09 March 2012

Flashback Friday: The Splendor of Queen Alexandra

The Rundell Tiara plus necklaces & diamond stars
A few months ago we talked about Queen Mary, that notorious magpie and mega curator of the British jewel collection, and her penchant for piling it on, gem-wise. And at that time, some of you felt that Mary's level of ornamentation had crossed your line into too much territory. If you are among those people, may I suggest that you fashion yourselves some sort of seatbelt? Because Queen Alexandra may just redefine too much for you.

The future Queen Alexandra had a quiet childhood in Denmark. Her family lived very modestly, despite the grandeur to come for all of them. Her parents would eventually become King Christian IX and Queen Louise of Denmark; Alexandra's siblings included the King of Denmark, the King of Greece, the Empress of Russia, and the Crown Princess of Hanover. Christian IX is referred to as the "father-in-law of Europe" - just like with Queen Victoria, most royal families of Europe can trace their family trees to him. For her part, Alexandra was essentially handpicked by Queen Victoria and her eldest daughter to marry Bertie, the playboy Prince of Wales, and marry him she did, in 1863.

Her marriage thrust her immediately into the center of sparkling royal life. Queen Victoria was deeply lost in her mourning for Prince Albert, and essentially had no public presence. In addition to filling in the gaps left in the royal duties by the monarch's absence, Bertie and Alix became the heart of the court social life.
Left, with her diamond kokoshnik tiara, multiple necklaces and brooches, and the serpent bracelet she favored; right, covered in ornamentation for a costume ball
She grew ever more bejewelled, seemingly encouraged by her husband. Bertie spent lavishly on dresses and jewels for Alexandra - much to his mother's despair - and was a stickler for protocol. It's easy to imagine that the man that once confronted the Duchess of Marlborough for wearing only a diamond crescent in her hair instead of a tiara when Alexandra had taken the trouble to wear one encouraged his wife to adorn herself appropriately for her status. (Fortunately the duchess, a.k.a. Consuelo Vanderbilt, had a good excuse: she hadn't been able to get to the bank in time to retrieve her tiara.)
With the George IV State Diadem plus many necklaces and brooches
Alexandra was a fashionable woman who cared about her appearance and set several trends. Women clamored for the chokers she wore to conceal a scar on her neck; some even went so far as to imitate the limp Alexandra was left with after a bout with rheumatic fever. Court standards didn't bother her so much; she gladly wore faux jewels when it suited her, and didn't fuss much with traditions for coronation dressing as she believed she knew best. (This strategy did find her meeting her stickler husband's line of tolerance, though: she showed up once with her Garter sash worn the wrong way because it looked better, and was promptly ordered to change it.)
Alexandra's coronation outfit 
Bertie became King Edward VII on Queen Victoria's death in 1901. The new Queen Alexandra reached the heights of her sparkly splendor for their coronation in 1902, wearing literal layers of jewels - so much you can't even tell what's what. Starting at the bottom and working up, her skirt featured Queen Victoria's set of diamond bow brooches with gems dangling from each down the front; a diamond fringe girdle encircled her waist - there's got to be enough for two fringe tiaras minimum right there. On her bodice she affixed the Dagmar necklace as a reminder of her Danish roots (it was a gift from Frederik VII) and then covered the rest with brooches, including an enormous diamond cockade at center and Prince Albert's sapphire among others, most of which were covered up by the strings of pearls she draped around her neck. Also around her neck, she wrapped Queen Victoria's so-called "coronation" necklace of mega-diamonds which ended up blending in to the rest of her diamonds and pearls. All of this rested on a dress which was sparkling all on its own.
Detail of the mounds of jewels on her bodice for the coronation
On top of it all sat a brand new queen consort's crown. By the time Alexandra became queen it had been so long since Britain had a queen consort it was thought appropriate to make a new crown. Hers was the first to include the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond which has sat in every consort crown since and added extra arches in the fashion used in Denmark; however, no one else has ever used this particular crown. The diamonds - more than 3,000 - are now represented by paste.
Alexandra's consort crown - here, set with paste stones
As for the rest of her life...well, you know, it's not necessarily a delightful story. Her mother-in-law was overbearing. Her husband was a notorious gambler who had many a public mistress (the group of them invited to his coronation sat in what was termed "the king's loose box"). She was kept out of state affairs as much as possible but was prone to meddling and was known for her strongly anti-German stance. As she aged, she grew increasingly deaf due to a hereditary condition inherited from her mother.

Edward and Alexandra had six children: Albert Victor (Duke of Clarence and Avondale who died in his late 20s), George V, Louise (Princess Royal and Duchess of Fife), Princess Victoria (who never married), Maud (Queen of Norway), and Alexander John (he died right after birth). By many accounts, Alexandra was a stifling mother who was overly attached to her children. 
In her regal circlet with Queen Victoria's small crown behind  (a small crown which includes more than 1,000 diamonds, mind you), plus the diamond collier résille around her neck and Victoria's fringe brooch on her bodice
Personally, I've always preferred Queen Mary's version of excess. Mary had a more formidable frame on which to display her jewels, and she seems to have had a better eye for coordinating them. She may have waltzed around with hundreds of carats on her person, but they were always well put together and you could always pick each element out - no, there was no danger Mary was going to drown precious jewels underneath strands of possibly fake pearls.

Is Alexandra's brand of splendor more or less to your taste?

Photos: The Royal Collection/Suzy Menkes