Queen Victoria’s Dress Sense
“Queen Victoria’s dress sense – or rather, lack of it – was a subject that regularly provoked the despair of her courtiers. ”
When she visited her Uncle Leopold in Belgium soon after, the Queen’s fashion sense was no better. Her old-fashioned bonnets made her, at only 23, look like an old lady, thought Canning. The novelist Charlotte Bronte, who saw the queen’s carriage pass by in Brussels, recorded ‘a little stout, vivacious lady, very plainly dressed, not much dignity or pretension about her’.
The French Verdict on Victoria’s Style
A fascinating account of the queen’s taste in clothes and the duties of a royal dresser during the 1850s can be found in the letters of Victoria’s German dresser, Frieda Arnold, whose editors complement her descriptions with contemporary descriptions from the press of some of the queen’s dresses. They note her preference for pink or blue ball gowns made of layers of tulle over silk, with the flounces and lace trimmings that she loved, and embroidered with her favourite flower motifs, such as roses, lilacs, jasmine, orchids and occasionally sewn in with diamonds.
The Queen’s Jewellery
There seems to have been no comment on the queen’s dress during her nine pregnancies, a fact which alone would have ensured her inability to dress very fashionably for the majority of time between 1840 and her last baby in 1857. Any acknowledgment of current fashion in her clothes stopped altogether, of course, when she was widowed in 1861; thereafter Victoria stuck to wearing what she deemed appropriately sober, whether or not it had long since become outmoded. And yet strangely, in her widowhood, Queen Victoria, a woman whose personal sartorial style was much derided in her youth, became the most unlikely of fashion trendsetters by setting new precedents on the wearing of mourning.
1861 – The Year of Unrelenting Mourning
Widowhood reduced Victoria to unrelentingly dull black bombazine and silk dresses but she seemed to revel in it and exceeded the traditional period of mourning of up to two years for widows, remaining in black for the rest of her life. In the first days of her widowhood she favoured heavy black veils like wimples, which made her look like a nun. She continued to favour simple bonnets and as few stiff petticoats as possible (especially when it was hot). These severe lines gradually softened, replaced by a traditional widow’s bonnet with long black streamers, and in old age by a white chiffon one. The rest of her outfit was equally sober: black shawls and flat-heeled black satin shoes tied with ribbons, or elastic-sided black ankle boots for outdoors.
Although general public mourning officially ended on 10 February 1862, such was the level of sympathy for the queen that many of the middle classes remained in mourning for much longer, following Victoria’s example, for their own deceased relatives. While society ladies might ensure that their mourning garb was the most fashionable on offer Victoria herself paid no attention whatever to it, for she was no longer dressing to please anyone. As for jewellery – her rules on black were equally strict: jet ornaments were de rigueur. As a result the trade in jet mushroomed after Albert’s death and with it the fortunes of Whitby, a small fishing village on the northeast Yorkshire coast, which was the primary source of the best quality jet. Soon it was producing every conceivable Victorian mourning accessory: beading for bodices, hair combs and headdresses, as well as jet birds, insects and clasps for hats and bonnets.
Throughout her long widowhood, Victoria demanded that her ladies in waiting, when on duty, remained in black with her. The lugubrious drapes of crape – a heavy matt gauze of tightly crimped silk and cotton – were left off by most widows after the first, traditional stage of retreat of a year and a day, and replaced by lighter, shinier black fabrics such as satin and silk thereafter. But Victoria wore her crape for far longer. She did however allow the rest of her female entourage and daughters, after the statutory two years of deep mourning had passed, to wear half-mourning of grey, white, or the newer, more fashionables shades of lilac, violet and mauve.