13 February 2013

Wedding Wednesday: Princess Charlotte's Gown

HRH Princess Charlotte of Wales and HSH Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield
May 2, 1816
Carlton House, London

Today we feature our oldest wedding gown to date, that of Princess Charlotte of Wales. Charlotte was the sole product of the disastrous and bitter marriage between the future King George IV and Caroline of Brunswick. She was quite a popular princess, and her marriage to Prince Leopold - a groom of her choice, instead of the Prince of Orange her father was pushing for her to wed - was greeted with much excitement. In fact, it became the first royal wedding for which souvenirs were made widely available.
Accounts of Charlotte's wedding gown from the time vary slightly, but they all seem to agree that it was the height of fashion. Made by Mrs. Triaud of Bolton Street, it featured an empire line and an ankle length, and shimmered from the combined effect of a net dress with silver embroidery and a white and silver petticoat underneath. (The fabric, called lama, involved woven gold or silver threads.) In the candlelight, it must have been a spectacular sight indeed. The dress was adorned with flowers at the hem and Brussels lace around the neckline and sleeves. The train was made of the same material as the petticoat. Charlotte draped herself in diamonds, including some in her hair.
It's the picture of opulence - the cost is said to have exceeded £10,000, which would be over £800,000 today - but displays of wealth were par for the course for such brides. Many of the guests were also dressed in extravagant metallics and jewels, and this was just part of a complete trousseau for the bride. Charlotte's gown still exists today, though its appearance varies from contemporary accounts and is probably only partially the original gown. It is one of the wedding gowns in the care of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection.
Video: Including Charlotte's gown and others
Sadly, a happy ending was not in the cards for Charlotte. In November of 1817, she died after giving birth to her first child, a stillborn son. She'd been in labor for two days, the baby was 9 pounds, and she was weak from months of maternity care in the form of blood letting and a strict diet. The events are now known as "the triple obstetrical tragedy" for taking the lives of Charlotte, her child, and her obstetrician Sir Richard Croft - he committed suicide, unable to handle the aftermath of the beloved princess' death.
Charlotte's sudden death plunged the country into deep and widespread mourning - many today have likened it to reactions to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. It also plunged the monarchy into a crisis of succession; though King George III had 12 surviving adult children, Charlotte was his only legitimate grandchild. There was a rush among Charlotte's uncles to marry (legitimately, in compliance with the Royal Marriages Act) and produce more heirs. The throne eventually passed from George IV to his brother William IV and then to their niece Princess Alexandrina Victoria, daughter of the fifth child of George III. She became Queen Victoria, and obviously shaped not only the face of today's British monarchy but the faces of other monarchies as well through her many descendants. As for Charlotte's widower, Leopold would remarry and in 1831 was asked to become the first king of a newly independent Belgium. He reigned as Leopold I.

Queen Victoria's wedding gown was criticized for being overly simple, and Charlotte's gown provides the context for such a statement. Knowing that Victoria's gown would mark such a change in royal wedding fashion makes this gown all the more special - a unique surviving glimpse at an extravagant royal time, and one I've always loved.

What do you make of Charlotte's opulent gown?

Photos: Wikipedia/Royal Collection/Historic Royal Palaces/AP/Telegraph