If it wasn’t for American socialite Wallis Simpson, The Royal Family as we now know it would be completely unrecognisable. Edward VIII abdicated in order to marry her in 1937. As a result, his brother, Prince Albert became King George VI.
Wallis Simpson is a notorious figure in English royal history and to an extent, she remains an enigma. And, not only that, but she proved that brides, even royal ones, have a lot more options for wedding dresses than a white ballgown. We believe that Wallis’ dress was one of the most iconic of the century.
Wallis’ First Two Marriages
Bessie Wallis Warfield was born on 19th June 1896 in Pennsylvania. Her parents were most likely not married when she was conceived, and her dad died five months after her birth. However, her wealthy uncle supported them so she was by no means in poverty. She attended an expensive private school and befriended the children of many rich and important people. Pretty soon, she made a name for herself as a determined, bright and intelligent individual.
She met her first husband, Earl Winfield Spencer Jr, in 1916. He was a US Navy pilot, who was often stationed far away, which lead to their separation and eventual divorce in 1927, after eleven years of marriage. In the meantime, she had met and started a relationship with Ernest Aldrich Simpson, an Anglo-American shipbroker who divorced his first wife to marry Wallis in London in 1928.
While married to Ernest, Wallis met Thelma, Lady Furness, because of a mutual friend. Thelma was, at the time, the mistress of the Prince of Wales, and she introduced Wallis to Edward in January 1931. They continued to meet many times at various parties over the next few years.
Wallis and Edward’s Early Relationship
According to the prince’s conversations with his father, King George V, he did not start a relationship with Wallis until after her divorce from Ernest. However, there are numerous accounts that claim she became his mistress as early as 1934, as several members of his staff claimed to see them in bed together.
Edward spent plenty of money on Wallis, buying her jewellery and taking her on holidays with him. He was reportedly enamoured by her abrupt nature and her lack of care for his title, instead treating him like any other man. He became “slavishly dependent” on her. He introduced her to his parents and they condemned the fact that she was a divorced (and married) woman.
Although, for the most part, rumours of their relationship were kept out of the British newspapers, word quickly spread abroad. Meanwhile, inside the palace, courtiers became increasingly alarmed at their closeness and he became distracted from royal duties.
Edward as King of England
King George V died in January 1936 and Edward came to the throne as King Edward VIII. He broke protocol right from the start, watching the proclamation alongside Wallis, who was still married. The government realised that he intended to marry her.
At this time, the Church of England would only grant a divorce in the case of adultery. However, as both her husbands were still alive (and divorce would not be seen as official) she would, in their eyes, be a bigamist. The government agreed that Edward could not marry Wallis and be king, as it would cause “constitutional crisis”.
Wallis filed for divorce from Ernest, granted in October 1936. By December, the British public became aware of her relationship with the king and she fled to southern France. The media hounded her and the king’s lord-in-waiting even encouraged her to write a statement renouncing the king. Nevertheless, Edward knew he loved Wallis, and he signed his abdication on 10th December 1936. The following day, his brother Albert (Bertie) became King George VI. In all, Edward was king for just 326 days.
He left England for Austria, to avoid public scrutiny and also to ensure he wouldn’t upset Wallis’ divorce proceedings. Her decree absolute came through in May 1937 and the couple reunited at the Château de Candé in Monts, France. One month later, on what would have been his father’s 72nd birthday, Edward married Wallis with none of his family present.
Edward became Duke of Windsor and Wallis the Duchess. Among the guests were Randolph Churchill, the son of Winston, Baron Eugène Daniel von Rothschild, and Major Fruity Metcalfe. Edward designed Wallis’ ring, a beautiful emerald set in yellow gold with “We are ours now” engraved inside.
Wallis’ Iconic Wedding Dress
Almost as iconic as the relationship itself was the dress which Wallis wore. It was a simple, yet stunning tailored silk dress, with a sleek floor-length skirt, wide-fitting waistband, and a clean gathered bodice that had delicate buttons on the gathered waist. This emphasised her small frame but also lengthened her body for her to appear tall and elegant. This gown, created by Paris-based exclusive couture designer Mainbocher, is a prime example of 1930s womenswear at the time.
Mainbocher worked with Wallis in the past and even developed a shade of blue (“Wallis blue”) just for her. This colour supposedly matched her eyes perfectly. It was seen as improper second-time (or third-time) brides to wear white, therefore Mainbocher dyed Wallis’ gown this colour.
To top her outfit off, Wallis wore a matching blue halo-effect straw hat with flowing blue tulle, and long-sleeved jacket. Both of these were widely copied throughout Europe and America for the next few years. She also donned a pair of silk crepe gloves.
Unfortunately Wallis’s gown, which she donated to the Metropolitan Museum in 1950, has faded over time. In fact, it now appears a more traditional cream!
The scandalous marriage of Wallis Simpson and the Duke of Windsor in 1937 changed the course of royal history. However, as we know from Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle in 2018, the royal family‘s attitude to divorce has changed greatly. What are your thoughts?