30 March 2012

Flashback Friday: The White Wardrobe

In the Buckingham Palace gardens
The Queen Mother passed away on March 30, 2002. In addition to celebrating the second of her two favorite tiaras yesterday, today we're commemorating her style with a post that many of you have written to request.

I don't know about you, but when I think of the Queen Mother, I don't generally think of a fashion icon. In the span of my memory - and I'm willing to guess most of yours as well - she was firmly settled into the last phase of her style, which was anything but fashionable. But search back in history and you'll find a different story; a time and a place in which Queen Elizabeth and her unique style captivated the public. Today, we're flashing back to what has become known as the White Wardrobe.

In 1938, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were scheduled for a state visit to Paris. Pleased with the success of a gown Norman Hartnell designed for her for a 1937 Belgian state visit, the queen commissioned more than 30 new outfits for her trip. But five days before the relatively new monarch and his consort were scheduled to depart, Queen Elizabeth's mother died. Countess Strathmore's death sent the Court into mourning.
Details and sketches of the wardrobe
The visit was delayed three weeks, but the question of how to proceed still loomed. The brand new Hartnell wardrobe had been made in an array of colors and was no longer appropriate; neither, however, was the black clothing required of traditional mourning. This was an important visit: Hitler was looming large in Germany, and the alliance between Britain and France was crucial. The state visit was intended to solidify the friendship between the two countries, and a queen in stark black wasn't going to project the right image (not to mention, it certainly wouldn't do for the July weather).
During the visit
Hartnell came to the rescue with an old idea made new: use white for mourning. There was plenty of precedent; French queens had used white in the past, and Queen Victoria requested a white funeral. Queen Elizabeth agreed, and Hartnell and his staff went to work whipping up an entirely new wardrobe in just a couple of weeks.
A few of the dresses and gowns from the wardrobe
When George VI came to the throne in 1936 after the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII, he famously asked Hartnell about a new image for his wife and showed him some of the romantic Winterhalter portraits around the palace as inspiration. The White Wardrobe is the absolute embodiment of that romantic image: lace and satin and crinolines in day dresses and evening gowns. Even the accessories rise to the occasion - could there be a daintier accent than a parasol? The queen's new look was designed to flatter her figure and lengthen her petite frame, rather than stick to any sort of trend.
The creations on the queen, in Paris (first three), later at Buckingham Palace (fourth from left), and a refreshed and redesigned dress during the family's 1947 tour of South Africa and Rhodesia (far right)
When the trip arrived, Queen Elizabeth left England in black and arrived in France in dazzling white. Dressed like a cloud, she was an ethereal sight to behold. There are several accounts of her presence inspiring gasps from the crowds, from the moment she stepped off the train to the flutter when she opened her parasol (in fact, she temporarily revived parasol production in Paris and London). The white color proved to be the perfect thing to make her easily seen in the crowd, as did her seemingly outdated style. Her romantic image was the opposite of what many French women were striving for with their sleek up looks and raised skirt heights; and as is the case more often than not, timeless elegance and working with what suits you before anything else easily surpassed the trends.
A sampling of the press the tour garnered, with this quote from a French diplomat: "To-day France is a monarchy again. We have taken your Queen to our hearts. From now on she rules over two nations."
The visit was highly anticipated by France - the government spent a fortune renovating the suites the king and queen were to stay in - and the end result did not disappoint. The royal couple won over the press and the French, solidifying the Entente Cordiale just before Europe was engulfed by World War II. The queen's fashion made a particularly grand impression: here was proof that couture existed outside of Paris. Norman Hartnell was immediately awarded membership to the Academie Française; Christian Dior would later recall the wonders of the queen's Paris wardrobe "whenever I try to think of something particularly beautiful." The queen herself was so pleased with the outcome she asked Cecil Beaton to photograph her wearing it in the gardens of Buckingham Palace, and Hartnell's position as the royal dressmaker was firmly set (resulting in several notable commissions to come, like this one, this one, and this one).
The White Wardrobe on display
The White Wardrobe, still remembered as a fashion high point today, was the subject of Buckingham Palace's summer exhibit in 2005. I was lucky enough to see it for myself, though I confess to being so dazzled by the Oriental Circlet displayed alongside the frill that most of it pales in comparison.

And you? Are you captivated by the White Wardrobe?

Photos: PA/The Royal Collection/Queen Elizabeth II/Michael Pick/Norman Hartnell