Couture Royal wedding dresses: in conversation with Justine Picardie

Justine Picardie is a former Contributing Editor at Harper’s Bazar and author of Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life and a new book Miss Dior coming soon. In a live conversation from their individual homes, Picardie and Caroline de Guitaut, Deputy Surveyor of The Queen’s Works of Art at The Royal Collection Trust, explored the history of Royal wedding dresses. Later, still in a hazy romantic mood, I pulled out family albums to gaze again on some of the Caswell brides of the 20th century.

The relationship between designer and bride is not simply a matter of designing a dress, albeit a special one, but the creation of memories both personal and, in the case of Royal brides, a nation’s. There must be trust, common values, and an intimacy that affords the couturier a sense of personality. In addition, as with all fashion, wedding dresses are subject to the social environment and each decade creates its own particular milieu.

Victorian Era, 1800s

We tend to think of Queen Victoria in her later years dressed in black in eternal mourning for Prince Albert. As a young Queen, once she had gained her freedom through marriage, Victoria was highly innovative both artistic and a forward-thinker. One of her most significant projects was to add the iconic East Wing to Buckingham Palace to accommodate a growing family. Traditionally, royal bridal gowns were designed in court colours, and heavily embroidered or woven with silver threads. Victoria’s radical choice of an entirely white (or pale cream) palette began a new tradition.

At the start of WWII, British couturier, Norman Hartnell (1901-1979), designed The White Wardrobe for the Duchess of York for public events, rather than sombre black and in an effort to raise morale. The dresses and accessories are feminine and hark back to the stability of the Victorian years, with an element of 18th century Romanticism with oversized hats, and pretty parasols seen in the rather wistful photographs.

Motifs and materials

English materials were often selected by Royal brides in support of the industries. Victoria’s dress was made of East London, Spitalfields silk and the exquisite lace bodice was partly designed by the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Dyce, using Honiton lace in place of the traditional Brussels lace.

Royal wedding dresses might incorporate common motifs either embroidered onto or woven into materials, such as orange blossom, flowers and motifs depicting the British nations. The design of the wedding dress of Princess Alexander, Queen Victoria’s daughter-in-law, featured the Prince of Wales’ heraldic three feathers.

Britain in revolt, 1919 and 1920s

“Possibly not the dress of a future queen at that point, however, it’s so simple, elegant, demure, full of sweetness and humilty”.

Justine Picardie, author and fashion expert talking about Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon’s wedding emsemble.

The year following The Great War was a time of civil and social unrest in the UK with strikes and riots. Women had finally been granted the right to vote in 1918. In light of women’s new emancipation, fashion, including wedding dresses, had a simplicity for ease of movement. Previously restricted by full, heavy skirts and corsets this was a time when women also began tentatively to wear trousers.

Lady Bowes Lyon’s dress was made of ivory chiffon moiré, embellished with pearls and silver thread, which had been dyed to match the colour of an antique lace veil, lent by Queen Mary. The dress featured a fashionable drop-waist and was created by Madame Handley Seymour, former court dressmaker to the Queen. It was described by The Times as ‘the simplest ever made for a royal wedding’.

The wedding of William Caswell and Alice Chorley in 1919. Photo © Caswell family.

At the wedding of William Caswell and Alice Chorley the bride sports the new short bobbed hairstyle and a pretty flowered headdress. The train is noticeably shorter and lighter than previously. The scalloped hem of Alice’s simple wedding dress ends in the new daring style, above the ankle.

The Great Depression, 1930’s style

The wedding of Isabel Myrtle Rose Caswell and Christopher F. Goatley. 1932. Photo © Caswell family.

Between the two world wars, during the Great Depression (1929-1939), clothes were handmade often using re-purposed materials. Nonetheless, Isabel Caswell looked elegant on her wedding day with a fashionable permanent wave hairstyle, a soft lace train and a romantic bouquet of natural fresh flowers. The photograph above of Isabel’s wedding to Mr Goatley is very much of its era and has the feel and some of the glamour of the depression-era film Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

Wartime brides, 1940s

Photo: The Queen’s Wedding Dress by Norman Hartnell 1947. Photo Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

“Leading courturier, Norman Hartnell (1901 – 1979) “visualised a bridal gown of fine pearl embroidery in a floral design, and cites as his inspiration Botticelli’s painting of Primavera, trailed with garlands of flowers. The dress was made from duchesse satin, ordered from the firm of Wintherthur, near Dunfermline.” Royal Collection Trust.

“I think Norman Hartnell is often overlooked as a couturier”. Justine Picardie, novelist and fashion writer.

Hartnell submitted designs for the wedding dress with the final choice approved in mid-August 1947 just three months before the wedding. Attached at the shoulders was the magnificent 13-foot embroidered silk tulle full court train. Silk for the appliqués was produced at Lullingstone Castle, Kent and woven by Warner & Sons. Hartnell first drew out the embroidery design with his head embroideress, Miss Flora Ballard, with the motifs ‘assembled in a design proportioned like a florist’s bouquet’.

Wedding style August 1945. Edward Charles Caswell and Phyllis Margaret Young. Photo © Irene Caswell.

In a post-war world fashion would become more opulent but in 1945 the end of the war was still a few months away.

“The bride, dressed in white figured satin…” The bridesmaids were attired in blue crepe-de-chine… and wore gold bracelets, the gifts of the bridegroom”. Report of the wedding of Edward Caswell and Phyllis Young.

Farncombe newspaper, August 1945.

Sixties bride

Norman Hartnell was a Royal favourite. The couturier designed The Queen’s Coronation dress, Princess Margaret’s 21st birthday dress as well as the latter’s incredibly modern wedding dress made of organza and silk tulle, on her marriage to Athony Armstrong Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon in 1960.

That dress! 1980s

“It was of it’s time…”. Justine Picardie on Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding dress

Lady Diana Spencer’s wedding dress – possibly one of the most famous of all time – was designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel. Made in ivory silk taffeta and antique lace gown with a 25-foot train and an incredible 153-yard tulle veil.

The Noughties

Photo: The Duchess of Cambridge’s Wedding Dress designed by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen 2011. Photo Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen. In 2011 the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress was designed by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen. Kate wore the magnificent Cartier ‘Halo’ tiara, lent by The Queen to The Duchess on her wedding day. With the eyes of the world on Kate on her wedding day every item of a bride’s ensemble required particular care, from the hand-made shoes by the team at Alexander McQueen, to the diamond earrings commissioned by the Middleton family as a personal gift to the bride from her parents.

Princess Beatrice Wedding Dress Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020.

Angela Kelly and Stewart Parvin

For her wedding in 2020 to Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi, Princess Beatrice wore one of her grandmother’s exquisite vintage dresses, designed by Hartnell and remodelled by the Queen’s own trusted dressmakers, Angela Kelly and Stewart Parvin. Beatrice’s unique choice to wear a vintage gown spoke to societal concerns for the environment in a pandemic and also carried a royal endorsement of favour.

There are so many more beautiful couture royal wedding dresses over the centuries, far too many to include here. Read more about the Royal Weddings at the Royal Collection Trust

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