17 November 2017

Royal Flashback of the Day: Queen Elizabeth II's Wedding Gown

Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten
November 20, 1947
Westminster Abbey
With their big 70th anniversary approaching, how could we not revisit this famous royal wedding gown? The dress Queen Elizabeth II wore to marry the Duke of Edinburgh is every bit as much of a dream today as it was back in post-war Britain. It was extravagant yet tailored to the austere times, and the perfect match for an event that, in a way, helped mark a new era. As Jock Colville wrote of the wedding, “The war, it seemed, really was over.”

The Botticelli inspiration and the wedding gown sketch
The bride selected leading couturier Norman Hartnell, already a royal favorite, to design her gown. The final design was approved in mid-August, leaving Hartnell’s team less than three months to make the dress. His inspiration for the gown was Botticelli's Primavera and the result was an intricate gown in ivory duchesse satin covered in embroidered garlands created with white seed pearls imported from the United States, silver thread, crystals for sparkle and transparent tulle appliqués.

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Princess Elizabeth wore a 15 foot court train attached at the shoulders. The train was made of silk tulle embroidered with pearls, crystals and appliqué duchesse satin. She also wore a silk tulle veil under her tiara. The veil was shorter than the train, leaving the embroidery to be the star of the show. The overall effect is quite diaphanous, like a halo of tulle surrounding the bride.

Royal Collection Trust
The heavy embellishment would remain a hallmark of Hartnell’s work for Elizabeth for decades to come, and is particularly reminiscent of the gown he created for her coronation. (It is distinctly not reminiscent of his other most famous royal wedding gown, Princess Margaret’s, which had a simpler line thanks to the strong requests of the bridal couple.)

The train
Just like everyone else in the country, Princess Elizabeth had to fund her gown with clothing ration coupons. Unlike everyone else, she was allowed 200 extra coupons by the government. Famously, people sent in their own coupons to help the Princess out (these were sent back with a note of thanks, since it was illegal for her to use them). In another sign of the times, the government had to be reassured that the silkworms used to create the gown came from China and the United Kingdom, rather than enemy countries such as Italy and Japan, and the fabric had been woven in England and Scotland.

The bride accessorized with high heel sandals by Edward Rayne in ivory duchesse satin fastened with a silver buckle ornamented with yet more pearls. Her bridal bouquet was made of white orchids and the traditional sprig of myrtle.

Royal Collection Trust
Her bouquet was temporarily lost until someone remembered it was in a refrigerator, just one of several hitches that must have truly tested Elizabeth’s famous sense of calm. The two strands of pearls she wanted to wear also went missing, until it was remembered that they had already been placed on display with the rest of the wedding gifts in St. James’ Palace. Jock Colville, Princess Elizabeth’s Private Secretary, was dispatched to retrieve the pearls, taking the King of Norway’s car – nearly not allowing the King to exit the vehicle before he raced off – and facing an ordeal to convince the officers guarding the presents to allow him to remove the pearls. (They agreed after finding his name in the official program.) And, of course, the tiara broke.

Royal Collection Trust
Everything was found and repaired and the bride made it down the aisle with all the appropriate accessories: Queen Mary’s Fringe Tiara on loan from her mother, the Queen Anne and Queen Caroline Pearl Necklaces that were among her wedding gifts from her parents, and the Duchess of Teck Earrings she received from Queen Mary earlier in the year.

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The Queen views her dress at Buckingham Palace, in an exhibition for the couple's 60th wedding anniversary.
The wedding gown has been displayed many times in the decades since the wedding. It was last on display for the Queen’s 90th birthday (as of this writing). Seventy years on, the fabric is beginning to show its age and I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes on display less often in the future. If you’ve had a chance to see it in person already, you’re lucky.

Unlike other milestone anniversaries the couple have celebrated, they'll be spending this one privately. Reportedly, a family dinner will be held.