In Good Times and in Bad: The Royal Wedding Dress as a Representation of British Culture

Throughout history, royal wedding dresses have played a crucial role in representing nations, political alliances, the mood of the era and changing attitudes towards the institution of marriage. Rather than being timeless, royal wedding dresses are like time capsules, communicating messages that are important and unique to their era. The choice of embroidery, the physical material of the garment and the styling all are working to communicate a message. As pieces of fashion, royal wedding gowns both mirror and set the trends of the day. Royal wedding dresses have always been message givers and by looking specifically at the history of British royal wedding gowns, we can see different messages communicated through different eras. In the 18th century, ornate royal wedding dresses made of gold and silver metal thread communicated the vast wealth of the family and their superior social standing. The relaxing of strict laws and liberation of women throughout the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in more individualized styles of wedding dresses. As recent examples have shown, the dresses have had to literally grow as the media attention has grown. The dresses now have to live up to the venue and be able to bear infinite scrutiny. Wedding dresses in general represent a pivotal moment in a woman’s life, but the royal wedding dress in particular is charged with political and national significance, making them important documents in cultural history. Royal wedding dresses act as visual messages layered with meaning, representing the hopes, realities and attitudes of a nation at a particular point in history through the dress’s ornamentation, size and color.

The Wedding Dress as Symbol of Royal Wealth and Splendor

Reaching back to medieval times, royal marriages were of great political importance and symbolized the sealing of alliances between two countries. Thus, it was necessary for the young bride’s dress to look spectacular and uphold the prestige of her country. Her dress had to convey the message that she, and by extension her entire country, was wealthy. Medieval dresses were strategic exhibitions of awe-inspiring splendor, dynastic power and state allegiances. They did this with sumptuous and costly fabrics fabrics like damask, silk, satin and fur, rich detailing and especially extravagant jewels. Dresses were not white, they were produced by the rarest dyes in dark jewel tones of true black, red and purple, which symbolized the ability of the family to afford the costliest colors.

From 1700-90, aristocratic and royal brides chose to wear silver and white dresses as clothes made of white silk were difficult to keep clean and had limited usefulness, making them a luxury item. Middle class women would often re-wear their wedding dresses so the royal bride wearing a white dress represented her ability to afford to wear a dress only once. In their essay on The Language of Personal Adornment, Mary Ellem Roach and Joanne Bubolz Eicher contend that “all aesthetic acts are acts of speaking” (109) and that acquiring the most expensive clothing is often a way of achieving differentiation through rarity, which usually commands social admiration” (111). Royal wedding dresses in all their splendor, reinforce social roles, distinguish the powerful from the weak and the rich from the poor. In the 1761 marriage of George III to Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, etiquette demanded that the foreign-born bride discard the clothes of her homeland and wear wedding clothes made in London and in the London style. This act of discarding the style of her homeland and assuming the style of her new nation represented her commitment and the unity of the couple. For her wedding, she wore a stiff-bodied gown of silver tissue embroidered and trimmed with silver. The stiff bodied style, an example of which can be seen in the below portrait of Lady Fanny Montagu, was an archaic form of dress only worn by female members of the royal family on ceremonial occasions. Lady Fanny’s dress also illustrates the kind of elaborate lacework that would have been worn at royal weddings, further indicating the vast wealth of the bride.

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Portrait of Lady Fanny Montagu by Charles Jervas, c. 1734. She was a bridesmaid at the marriage of Anne, Princess Royal and William IV, Prince of Orange in 1734.

In 1816 George III’s granddaughter, Princess Charlotte married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld in an elaborate ₤10,000 cloth-of-silver empire line dresses embroidered with flowers and trimmed with Brussels lace, pictured below. Clad in sparkling lamé and dripping in jewels, she would have been the height of fashion and the picture of royal extravagance and opulence. Hers is also one of the last of such opulent royal wedding dresses as they began to represent more than just the wealth of the monarchy.

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Princess Charlotte’s silver wedding dress, May 2, 1816.

The Wedding Dress as a Celebration of National Craftsmanship and Pride

Queen Victoria is credited with singlehandedly ushering in the tradition of the white wedding dress. While she was not the first to wear the color to wed, her widely publicized 1840 wedding to Prince Albert Saxe-Coburg was radically different from proceeding royal wedding gowns in its simplicity. Since she was marrying as a Queen, and not just a princess, her advisors urged her to wear grand, traditional robes of red velvet and ermine. She chose simple ivory satin instead, pictured below, because she wanted her dress to represent that the marriage was a special personal event, not a political one. She recognized that the wedding dress was historically used as a political tool and she wanted none of that clouding her wedding day. This represents an important change in mentality towards royal matches, they were no longer political unions, but special, intimate and personal. In her book, Adorned in Dreams, Elizabeth Wilson notes that one of the key features of fashion is the “rapid and continual changing of styles” (3) saying “a new fashion starts from rejection of the old and often an eager embracing of what was previously considered ugly” (9), or in this case what was previously considered middle class. Queen Victoria’s decision to wear a white wedding dress made it desirable at all levels of society and a symbol of romantic love and purity. Wilson says that “fashion is a kind of connective tissue of our cultural organism” (12). For the first time, there became a dominant idea of what a traditional wedding dress looked like: white and incorporating orange blossoms.

Queen Victoria, knowing she had the world’s attention, also used the opportunity to promote British industry. Her dress was made with Spitalfields silk from London and embellished with Honition lace made in Devon. Every facet of her dress was made in Britain. Her thoroughly British dress conveyed the Queen’s message that her duty was to her kingdom, rather than her wealth. Since her wedding photos were widely circulated, brides throughout the world and for the rest of history were influenced by her choice of dress.

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Queen Victoria on her wedding day, February 10, 1840.

Following Queen Victoria’s revolutionary way of dressing for a royal marriage, Princess Alexandra of Denmark wed Queen Victoria’s eldest son Edward, Prince of Wales in 1863 wearing a very similar, relatively simple dress made of Honition lace and trimmed with orange blossom. The lace featured a design of roses, thistles and shamrocks representing England, Scotland and Ireland. At the time of the marriage, Germany (the nation of Queen Victoria’s relatives) and Denmark (the bride’s nation) were engaged in a dispute over the territories of Schleswig and Holstein. Thus, her wedding dress was especially symbolic, echoing long traditions of wedding attire and was of entirely English manufacture. Together, her dress conveyed her loyalty to her new nation even in times of turbulence.

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Princess Alexandra of Denmark on her wedding day, March 10, 1863.

In 1893, Princess Mary of Teck married Prince George, Queen Victoria’s grandson, wearing a dress decorated with a pattern of British and Irish flowers, tied together with a lovers knot.  When creating her dress, the Princess sat down with manufacturers from across the British Isles, making a conscious, careful and diplomatic selection. Over 100 years later, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge chose a wedding dress designed by British designer Sarah Burton for British fashion house Alexander McQueen for her 2011 wedding to William, Duke of Cambridge. The bodice and lace appliqué, featuring thistles, roses, shamrocks and daffodils,  was handmade by the Royal School of Needlework. Just like the British brides before her, her dress was representing pride in British craftsmanship and promoting national pride.

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Princess Mary of Teck and Prince George on their wedding day, July 6, 1893.

By choosing to wear simpler wedding dresses made entirely in Britain, Queen Victoria, Princess Alexandra, and Princess Mary of Teck were consciously conveying their loyalty to the nation they served. Instead of simply displaying royal opulence, the wedding dress was now a representation of the royal’s dedication to the nation. Since 19th century royal wedding dresses were seen more widely by the general public, they also helped to reinforce the idea of the “ideal woman” and the cult of womanhood as discussed by Jennifer Ladd Nelson in her essay, Dress Reform and the Bloomer. She describes that “the popular view of women held that they were delicate, submissive, of inferior intellect and prone to nervousness and hysteria” (22). This can be seen manifested in women’s clothes that were decorative, delicate and accentuating tiny waists. All of these features can be seen in these three 19th century royal wedding dresses: they are exceedingly ornamented with flowers and delicate lace, the off the shoulder necklines are in the favored style to create sloping shoulders and tiny waists are prominently defined.  In comparison to Princess Charlotte’s slim 1816 wedding dress, these dresses later in the century are much more cumbersome in their volume, restricting the wearer’s movement.

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The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their wedding day, April 29, 2011.

The Wedding Dress as an Embodiment of an Era

With the passage of women’s suffrage at the beginning of the 1920’s came an entirely new style of dress that reflected their more active lives and newfound freedom. Clothes were neat, practical and loose fitting. The royal wedding dress of Princess Mary helped solidify this new, fashionable style of wedding dress. For her 1922 wedding to Viscount Lascelles, she wore a dress made of silk gauze embroidered with pearl and crystal beads mounted over silk lamé with a train of silver and ivory satin embroidered in silver with the emblems of the Empire. Her dress represented a blending of traditions in royal wedding dress, the opulence of the silver royal wedding dress with symbolic national embroidery. The loose fitting, delicate dress helped propagate the style of the flat-chested, slim hipped, athletic bride. Her wedding was also one of the first to be filmed and widely distributed, meaning that her dress was seen around the world and had great influence on defining style of the era.

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Princess Mary in her wedding dress, February 28, 1922.

Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon’s (she would eventually become the Queen Mother) wedding dress further defined the style of the era. For her 1923 wedding to Albert, Duke of York she wore an off-the-rack medieval inspired, loose fitting dress of ivory chiffon moire with a square neckline and short sleeves made by London’s Madame Handley-Seymour. Her dress similarly featured silver lamé along with gold embroidery and pearls. Her Flanders lace veil was held in place with a circlet of myrtle decorated with knots of white roses and heather, representing her Scottish ancestry. The use of silver in both her and Princess Mary’s dresses are a far cry from the ostentatious showing of wealth of Princess Charlotte’s dress worn 100 years earlier. The simple, slim silhouettes of these 1920’s royal wedding dresses renders the use of ornate silver and gold delicate, youthful and representative of the flashy tastes of the booming time period.

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Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and Prince Albert, Duke of York on their wedding day, April 26, 1923.

For her 1947 wedding, Princess Elizabeth enlisted royal dressmaker Norman Hartnell to create her satin dress embroidered with garlands of spring flowers for her wedding to Lieutenant Philip Mountbaatten.  Inspired by Botticelli’s 1482 painting of Primavera, Hartnell strove to create a design that would convey a message of national rebirth in the face of rationing post World War II. In light of fabric still being rationed after the war, her dress is not overly voluminous like the “New Look” dresses shown by Dior in Paris were. The fact that even the Princess had to fund her wedding dress with clothing ration coupons proved her solidarity with the British people. Hartnell chose traditional floral motifs to decorate the dress and 15 foot veil, including roses, orange blossoms and corn, which are emblematic of love and fertility. The garlands of embroidered spring flowers represented the hope and promise of the future and a renewing spring for the British economy. The sensible yet aspirational dress sparked hope among the British people. Her dress perfectly illustrates Fred Davis’ idea that “what some combination of clothes means will vary tremendously depending upon the identity of the wearer, the occasion, the place, the company and the mood” (151). Her dress in a different era, say the 1970’s, would not have any of the hopeful messaging of rebirth or the same resonance with the British people. The importance of her choice of embroidery, volume of the skirts and styling are entirely context dependent and can only exist in that austere, post-war moment.

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Queen Elizabeth on her wedding day, November 20, 1947.

By 1957 Europe’s economy had recovered and when Queen Elizabeth’s sister Princess Margaret got married in 1960, it was a very different affair. The younger sister married photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones in a fashionably sleek gown. Since she would not be queen, her dress didn’t have to have political messaging or weight. The simple, streamlined silhouettes helped usher in the sleek styles of the early 1960’s. Her wedding was the first to be broadcast live on TV. Her dress is noticeably more voluminous than its predecessors, most likely in response to the television broadcast and the eyes of the world on her. For the first time, the dress needed to hold up under the scrutiny of cameras and mass audiences. Following her wedding, designers of the 1960’s showed a new concern – they wanted to design bridal gowns that acknowledged the solemnity of the occasion while still remaining youthful.

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Princess Margaret on her wedding day, May 6, 1960.

As television began to dominate the social landscape, the spectacle of the royal wedding became even more extravagant, with the pinnacle being Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding to Charles, Prince of Wales in 1981. Economically, the 1980’s were boom years and clothes were brash and exaggerated. For her wedding dress, designers David and Elizabeth Emanuel created a gown that was based more in fantasy than fashion. The world was captivated by the young princess and the Emanuel’s played up the image of the idyllic fairy tale princess with 275 yards of pearl-studded taffeta, tulle and netting, voluminous sleeves and a dramatic 25 foot train. Her dress represented the royal wedding truly becoming a global spectacle, watched by millions and every element under scrutiny.

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Lady Diana Spencer on her wedding day, July 29, 1981.

Each of these dresses are products of their times and are entirely dependent upon “environmental resources, technical developments and cultural standards for judging what is fine or beautiful” (Roach & EIcher, 109). By looking at the dresses, the history of the British monarchy can be chronicled from World War I through the booming 1920’s and flashy 1980’s. “Fashion is an aesthetic medium for the expression of ideas, desires and beliefs circulating in society” (Wilson, 9), and royal wedding dresses in particular are the symbols of the mood and ideals coursing throughout British culture and society.

– Hilary Presley

Works Cited:

Davis, Fred. “Do Clothes Speak? What Makes Them Fashion?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. By Malcolm Barnard. London: Routledge, 2007. 148-56. Print.

Ehrman, Edwina. The Wedding Dress: 300 Years of Bridal Fashions. London: V&A Pub., 2011. Print.
Nelson, Jennifer Ladd. “Dress Reform and the Bloomer.” The Journal of American Culture 23.1 (2000): 21-25. Web.
Roach, Mary Ellen, and Joanne Bubolz B. Eicher. “The Language of Personal Adornment.” Fashion Theory: A Reader. By
Malcolm Barnard. London: Routledge, 2007. 109-21. Print.
Wilson, Elizabeth. “Introduction.” Introduction. Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity. London: Virago, 1985. 1-15. Print.
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