It’s not just royal weddings that get the country in a flutter, but also the royal wedding dresses. For centuries, the marriages of royal women have turned heads and set trends.
Of course, royalty doesn’t get the same luxury as the rest of us in being able to choose whatever style they want. No, in fact, there are many more considerations for a royal bride. With the whole world watching, there’s a large amount of pressure on duchesses and princesses. Certainly, this is even more the case when the nation is in, or just coming out of, great hardship.
We’ve all got a pretty good idea of what some of our most famous royals wore on their big day, but what was the real significance behind these spectacular wedding gowns?
Queen Mary I
Queen Mary I of England, also known as Mary Tudor, is one we were all taught about in schools. In fact, unlike the lengthy reigns of other female monarchs, she only led the country for five years, before her death aged 42 in 1558. She did, however, find time to marry.
In a desperate attempt to provide an heir before her protestant sister would come to the throne, Mary sought Prince Philip of Spain. Her first sighting of him was in a painting by Titian, and they married in 1554 just two days after their first meeting in person.
Until the late 19th century, far from being romantic fairytales, royal weddings were really arranged marriages and political unions, and the brides dressed accordingly. What they were really doing was dutifully playing their part in international politics.
Her dress was a rich purple in colour, which was common for weddings – especially royal ones – of that day. Although there is obviously no photographic evidence of her dress, we know from records that it was probably embellished with gold and silver threads and ornamented with pearls. Replicas have been made which show the shimmering fabric and obvious wealth displayed in the design.
Queen Victoria saw it as her business to promote all things British, and her wedding apparel offered the perfect opportunity.
Like Mary, Victoria too was already on the throne by the time she wed. She met her cousin Albert when she was just 17 years old. She became Queen less than a month after her 18th birthday, but didn’t marry Albert until she was 21. Nevertheless, she was absolutely smitten.
As the head of the rapidly growing British Empire, Victoria’s wedding dress needed to show homage to all of the nations. She had a relatively simple dress. In this day, white was more a colour of mourning and yet Victoria insisted. Ever since, white has been the popular colour for wedding dresses.
Her dress was made from silk woven in East London, and it was decorated with lace produced in the southwest of England. This Honiton lace has been a popular feature of royal wedding dresses ever since.
This 1885 photograph of a newly-married Princess Beatrice, the daughter of Queen Victoria, represents the growth and development of print media that initially helped promote our interest in royal wedding dresses.
Centuries before, royal weddings were rather private affairs, but the 19th century saw the beginnings of the general public being able to have a visual impression of the occasion.
Beatrice wore a lace overskirt with her white satin dress, and her mother’s Honiton lace veil. She also took inspiration from her mother’s gown for the orange blossoms and white heather that trimmed her skirt.
Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon
The Queen Mother wore a wedding dress that had white roses (the symbol of the House of York) as well as orange blossoms. She married George VI in 1923, when he was still the Duke of York, yet the wedding was still of high importance. Britain was still suffering after the First World War, and Elizabeth laid her bouquet on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. This act was repeated by her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.
Elizabeth had fought against marrying “Bertie” as she did not want to be constrained by royal life. She was not a princess, but her father was the peer Lord Glamis. As the country was coming together in the aftermath of The Great War, the marriage was seen as one of great political significance. It inspired modernisation of ideas in a way that wasn’t found before.
Her dress, in its medieval style, showed the opposite of this, though the fashion would become rather modern. The dress was waistless, decorated with silver lame and seed pearls, and had two trains.
Queen Elizabeth ll
When Princess Elizabeth walked up the aisle at Westminster Cathedral in 1947, her dress was not just a fashion statement; she represented the newborn hopes of a nation that had only just seen the end of the Second World War. In fact, she saved up ration coupons to be able to buy the fabric for the gown!
Royal dressmaker Norman Hartnell achieved an expression of national renewal by decorating the gown with garlands of spring flowers. He said it was inspired by spring and new growth, in particular the painting Primavera by Boticelli. Many themes from previous royal wedding dresses returned, including orange blossom, Honiton lace and seed pearls. She also had an impressive 14 foot long train which was embroidered with roses and wheat.
Hartnell also designed the queen’s coronation gown, which she wore just six years later. This too was white, and embroidered with emblems from the four United Kingdom states as well as the Commonwealth.
Only time will tell the true relevance that Kate Middleton’s gown might have within the context of our current time and situation, but one thing’s for certain – her dress contained many historic British themes.
Kate Middleton’s dress featured embroidered roses, thistles, daffodils and shamrocks, similar to the Queen’s coronation dress in 1953. This could be interpreted as a sign of upcoming spring for a somewhat wintry UK economy.
Similar to Queen Victoria’s 1840 gown, Kate’s dress also did its bit to boost British industry. For example, she chose British couturier Alexander McQueen to design her gown, admiring his “craftsmanship, and respect for traditional workmanship and the technical construction of clothing”.
Going against tradition, Meghan decided to use a designer working at Paris-based Givenchy for her wedding dress. However, Claire Waight Keller herself is British. This was seen as a more subtle link to tying her American heritage to her new nationality.
She wanted a dress that was minimal and would remain timeless. And, of course, it was white, as is now the tradition that was started with Queen Victoria all those years ago.
To celebrate Harry’s role as Youth Ambassador for the Commonwealth, her veil incorporated flowers from all 53 Commonwealth countries. She did not tell the prince about this, and he was reportedly ecstatic when he saw it. The veil also incorporated a small piece of the blue dress she wore on her first date with Prince Harry.
All these royal wedding dresses were, of course, fit for royalty. Whilst you may choose to have some emblems in your outfit, be thankful that the whole world won’t be watching your every move! Which dress is your favourite?