THE PRINCESS BRIDES A brief his­tory of Royal wed­dings: Vic­to­ria’s re­bel­lion, Diana’s lav­ish­ness and Meghan’s op­por­tu­nity for rein­ven­tion


When the young Vic­to­ria de­fied tra­di­tion by choos­ing to wear white on her wed­ding day, she cre­ated a new fash­ion – and ever since then, Royal bridal gowns have been rein­ter­preted a myr­iad times over, herald­ing hope as well as her­itage, and defin­ing the iden­tity of those enig­matic women who may come to wear the Crown

There’s some­thing about a Royal wed­ding that cap­tures the imag­i­na­tion – the pomp, the cer­e­mony, and of course, the won­der­ful gowns. When Meghan Markle be­gins the jour­ney to St Ge­orge’s Chapel at Wind­sor Cas­tle on 19 May, she will be em­bark­ing upon her great­est per­for­mance yet: that of the Royal con­sort. As an ac­tress, Markle is used to the spot­light, but her forth­com­ing mar­riage will mean ac­cli­ma­tis­ing her­self to a far greater de­gree of scru­tiny than any­thing she has ex­pe­ri­enced be­fore. And per­haps she will make no greater state­ment of in­tent in how she nav­i­gates her new po­si­tion than in her choice of bridal at­tire.

Al­ready Markle seems to be ne­go­ti­at­ing the pres­sures of Royal dress­ing with ease, favour­ing clas­sic, el­e­gant choices. Her en­gage­ment pho­to­graphs show her firstly in a Ralph & Russo dress, the sheer black tulle em­broi­dered with swirling fronds of bur­nished gold thread, and sec­ondly in a sim­ple white crew­neck from Vic­to­ria Beck­ham’s lat­est readyto­wear col­lec­tion. It is no co­in­ci­dence that these are both Bri­tish la­bels, so it seems to be a sub­tle sig­nal that Markle is likely to con­tinue the time­hon­oured Royal tra­di­tion of pick­ing a UK de­signer to cre­ate her wed­ding dress – given Ralph & Russo’s ex­quis­ite cou­ture and Beck­ham’s celebrity fol­low­ing, these two brands are strong con­tenders.

As it hap­pens, our ar­che­typal vi­sion of a wed­ding gown was in­vented by one of Prince Harry’s an­ces­tors. Be­fore Queen Vic­to­ria’s mar­riage in 1840, it had been com­mon prac­tice for Roy­alty to wear coloured robes for their nup­tials, and white was not par­tic­u­larly as­so­ci­ated with mar­riage. How­ever, Queen Vic­to­ria broke with con­ven­tion and chose a spec­tac­u­lar cre­ation made from ivory Spi­tal­fields silk, the bodice, skirts and the vo­lu­mi­nous ruf­fled sleeves trimmed with Honi­ton lace from Devon. She deliberately donned a gar­land of or­ange blos­som in­stead of a coro­net, along with a gauzy veil that floated about her, set­ting aside her re­galia in favour of a cos­tume that was beau­ti­ful, youth­ful and very fem­i­nine. Pic­tures of her dress were cir­cu­lated around the world and were so ad­mired that this be­came the tem­plate for bridal­wear within Vic­to­ria’s life­time – and re­mains the dom­i­nant style in West­ern cul­ture to this day.

It is some­thing of a para­dox that the woman who pop­u­larised white wed­dings is best known for dress­ing in black – Vic­to­ria fa­mously wore widow’s weeds for 40 years af­ter her hus­band’s death, in­sti­gat­ing the cult of mourn­ing that per­vaded the lat­ter part of the 19th cen­tury. And yet, long be­fore white was as­so­ci­ated with mar­riage, me­di­ae­val queens wore it as the shade of deep­est mourn­ing, and it still has that sig­nif­i­cance in many East­ern cul­tures, sym­bol­is­ing pu­rity and rebirth. It is used for chris­ten­ing robes (a minia­ture ver­sion of Queen Vic­to­ria’s bridal garb has been worn by ev­ery suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tion of Royal chil­dren at their bap­tisms) but it is also the colour of shrouds.

The Gothic tropes that per­vade the pop­u­lar lit­er­a­ture of the time play upon this du­al­ity to chill­ing ef­fect – Rochester’s mad wife in Jane Eyre, rip­ping a veil in half, the night be­fore the pro­tag­o­nist’s wed­ding; the jilted Miss Hav­isham in Great Ex­pec­ta­tions, still cling­ing to her de­cay­ing bridal fin­ery; the un­nerv­ing, wraith­like fig­ure in Wilkie Collin’s sem­i­nal sen­sa­tion novel, The Woman in White… That each of these ex­am­ples caught the public imag­i­na­tion so ef­fec­tively il­lus­trates the res­o­nance and power be­hind the colour white, which sig­ni­fies such mixed mean­ings.

There are strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Queen Vic­to­ria’s wed­ding dress and that of her daugh­ter­in­law Alexan­dra, a Dan­ish princess who mar­ried Vic­to­ria’s el­dest son Ed­ward in 1863. ‘Alexan­dra was im­mensely pop­u­lar – she was the Diana of her day,’ says Elly Sum­mers, who has cu­rated a new ex­hi­bi­tion on the clothes of four Royal women (Queen Alexan­dra, Queen Mary, Queen El­iz­a­beth the Queen Mother and Princess Mar­garet) at the Fash­ion Mu­seum in Bath. ‘Peo­ple took note of what she wore and copied it. The rea­son that Royal wardrobes are so scru­ti­nised is be­cause they rep­re­sent a highly coded way of dress­ing, where ev­ery choice is sig­nif­i­cant. Roy­als are of­ten un­able to speak freely, so they ex­press them­selves through what they wear.’

Alexan­dra was es­tab­lish­ing her­self as a leader of fash­ion and a per­son­al­ity in her own right, as evinced by her wed­ding dress, which was far more vo­lu­mi­nous than Queen Vic­to­ria’s: a ver­i­ta­ble meringue of ruched silk and elab­o­rately worked lace. As for the or­ange blos­som, Alexan­dra was ab­so­lutely swathed in it. She wore a heavy head­dress of white im­i­ta­tion flow­ers and green fo­liage, with trail­ing sprays of blooms deck­ing her lay­ered skirts. Al­though the cos­tume is a cen­tre­piece of the Bath ex­hi­bi­tion, it is not quite the same gar­ment that swept across the flag­stones of St Ge­orge’s Chapel – it was sim­pli­fied fol­low­ing the wed­ding so that the Princess could wear it as part of her trousseau.

When the time came for our cur­rent monarch to marry, the then Princess El­iz­a­beth chose the Bri­tish cou­turier Nor­man Hart­nell to make her dress. By 1947, Hart­nell had spent al­most a decade de­sign­ing clothes for the two Princesses and their mother, and his name had be­come syn­ony­mous with Royal cou­ture. De­spite post­war ra­tioning, Hart­nell de­clared that he in­tended to cre­ate ‘the most beau­ti­ful dress I had so far made’. Tak­ing in­spi­ra­tion from Bot­ti­celli’s Pri­mav­era, his de­sign was al­most en­tirely cov­ered with flo­ral mo­tifs to sym­bol­ise the re­gen­er­a­tion and growth that was ten­ta­tively emerg­ing in the wake of two dev­as­tat­ing world wars. As heir to the throne, this bride was par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant – she her­alded a new El­iz­a­bethan age of moder­nity and prom­ise, a sign of spring flow­er­ing af­ter a long win­ter. ‘I marked in cir­cles the rich white roses of York to be car­ried out in padded satin, and cen­tred by raised strands of pearls threaded on sil­ver wire and raised up in re­lief,’ said Hart­nell. ‘Wher­ever there was space or weak­ness of de­sign I drew more wheat, more leaves, more blos­som of or­ange, sy­ringa or jas­mine.’

Ten thou­sand seed pearls had to be trans­ported from

Amer­ica for em­bel­lish­ments, and were briefly held up at cus­toms, while anti-ja­panese sen­ti­ments in the wake of the war sparked con­cerns about the ori­gins of the ivory silk used in the gown. The Bri­tish public felt ex­tremely in­vested in the mar­riage of their fu­ture Queen, and there were even re­ports of peo­ple send­ing in their own cloth­ing coupons to aid with the mak­ing of the dress, amid ru­mours that the Princess would be sub­ject to the same re­stric­tions as every­one else. How­ever, Hart­nell’s cre­ation was spec­tac­u­lar, man­ag­ing to be both pretty and supremely re­gal. View­ers of The Crown will re­call that the hugely pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion se­ries chose the Royal wed­ding for its open­ing scene, the mo­ment that pro­pelled the Princess into the spot­light for the first time, her youth and love­li­ness ac­cen­tu­ated by her breath­tak­ing cos­tume, which cost £30,000 to repli­cate for the 2016 episode.

When Princess Mar­garet mar­ried the pho­tog­ra­pher Antony Arm­strong-jones al­most 13 years later, Hart­nell was also her cou­turier of choice. At 29, she was an older bride than her sis­ter, with so­phis­ti­cated tastes and a glam­orous so­cial cir­cle. She was a long-stand­ing client of Chris­tian Dior, who de­scribed her as ‘a real fairy-tale princess, del­i­cate, grace­ful, ex­quis­ite’. Her silk or­ganza gown was markedly dif­fer­ent to her sis­ter’s, notable for its sim­plic­ity and lack of adorn­ment, which not only suited her petite frame, but also re­flected the chang­ing era. It was 1960 and Mar­garet was the first Bri­tish Royal in 400 years to marry a com­moner. The decade to fol­low was to be re­mem­bered for break­ing down class bar­ri­ers and fos­ter­ing a new lib­eral at­mos­phere, and Princess Mar­garet’s mar­riage ex­em­pli­fied that, and her wed­ding too cap­tured the zeit­geist – or per­haps de­fined it.

How­ever, it is Princess Diana who best ex­em­pli­fies the ro­man­tic ideal of a vir­ginal bride in a fairy-tale gown. The im­age of her step­ping out of a horse-drawn car­riage in July 1981, borne up to St Paul’s in a cloud of chif­fon and taffeta, cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of the en­tire na­tion. The de­sign­ers David and El­iz­a­beth Emanuel re­called how she was keen to make a state­ment with the dress, and kept the de­tails of the de­sign a se­cret, want­ing it to be a sur­prise. She suc­ceeded – her 25-foot train re­mains the long­est in Royal his­tory, while the vo­lu­mi­nous puffed sleeves, corseted waist and huge skirt set the tone for bridal­wear for the rest of the decade, a New Ro­man­tic gown worn by one of the era’s most fa­mous fig­ures. ‘Just two days af­ter the wed­ding there were head­lines about copies of the dress be­ing avail­able to buy,’ says Eleri Lynn, who cu­rated an ex­hi­bi­tion on Diana’s style at Kens­ing­ton Palace last year. ‘The fact that Diana chose to work with young, up­com­ing names rather than with the more es­tab­lished, tra­di­tional de­sign­ers per­haps gave an in­sight into how she viewed her role – that she in­tended to take a con­tem­po­rary ap­proach.’

And yet, for all her fresh­ness and hope, Diana be­came one of the Royal fam­ily’s most tragic fig­ures with her un­timely death in 1997. The ex­tra­or­di­nary pe­riod of na­tional mourn­ing that fol­lowed saw her el­e­vated into an al­most saintly fig­ure, the white flow­ers of her me­mo­rial gar­den at Kens­ing­ton Palace now a peren­nial re­minder of the young bride. West­min­ster Abbey, where Diana’s fu­neral took place, was also the lo­ca­tion cho­sen by Prince Wil­liam for his own mar­riage, 30 years af­ter his par­ents’ nup­tials, and that oc­ca­sion prompted a fresh wave of re­mem­brance for the for­mer princess. In a 2017 doc­u­men­tary en­ti­tled Diana, Our Mother: Her Life and Legacy, Prince Wil­liam said: ‘When it came to the wed­ding, I did re­ally feel that she was there.’

Like Princess Diana, the Duchess of Cam­bridge en­gaged an emerg­ing de­signer to make her bridal at­tire – Sarah Bur­ton, who had re­cently been ap­pointed creative di­rec­tor of Alexan­der Mcqueen in the tur­bu­lent months fol­low­ing its founder’s demise. Un­like Diana’s fab­u­lous con­fec­tion of a dress, the Duchess opted for a more stream­lined style that evoked el­e­ments of an ear­lier era; at the time, Karl Lager­feld re­marked that ‘it al­most re­minds me of… the Royal wed­dings in the Fifties’. Cer­tainly the un­usual V-shaped neck­line bore a re­mark­able re­sem­blance to that of Princess Mar­garet’s gown, while the silhouette, with its padded hips and nar­row corseted waist, was a nod both to Her Majesty’s 1947 wed­ding garb and to that iconic dress of Queen Vic­to­ria’s that started it all.

As the first of a new gen­er­a­tion of fe­male Wind­sors, the Duchess of Cam­bridge has a style that is a study in how to bal­ance tra­di­tion with moder­nity, of recog­nis­ing Royal pro­to­col while por­tray­ing a more youth­ful, ap­proach­able side to the monar­chy that sees her pho­tographed in ev­ery­thing from cou­ture gowns to high-street brands. Her wed­ding day sym­bol­ised the mul­ti­fac­eted na­ture of the modern Roy­als, for in fact Sarah Bur­ton de­signed two dif­fer­ent gowns for the Duchess to wear. The first fa­mously graced the Abbey, but the Duchess changed into a sim­pler num­ber for the re­cep­tion, which she paired with a white an­gora shrug, her for­mal hair­style re­placed by loose waves. This de­lin­eation be­tween public and pri­vate sug­gests that al­though the Duchess of Cam­bridge is one of the most pho­tographed women in the world, for the most part what we see is a care­fully cu­rated im­age, an ex­em­plar of self­fash­ion­ing. And al­though the last few years have seen an up­surge in fit­ted white wed­ding dresses with long lace sleeves, just like the Duchess’ cer­e­mo­nial gown, you get a sense that no mat­ter how much we study the Roy­als, their true selves will al­ways re­main an enigma.

As Meghan Markle pre­pares to join the ranks of Royal brides, it re­mains to be seen if she will choose Alexan­der Mcqueen like the Duchess of Cam­bridge, fol­low Pippa Mid­dle­ton’s lead and pick Giles Dea­con, or forge her own re­la­tion­ship with a new de­signer. But what­ever she de­cides, it’s likely that be­fore May is out, her choice will have sub­tly in­flu­enced the pre­vail­ing style of wed­ding dresses, and a fresh wave of brides will take their cues, once more, from the trends set by the Royal fam­ily. ‘Royal Women: Alexan­dra, Mary, El­iz­a­beth and Mar­garet’ is at the Fash­ion Mu­seum (www.fash­ion­mu­ in Bath un­til 28 April 2019.

Princess El­iz­a­beth pho­tographed by Bert Hardy on her wed­ding day in Novem­ber 1947

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