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The Duchess of York’s wedding dress

The bridal gown worn by Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on her marriage to the Duke of York at Westminster Abbey at 11:30 am on 26 April 1923 was probably correctly described as the “simplest ever made for a royal wedding” in The Times. It was a departure from the more traditional wedding dress of white satin worn by her mother-in-law-to-be, the future Queen Mary, which had silver trimmings and a design of lace that combined shamrocks, roses and thistles, as befitted a royal, British bride. Like the future Queen Mary, however, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon was also marrying a Duke of York, whose elder brother had been expected to become – or remain – King.

It was in this wedding dress, that Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon departed from the London home of her parents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne, at 17 Bruton Street, Mayfair, which would also be the birthplace of the future Queen Elizabeth II, three years later. However accurate the description may have been in The Times for the dress’s simplicity, it was typical of the looser, 1920s fashion trends and therefore was also following the tastes of its own era, making any comparison with the later, resplendent Norman Hartnell wedding dresses for Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret in 1947 and 1960 respectively, an unjust one.

The wedding dress was of ivory chiffon moire and had two trains, one which was fastened at the hips, the other from the shoulders. The bridal veil was one of antique Flanders lace, in keeping with Queen Mary’s traditional tastes and had been lent to Lady Elizabeth for the wedding; the fabric of the dress had been dyed to match the shade of the veil. There is a striking resemblance between the wedding dress of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and the dress she wore as a bridesmaid for the wedding of her future sister-in-law, Princess Mary and Viscount Lascelles on 28 February 1922, in which costume she was photographed by the London photographers Lafayette on the day of the wedding itself. Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon had become the fiancée of the Duke of York on her acceptance of his proposal on 13 January 1923, which was officially announced some days later. The design of the dress has the relaxed, drop waist of the 1920s, also a feature of her wedding dress the following year.

The Duke and Duchess of York were photographed after the wedding by the photographers Bassano; a noticeable piece, however, is missing in the Duchess of York’s bridal ensemble – her wedding bouquet, which included lilies of the valley and roses. This she had placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as she entered Westminster Abbey – something which had not been expected – and was possibly done to commemorate her brother Fergus Bowes-Lyon, who died on the field as the result of bullet wounds during the Battle of Loos, in 1915. Westminster Abbey’s opinion is that the gesture was done out of respect, in memory of Fergus, who died during the Great War. This, in turn, established an unofficial tradition for subsequent brides of the Royal Family, who had their bouquets sent back to the Abbey after the wedding ceremonies instead, including the future Queen Elizabeth II in 1947. Fittingly, another Duchess of York, formerly Sarah Ferguson, did the same after her wedding to Prince Andrew, Duke of York in 1986. The bridal bouquet of the Duchess of Cambridge was also placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 2011.

British Pathe News footage shows Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon leaving 17 Bruton Street in her wedding dress and later, as Duchess of York on the balcony at Buckingham Palace, with the Duke of York and Queen Mary. Incidentally, British Pathe News film from 28 February 1922 shows the carriage carrying Princess Mary and Viscount Lascelles on their wedding day, pulling up next to the Cenotaph, and a footman opening the carriage door, for a Grenadier guard to place a bouquet of flowers – presumably her bridal bouquet – at the foot of the memorial: “Cheering thousands were stilled to silence as Bride & Bridegroom paid tribute to the Glorious Dead who saved King & Empire.” In light of this action by her future sister-in-law the year before her own marriage, perhaps this may in itself, have inspired Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon to her own moving and spontaneous gesture, as she entered Westminster Abbey.

Prince Albert, Duke of York (future George VI) and Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at their wedding. Photo: Royal Collection Object 2941575 (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons.

It was made by the London fashion designer and court dressmaker, Mme. Handley-Seymour, who had worked for Queen Mary and whom the Duchess of York would patronise until she came to prefer Norman Hartnell. Despite being billed for its simplicity in The Times, it was embroidered with pearls and silver thread. In a further parallel, as Hartnell would design both the wedding gown and ‘going away’ outfit of Princess Elizabeth. Mme. Handley-Seymour also designed the Duchess of York’s wedding dress and her ‘going away’ outfit.

The dress appears to have also featured a silver rose thistle, which fastened together the girdle of silver leaves and green tulle, in this case then, missing out the shamrocks which constituted the lace of the brides of Queen Victoria’s family. This apparent omission, however, would appear to be significant, because the thistle denoted Lady Elizabeth’s Scottish ancestry, whilst the rose stood for the famous white rose of York. The early 20th-century Ohio newspaper, the Toledo News-Bee, listed in its issue for 24 April 1923, two days prior to the wedding, that the Duchess of York’s dress would be appliqued with “pearl beads, pearls and silver lame”, the latter in three bands across the bodice and would be “medieval” in style, surely an inaccurate description, as the dress itself merely followed the mode of the ‘Roaring Twenties’.

The two bridal trains were of Nottingham lace and according to the News-Bee, a strip of rose point lace was included in the trousseau, being a Strathmore family heirloom, having been worn by one of their ancestresses at a ball given for Prince Charles Edward Stuart, who history has more popularly named ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. There was no tiara, but instead a simple bridal wreath of myrtle, which shares a tradition with earlier royal brides dating back to Queen Victoria.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018

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