusively wore British designs. Tall and elegant, she was supremely regal in her dress and favoured tailored suits and three-quarter length coats during the day and beaded gowns of an evening.
She wore this gold lamé and turquoise velvet Norman Hartnell gown (below) for her granddaughter, Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to Phillip Mountbatten in November 1947. Originally the gown was long-sleeved and it was subsequently altered demonstrating the paradoxical frugality of royalty who like to re-use favourite items. I think, as it looks today, that it would not be out of place in the wardrobe of the Duchess of Cornwall.
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother
Elizabeth, Queen Consort to King George VI was the present Queen’s mother. Her title as Dowager Queen was instantly homely, motherly and gives the impression of a more matronly figure than fashion forward royal female. However, the chosen image for the exhibition is a profile of a younger Elizabeth epitomising royal beauty and glamour. She was a patron of Norman Hartnell and loved fashion. Described as having a ‘sparkling’ personality she mirrored this in her choice of evening wear, opting for designs that would shimmer as she moved, gowns that were adorned in sequins and Swarovski crystals.
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was short in stature and so made up her lack of height with high heels and hats to elongate the frame. She was bright and vivacious and liked her clothes to reflect that part of her personality.
Originally, the Museum of Costume was based at Eridge Castle, Kent, and was opened by the Queen Mother in 1955. When the museum moved to its present site she loaned the dress worn by Queen Mary at Queen Elizabeth II’s marriage and a couple of Norman Hartnell gowns of her own. Norman Hartnell was the go-to designer for the royals during this period. He had been introduced to the Queen Mother in 1935 when she was still the Duchess of York. He made gowns for Queen Mary, the Queen Mother, Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret. During the 1950s he employed 500 staff; seamstresses, embroiderers and cutters to complete his intricate designs.
The grey silk satin evening dress below is on loan from Her Majesty the Queen. It was worn on a visit to New York and is decorated with beads, mother of pearl, sequins and diamantés. It is lavishly decorated in Swarovski crystals, in their first and most popular Article No.1 design.
Princess Margaret, unrestrained by reigning as monarch or consort, had a wider fashion circle to choose from and could experiment with European designers. She adored Christian Dior’s style and was in return, adored back. Christian Dior said of Margaret; ‘she is a real fairy princess, delicate and exquisite’. The cream chiffon day dress pictured, from 1952, is the first of Margaret’s fashions to be exhibited. Margaret’s Hollywood star beauty and freedom to express herself by wearing on-trend designs resulted in many newspaper headlines and was called ‘The Margaret Look’.
This black and pink Norman Hartnell dress, below left, was worn to a West End performance of Guys and Dolls just weeks after the scandal broke of her affair with her late father’s equerry, Group Captain Peter Townsend. Margaret was glamorously defiant in the centre of intense media speculation.
Princess Margaret donated the black and pink Hartnell dress to the Fashion Museum along with the other items of hers in its collection. In the 1980s she invited curators to Kensington Palace to take a look at several dresses and to choose what they wanted – they chose them all!
Countess of Wessex
My one gripe about the exhibition is the inclusion of Sophie, Countess of Wessex, wife of Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex. I’m not saying that she shouldn’t be there, on the contrary she has earned her stripes for ‘The Firm’. However, it seems like an afterthought. There is only one outfit of hers exhibited and there is no real need for her to be there if the narrative is one of wives and daughter of monarchs. Why not add her to the list of royal women in the programme? After all she is the daughter-in-law of a monarch.
According to Royal Women, Sophie ‘represents the next generation and as daughter-in-law to the Queen she has a prominent role on the international stage’ and is Patron for over seventy charitable organisations. She, we are told, has a particular connection to the West Country and is Vice-President of the Royal Bath and West of England Society.
The outfit was personally chosen for the exhibition by the Countess and is an elegant ensemble by British designer Bruce Oldfield; an ecru silk jacket with embellished sleeves and matching skirt and clutch bag. Oldfield has designed day and evening wear for royal women since the 1980s. It was Sophie’s choice for the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in April 2011.
As a modern royal woman, Sophie’s style embodies the facets needed for a working wardrobe; smart suits, comfortable day dresses, glamorous evening wear, something to get you noticed but equally practical. With many examples to choose from her eighteen years as a royal wife, I think it is a shame that the exhibition does not show one or two more such outfits of Sophie’s.
Images author’s own unless stated.
Royal Women Alexandra, Mary, Elizabeth, Margaret: Public Life Personal Style, Jarrold Publishing, 2018