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Historic Swedish royal wedding dresses

Within the historical collections of the Royal Armoury [Livrustkammeran] in Stockholm are preserved some astonishing examples of Swedish royal wedding dresses. Some are in the forms of fully preserved dresses, others sections from the same, such as trains or loosely attachable pieces of the robe de coursuch as the corset. Whilst many are within the collections but mostly not exhibited for conservation reasons, the fact that they have been preserved at all, is extraordinary.

In British terms, one of the oldest royal wedding dresses which has survived – albeit in adapted form – is that in the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection which was worn by the Prince Regent’s daughter, Princess Charlotte on her marriage in 1816. Encountering these costumes enables the viewer to transcend time through textile somehow, giving the beholder also a unique sense of the historic wearer’s proportions, lending them a sense of their physical presence, something which portraiture does, in a different way. The Swedish royal examples are older and of exceptional quality.

The ivory-coloured bridal gown worn by Sweden’s present Queen Silvia on her marriage to King Carl XVI Gustaf in 1976, has been preserved. It was created by Dior of Paris, when the Queen wore in for her wedding in Stockholm’s Storkyrkan, together with the historic cameo tiara with red gold and pearls, worn by Princesses Birgitta and Desiree of Sweden at their marriages, but originally worn by the wife of King Oscar I, Queen Josefina. The wedding outfits of Oscar I and Queen Josefina, survive in the Royal Armoury. The Queen’s long bridal train had been worn by Princesses Birgitta and Desiree respectively; it was so long that it took the newly-appointed pages some little time to fold it into the carriage, in which the Queen and King then drove through the streets of Stockholm. Her Majesty reflected in an interview given for a past exhibition of her dresses at Stockholm’s Royal Palace: “Dior had also made my wedding dress, it was only natural for me to ask them to make my first Nobel dress”. This was repeated when in 2016-17, five royal wedding dresses were displayed at the Royal Palace, to mark the 40th wedding anniversary of the King and Queen of Sweden. The dresses worn by Queen Silvia, Crown Princess Victoria, Princess Madeleine, Princess Sofia and Princess Lilian of Sweden were on display.

The wedding of Frederick II “the Great’s” sister, Louisa Ulrike, took place per procurationem in Berlin in 1744, whilst her bridegroom, Crown Prince Adolf Friedrich awaited her in Stockholm, where the marriage would be properly celebrated. We have a description of what the future Queen Louisa Ulrike wore that evening to the opera in Berlin, which had been ordered in an attempt to cheer the emotional moment of departure for the Prussian princess, who was going literally into the unknown, to meet a bridegroom she had never met, knowing only the little Swedish which she had managed to learn in the four months since her betrothal. The latter was in itself, no tragedy, however, because her bridegroom was from the German House of Gottorp, and they would, of course, converse in French, as befitted the strict etiquette which prevailed in the Royal Court in Stockholm.

One of the most iconic of these Swedish royal wedding dresses is that of the future Queen Hedvig Elisabet Charlotta of Sweden (Queen Consort of Norway from 1814-18) – of the German House of Holstein-Gottorp – who married Karl XIII of Sweden in 1774. She entered Stockholm in a gondola on 7 July 1774, and the marriage took place the same day. Queen Hedvig Elisabet Charlotta is perhaps best – and justifiably – remembered for her remarkable diary – her great Dagbok – written originally in French, in the form of letters to her close friend, Countess Sophie von Fersen until 1798 and preserved in Stockholm’s Riksarchivet. They were edited in Swedish by the author Cecilia af Klercker and remain an invaluable source for scholars of Swedish political and social history, as they vividly document the Gustavian era. Hedvig Elisabeth Charlotta’s sparkling, Rococo portrait by Swedish painter Alexander Roslin in the year after her marriage, perfectly captures the essence of wit and charm that so captivated the court in her role as Duchess of Södermanland. Her wedding dress was extraordinary. Its gorgeous, heavy skirt and woven, patterned train embroidered in silver, is preserved in the Royal Armoury, as is the richly embroidered matching corset of silver brocade. Her leather gloves and silk goatskin shoes are also preserved from her wedding year, appliqued with sequins on cowhide linen. The corset of the wedding dress is important because Queen Hedvig Elisabet Charlotta’s waist measured an astounding 19 inches, which the corset must have helped to emphasise.

The bridal gown of Queen Fredrika Dorotea Vilhelmina – born Princess Frederica of Baden – is also preserved in the Royal Armoury. She married King Gustaf IV Adolf of Sweden, again per procura, in 1797. Like Princess Louisa Ulrika of Prussia notably before her, she was escorted to Sweden via Karlskrona. A second, Swedish wedding followed in the Royal Chapel in Stockholm. The trailer of Queen Fredrika’s wedding dress is preserved, lavishly embroidered; its costume patterns survive.

Remarkably, pieces from the even older wedding dress of Queen Sophia Magdalena of Sweden have survived. Princess Sophia Magdalena of Denmark had been betrothed to the future King Gustav III of Sweden in 1751 when she was aged just five-years-old. The engagement, however, was not officially celebrated until 1766. The union was greatly desired, because of a historic need to placate age-old animosity and instead promote peace between Denmark and Sweden. Finally, her marriage by proxy sealed the longed-for alliance and was celebrated at the Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen. Her official entry to the capital took place on 4 November 1766, on which day a second service was performed in the Royal Chapel of Stockholm’s Royal Palace, completed in the mid 1750s to designs by Tessin the Younger. It is astonishing that the actual lace train of her bridal gown survives, gorgeously embroidered with silver; her beautiful dress of silver brocade is preserved. King Gustav III’s elegant wedding outfit survives, thus in the same remarkable Armoury collection that preserves the famous masquerade costume that he wore to the ball at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, the night he was assassinated, in 1792.

These wedding dresses – of at least four Swedish queens – though little seen, should be no less forgotten for that.

©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2018
About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian and writer, specializing in Queen Victoria's family, Russian royalty and the Habsburgs. An independent scholar of royal studies, she has studied historic British and European royalty for nearly twenty years, speaking on the subject for both TV and BBC radio.