Evolution of the Royal Wedding Dress

Posted by Shazy on Saturday, April 30, 2011

Evolution of the Royal Wedding Dress
These Historic Gowns Weren't Just Fashion Statements
Royal Wedding Dress as Symbol
Until Friday morning, probably the biggest mystery surrounding the latest British royal wedding was who designed Kate Middleton's wedding dress.

But when the future Queen Elizabeth II (pictured) walked down the aisle in London's Westminster Abbey in 1947, her wedding dress was more than a fashion statement: It represented the hopes of a nation, according to royal wedding gown curator Joanna Marschner.

With food and clothing still being rationed in postwar Britain, royal dressmaker Norman Hartnell sought to convey a message of national renewal, instead of focusing on opulent materials. He did this in part by embroidering the gown with garlands of spring flowers.

"It is a dress with a message for that particular moment in time," said Marschner, of Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity that acts as caretaker for five British royal buildings.

"I think you can say that about all the royal wedding dresses—they have become amazing documents that can say a lot about the year when they were worn."
Thoroughly Modern Middleton?
Only time will tell what Kate Middleton's wedding dress—pictured during her Friday wedding to Prince William—really says about its time and place. But, despite its modern design, the dress clearly sounds themes of some historic British royal wedding gowns.

Like her new mother-in-law's 1947 wedding dress, Middleton's blooms with flora, including embroidered roses, thistles, daffodils, and shamrocks—which might be seen as signs of spring for Britain's stagnant economy. Some U.K. leaders, including Prime Minister David Cameron, who's called the wedding "unadulterated good news," have voiced hopes that the nuptials will provide an extended influx of tourist dollars, according to the Reuters news service.

And like Queen Victoria's 1840 gown, Middleton's does its bit to boost British industry. The handmade lace hails from the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace, for example. And the new Duchess of Cambridge chose a British fashion house, Alexander McQueen, to design the dress—in part because of the brand's "craftsmanship and its respect for traditional workmanship and the technical construction of clothing," according to a statement on the official wedding website.
Springtime for Britain and Royalty?
The royal wedding dress of the future Queen Elizabeth II, worn during her marriage to Philip Mountbatten in 1947, is an important document of postwar Britain, according to royal wedding dress curator Marschner.

With the country still suffering from the human and economic costs of World War II, "the idea behind the dress is all important, because it's a dress for promise for the future, for better times to come," she said.

With that in mind, royal wedding dress designer Hartnell took as his inspiration the Botticelli painting "Allegory of Spring"—despite the wedding's November date.
Once More Into the Bleach
Worn for her wedding to the future King George V in 1893, Princess Mary of Teck's royal wedding dress belongs to a collection of royal wedding gowns kept at Kensington Palace in London.

During the 19th century British royal brides switched from opulent wedding dresses made with gold and silver textiles—almost advertisements of Britain's wealth and power—to simpler, more common white bridal outfits.

Pale or white wedding dresses had long been worn by wealthier commoners, royal wedding dress curator Marschner explained.

"The lower down the social system you were, the darker color you would wear, because it was harder to keep—or employ someone else to keep—your dress clean," she said.

The white-wedding trend among royals was started by King George's grandmother, Queen Victoria, whose decision to adopt the example of her subjects "marked a watershed in royal bridal fashion," Marschner said.
Royal Wedding as Public Pageant
Queen Victoria's newlywed daughter, Princess Beatrice, poses for a wedding snapshot with Prince Henry of Battenberg in 1885.

In earlier centuries royal weddings were largely private, governmental matters arranged among the Europe's royal families. But in the 19th century, the growth of print media and photography helped fuel public interest in the royal wedding dresses.

Reports of Queen Victoria's wedding in 1840 "went to all the colonial regions of the British Empire. Within … a month it was in the all the U.S. newspapers," commented Paula Richter, a curator at the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts.

"She married as the age of photography was beginning—there are quite a number of royal portraits done of the ceremony or of her wearing her garments … many people had a visual sense of that wedding," Richter said.
Nice Century for a White Wedding
When Queen Victoria tied the knot with Prince Albert in 1840, as shown in a period illustration, her choice of dress showed she approached her wedding day very differently to previous royal brides.

"All her advisers were suggesting red velvet robes and ermine and all the grand things of that earlier tradition," royal wedding dress curator Marschner said.

But Victoria, who wanted her marriage to be a personal event, not a political one, rejected royal protocol and opted instead for a simple—by royal standards of the era—ivory satin dress.

"It was the kind of dress well-brought-up girls up and down the country would wear," Marschner said.

"It may not be the first white wedding dress, but it is the first royal example," she added. "It made royal wedding fashions achievable for the general public."

Richter, of the Peabody Essex Museum, added the Queen Victoria's wedding "was as influential as Princess Diana's wedding in the early 1980s," in part due to Victoria's more accessible take on the royal wedding.
Made in Britain
Queen Victoria "saw it as her business to promote things British," and her wedding dress (sleeve pictured) was a perfect opportunity, royal wedding dress curator Marschner said.

Exploiting the worldwide media attention her wedding received, Victoria had the dress made from silk woven in East London and decorated with lace produced in southwestern England.

"Victoria on her wedding day was shouting loud about things that Britain was really good at," Marschner said.

Currently undergoing conservation work, Queen Victoria's wedding dress will go on display in 2012 in London's Kensington Palace—the potential future home of Prince William and Kate Middleton after their Friday wedding.
Last in a Royal Line
Shot through with silver thread, the wedding dress worn in 1816 by Princess Charlotte—only child of the future King George IV—is the last in a centuries-old line of royal wedding gowns made of precious materials.

"It's the last of the great big, expensive, showy dresses that survived in its entirety," said Marschner, the royal wedding dress curator.

Sadly, Princess Charlotte died in childbirth the year following her marriage to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg.
Power Couple
While Prince William and Kate Middleton—who met about ten years ago in college—have had plenty of time to get to know each other before their wedding, Queen Mary I of England and Prince Philip of Spain (pictured) married two days after they'd met in 1554.

From medieval times to the 19th century, royal marriages were political unions, not fairy tale romances, and royal brides dressed accordingly, said royal wedding dress curator Marschner.

"They wore dresses made of precious gold and silver textiles to represent the status and the dignity of their nation," she said.

"Wearing something that was really precious, really striking, was important," Marschner added. "They were playing their part in the great game of international politics."