12 September 2011

Royal Splendor 101: Royal Family Orders

Royal ladies dressed in their formal best often wear several brooches; up close, you can see that these sometimes include miniature portraits of sovereigns set on bows. I get a lot of questions about these: what exactly are they? And why would you elect to wear, say, your mother-in-law's picture on your best dress? 

These are royal family orders (not every royal family uses that precise terminology, so we'll use that as more of a generic label). They are given to female members of a royal family by the sovereign, a custom that probably originated as a substitute to the orders of chivalry and merit to which women were once not allowed to belong. Some monarchs can award their orders, or a version of them, to women outside of the family, such as loyal members of their royal household. They are usually worn only at the most formal occasions, though there are always exceptions. Only select royal families have such a tradition in place. Here's a breakdown of those that do:

Royal family orders in Britain originated during George IV's reign and continue to this day. You will see them on British royal ladies at gala occasions, and rarely at other occasions; the Queen and other ladies of the royal family wore George VI's order at his funeral, for example. Queen Elizabeth II's order is a portrait of herself painted on ivory in a diamond frame topped by a Tudor crown and set on a pale yellow silk bow. Her cypher adorns the back side.
When the Queen gives this out, it is a private award. There is no announcement; the only way to know if a certain lady has the royal family order is to see her wear it in public. Which members of the family receive the honor, and when they receive it, is entirely up to the Queen. Not everyone gets it, and there is usually a waiting period before award - at least for those women that have married into the family.
Living members of the royal family that we know to have the Queen's order are (above, left to right): the Duchess of Cornwall, the Countess of Wessex, the Princess Royal, the Duchess of Gloucester, the Duchess of Kent, and Princess Alexandra of Kent. Diana, Princess of Wales received the order during her marriage; Sarah, Duchess of York, never did. The Duchess of Cambridge received it in 2017 (with a note that hers was crafted on glass instead of the traditional ivory, since the Duke has spoken out against ivory usage).
The Queen herself wears the orders of her father, George VI, and her grandfather, George V. When you've lived long enough to be awarded orders from multiple sovereigns, you can wear all the ones you have. Note here a unique feature of the British royal family orders: the color of the bow changes with each reign, as does the composition of the diamond frame. But the frame and the portrait remain the same within each reign, which is also unique - other families may use different frames and portraits.


Queen Sonja's brooch (left), and Crown Princess Mette-Marit's (right)
Norway refers to this as the King's House Order and currently, all the main ladies of the Norwegian royal family have it. He can also bestow his house order on ladies outside the family.
Left to Right: Queen Sonja, Crown Princess Mette-Marit, Princess Märtha Louise, Princess Astrid and Princess Ragnhild (the King's sisters) 
Queen Sonja, Princess Astrid, and the late Princess Ragnhild all have orders from multiple reigns; Queen Sonja wears only her husband's portrait these days, while Princess Astrid wears all three of hers (from her brother, father, and grandfather).
Queen Sonja wears her husband's portrait quite frequently, and certainly does not confine her use of the order to gala occasions. She's definitely the royal lady that gets the most use out of her house order. On the other hand, both Crown Princess Mette-Marit and Princess Märtha Louise sometimes choose not to wear their orders.

The brooches of Queen Silvia (left) and Princess Madeleine (right)
In Sweden, the royal household refers to this as the King's Portrait Brooch. Versions of the King's brooch change from woman to woman, in the shape of the diamond frame (Queen Silvia's is notably larger), the shape of the bow it sets on, and in the portrait used. Princess Sofia's brooch, which is the latest one to be made, displays a more current portrait than that of Queen Silvia and Princess Madeleine as shown above. Those that wear King Carl XVI Gustaf's portrait include Queen Silvia, Crown Princess Victoria, Princess Madeleine, and Princess Sofia. The King's sisters also have orders, though Princess Christina is the only one that regularly attends formal engagements.
Queen Silvia, Crown Princess Victoria, Princess Madeleine, and the late Princess Lilian
Princess Sofia wore the portrait very shortly after her wedding, so awarding seems to be automatic, which is a contrast to some of the other countries here. In Sweden, they also wear the portrait brooches more frequently - using them for gala occasions but also family events like christenings and for some black tie events.

Portraits belonging to Queen Margrethe (left) and Crown Princess Mary (right)
Denmark is a good example of royals reusing the dazzling frames that hold these portraits. The frame currently used by Margrethe (above) was previously used by her mother, Queen Ingrid. Frames otherwise vary from woman to woman. Queen Margrethe, Princess Benedikte, and Queen Anne-Marie wear their father's portrait, although Queen Anne-Marie doesn't wear hers to every gala event.
L to R: Queen Margrethe, Princess Benedikte, Queen Anne-Marie, Crown Princess Mary

Crown Princess Mary has had Queen Margrethe's order for several years; Princess Marie was first spotted with hers in 2012. Prince Joachim's first wife, Alexandra, was also given Margrethe's portrait. Alexandra's uses a different portrait of the Queen than Mary and Marie's brooches do, and Alexandra has worn hers since her divorce.

Tonga's royal family is the fifth and final family that uses a royal family order.

So, there's your answer: you'd wear your mother-in-law's portrait on your best dress because it is considered an honor to do so. 

This entry has been updated since its original publication.

Photos: Life/Corbis/PPE/Zimbio