How did wedding gowns of English queens and princesses look like in the 19th and 20th centuries? What did they show to the public? And what about modern royal wedding dresses? Dr. Joanna Marschner, Senior Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, will tell us many curious things about these bridal outfits. Also, let’s enjoy the beauty of English royal wedding gowns.
The choice of dress for a wedding shows in a really interesting way changing attitudes to royal marriage itself. Going back through history, it was a matter of foreign policy. These marriages anchored political alliances and diplomatic settlements and, in that way, the wedding dress could so often reflect just the importance of that transaction for the nation. The dresses are gold and silver – they represent money, they represent wealth, they're showing-off dresses.
We can still see that in Princess Charlotte's dress here (Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales – 1796-1817).
Bridal dress of Princess Charlotte
What's really interesting is, if you compare Charlotte's little silver dress with the dress worn by her younger cousin Queen Victoria (1819-1901) – Victoria is already Queen when she is married and she realizes, as a clever young woman, that marriage has been used as a political tool so often. And she didn't want that to be a factor on her wedding day. You can see that reflect in her diary, where there's a little note: “They talked about my wearing my robes that means the big red velvet coronation robe trimmed with ermine, but I thought not”. She was very clear: this is a personal transaction. And she designs a dress which steps over that mark into the kind of wedding dress that any well-brought-up young girl in this country could begin to aspire to. And so, royal weddings begin to be that kind of aspirational thing.
Royal wedding dresses have always been message-givers, or royal brides have looked to the gifts that their generation, their era can provide for them. Even the simplest of the dresses that are here is absolutely replete with message.
Wedding dress of Queen Victoria, decorated with English lace
First of all, it's made out of an English silk – it was woven in Spitalfields in East London. It's decorated with English lace. And that was a special commission, it was a well-publicized commission from the towns of West Country. So, Victoria, on her wedding day, was actually shouting loud about things that Britain was really good at.
This was our tradition, then followed by Victoria's successors: Alexandra's (Alexandra of Denmark – 1844-1925) dress was also decorated with English lace. In fact, she had come from Denmark with the present of a dress which should be made out of Brussels lace, but that was not going to be the thing. It was really important again that this was a British dress.
Wedding gown of Alexandra of Denmark, decorated with English lace
And the same goes with the dress which was worn by Princess May, later Queen Mary (Mary of Teck – 1867-1953). There are wonderful images of May and her mother sitting there with manufacturers from all over the British Isles, coming with their products, and the making of very careful and very diplomatic selection, just so that it can be seen that as a royal bride and indeed potentially a future Queen, is that she has done this very, very well and fairly.
Wedding dress of Princess May, later Queen Mary
The 20th-century dresses show just how important it was to get the message right. There had been two world wars by the time Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II – 1926-present) married her prince – Prince Philip of Greece. It was a desperately austere time in British history, and many of the options that have been available to Princess Elizabeth’s predecessors just weren't there. And Princess Elizabeth and her dress designer Norman Hartnell, in fact, took a very different inspiration for their dress. Norman Hartnell found the painting by Botticelli of Primavera and for him and for the princess, that was a far more powerful an important story to be telling. This was going to be a dress which actually signaled a rejuvenation, it was a dress which was a sign for better things to come.
Wedding gown of Princess Elizabeth, now Queen Elizabeth II
If you were Princess Elizabeth’s little sister Princess Margaret (1930-2002), you could actually be far more imaginative, you could follow fashion, your dress didn't have to have that political message, that weight.
Bridal dress of Princess Margaret
Princess Elizabeth’s dress was designed by Norman Hartnell. Norman Hartnell also designed the dress for her sister Princess Margaret. It was John Cavanagh, another young and very skillful couturier, who comes in to design the dresses worn by Princess Alexandra of Kent (member of the British royal family – 1936-present) and Katherine Worsley (member of the British royal family – 1933-present) who marries the Duke of Kent in the 1960s. And then, of course, this moves into present times. We have David and Elizabeth Emanuel for Diana, Princess of Wales (1961-1997), and so on.
But it's not until the 1930s that we begin to see the royal family here patronizing these stellar figures within the fashion world.
Wedding gowns of Princess Charlotte, Alexandra of Denmark, and Princess May
The mass media has an enormous impact – the dresses have had to kind of grow, as the media expectation has grown. Television cameras in Westminster Abbey have meant that those dresses are going to have to live up to those venues and indeed have the sort of design excellence to bear the infinite scrutiny. The dresses are big. The dresses are showing. The dresses still have their important message to make. And this is something that has been celebrated, it is talked about, it is debated, it is the stuff for our newspapers today.