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. ”

HELEN RAPPAPORT

Queen Victoria’s dress sense – or rather, lack of it – was a subject that regularly provoked the despair of her courtiers. Despite his best efforts, the court painter, Franz Winterhalter, who painted some of the most fashionable women in Europe, could not disguise Victoria’s slightly provincial air, in comparison with beauties such as the Empresses Eugénie of France and Elizabeth of Austria. On one of the queen’s first official visits to France in 1843, her lady in waiting Charlotte Canning despaired of the lack of attention Victoria paid to her wardrobe: ‘Her dresser never ceased sighing and lifting up her hands and eyes all the time I looked at them and lamenting how little she cared about her dress’.

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

The French, renowned for their fashion sense, quickly found fault with Victoria’s eccentric wardrobe when she visited the Emperor and Empress of France in Paris in 1855. Still wearing out-of-date poke bonnets, Victoria seemed so bourgeois alongside the willowy and elegant Empress Eugénie in her Worth couture dresses. People were amused by the large satin bag, embroidered in gold with a poodle, that Victoria carried everywhere with her. General Canrobert found the Queen’s dress decorated with an embroidered geranium motif rather loud. Even worse, in his opinion, was a white gown embellished with white flounces worn, in the blazing summer heat, with ‘a massive bonnet of white silk … with streamers behind and a tuft of marabou feathers on top’. The queen appeared equally oblivious to the incongruity of the ‘sunshade of crude green’ that she also carried and which clashed horribly, prompting someone to observe that she looked ‘like an untidy cabbage’.

There was however, one costume worn by the queen which always attracted admiring comments, and that was her black or dark green velvet riding habit. She might be short, but she was a gifted horsewoman and sitting sidesaddle she struck a most attractive figure. It was remarked on in the papers, when, in June 1856, she reviewed troops back from the Crimean War, dressed in a beautifully tailored ‘scarlet military tunic with gold braid, brass buttons and a gold and crimson sash, a navy blue skirt piped with white and a round felt hat with a white and scarlet plume, crimson and gold hatband and golden tassels’.

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

Although the queen was equally unostentatious about the jewellery she wore, she had a habit of trying to enhance her short pudgy fingers by squashing lots of rings onto them. At official functions and formal state occasions, as a young queen she often wore her Order of the Garter and a favourite diadem of diamonds and opals. She had a wonderful collection of jewels: rubies, diamonds, sapphires, opals, emeralds – many of them gifts from other monarchs and Indian maharajahs – and some of them came out of mothballs for really special occasions. But it was the more personal birthday and anniversary gifts – such as the sapphire brooch given to her as a wedding present by Prince Albert –that she wore most often, usually on the anniversary of the dates on which they had been given. Ultimately, it was always the items of jewellery designed or commissioned by her husband that Victoria treasured and wore the most often.

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

The year 1861 had begun with the court in deepest mourning for the old King of Prussia. On hearing the news, Victoria had immediately donned her crape and sent out directives: nothing but black silk, bombazine and crape; black gloves, black collars, black flowers, feathers, lappets and fans and festoons of jet mourning jewellery were the order of the day. The court had barely come out of mourning when her mother died three months later. By the time of Albert’s death on 14 December, London’s funeral emporia had been capitalizing on this unexpected and unprecedented royal run on black. In the first weeks and months after Prince Albert’s death, Jay’s London General Mourning Warehouse and other similar establishments around the country did a roaring trade. At its prime site on the southeast corner of Oxford Circus, Jays enjoyed sales never before seen in its twenty-year history.

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.

Victoria was more than content to wear the kind of practical widows weeds that could be bought off the peg, from the local draper, Caley’s, opposite Windsor Castle. Her own were made up in duplicate by her dressmakers, with fabric from Caley’s, complemented by her widow’s ‘sad cap’ of crisp white tulle, indented at the top in the style of Mary Stuart.

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.

It was not until her Golden Jubilee of 1887 that her daughter in law Princess Alexandra was finally able to persuade the Queen to allow her ladies in waiting to wear something other than jet. Victoria agreed to silver and increasingly adopted it herself, once more inadvertently sparking a new fashion. At the Jubilee she also made some personal sartorial concessions, allowing some white lace and grey satin touches to be added to her dress, and white flowers and white lace to be added to her bonnet.

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