Queen Victoria’s wedding dress is a powerful symbol of what she would refer to in her journal as the ‘happiest day of my life’. Most probably, it represents more than any other item of clothing or object, the Queen’s identity as a royal bride. Certainly, she chose to wear it again in 1847, when she was painted in her wedding attire by the fashionable portraitist Franz Xaver Winterhalter, as a gift for Prince Albert on their seventh wedding anniversary. The simplicity of the dress could not be mistaken. Queen Victoria was appearing as a woman, dressed as she was on the day she became a royal wife.
The colour of white at weddings, which she helped to popularise as the standard dress for Victorian brides, should not surprise us when we contrast this with the deepest black of her mourning dresses of the early 1860s, the rawest years of her widowhood. Instead, we should see it as a ready illustration of the radiant love she had felt as Prince Albert’s bride naturally translating into the dreadful grief of becoming his widow when he died. For the 10 February 1840 (wedding day) should be looked on like the opposite of 14 December 1861 (the day of Prince Albert’s death), when she became a widow. This image of the Queen which still endures, in the full severity of the mourning that she wore, should I think, point to a richer understanding of her identity as a bride. White is in fact, the traditional colour of mourning for Queens of France.
Black cannot be a greater contrast to white, a widow opposite to a wife. This is clearly told through a comparison of the Queen’s clothing. The deepest period of mourning meant that in the early 1860s, the Queen’s mourning dresses were covered almost totally in black crape. We could contrast this with the wedding veil, which the Queen had loved and worn at the christenings of all of her children and began to wear in later years on days of family importance, such as royal weddings.
Only one of the Queen’s mourning dresses from the earliest phase survives. Similarly, the Queen’s accounts reveal a decline in expenditure on clothing after Prince Albert’s death, hardly surprising, given the great interest that the Prince had taken in her personal dressing. Again, we might find sad contrast in this and the glowing happiness of the Queen’s journal entry during their honeymoon at Windsor, when she revealed to her journal, that Prince Albert had helped her with her stockings.
I want to explore Queen Victoria’s actual wedding dress, as opposed to the regal accoutrements or items of personal jewellery that also were associated with the wedding day, such as the immense sapphire brooch, a gift from Prince Albert to the Queen on the eve of their wedding, which she wore and to which she attached such heavy importance, that it was willed to the Crown on her death.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Queen only makes scant references to the preparations for the wedding. Several entries in her journal do discuss them, showing that previous royal weddings were examined as precedents, such as that of George III and Queen Charlotte – the Queen’s paternal grandparents – although the Queen herself insisted that she did not wish to wear her crimson robe of state, preferring to appear simply, meaning unmistakably that she wanted to appear as a woman on this day and not as a Queen (Kay Staniland, In Royal Fashion, 118). The utter simplicity of the design was also emphasised by the conventional white silk, rose-sprayed dresses of her twelve bridesmaids, which the Queen helped to ‘design’, as can be seen from the charming sketch she gave to her Mistress of the Robes, the Duchess of Sutherland. Several references are made to Queen Victoria’s wedding lace, after Prince Albert’s death, by which the veil – photographed in its own right for the Queen’s ‘Album of Important Occasions’ and called by the Queen ‘my dear wedding veil’ – might also be meant.
Queen Victoria’s dress is of cream Spitalfields silk satin, with a pointed boned bodice and sleeves gathered at the elbow, which probably has been transferred numerous times. The deep flounce of Honiton lace at the neck and sleeves was the same lace which would become the preferred wedding lace for the marriages of her daughters and daughters-in-law, as opposed to the fashionable Brussels lace. The Queen followed tradition by supporting British industry in the creation of her wedding costume, helping thereby to revive lace-making in Devon, which had been waning in favour of the more fashionable, Belgian form.
The lace was worn by the Queen’s daughters and daughters-in-law incorporated in its design, English roses, shamrocks and thistles as winning emblems of England, Ireland and Scotland. The exception to this was Princess Helena of Waldeck-Pyrmont, who married the Queen’s youngest son, Prince Leopold, in 1882. Her white satin dressed was trimmed with the more fashionable Brussels lace, instead of the Queen’s particular, Honiton. Even the ‘favour’ ribbons made for the public to commemorate the wedding had the British emblems woven into them, together with the newly entwined ‘V&A’, crowned and surmounted by a true-lovers-knot. A handkerchief, possibly presented to the Queen on the occasion of her wedding, similarly incorporates roses, thistles and shamrocks, together with the initials of the Queen and Prince Albert and the royal coat of arms (Staniland 122).
Given the Queen’s great interest in fashion – to which her many watercolour sketches as a girl and young woman richly attest – it is surprising that the Queen does not include information about the actual making of the dress, which would have been made in Honiton, Devon (Staniland, 120). The ‘deep’ flounce was something again, which would be a feature with the dresses of the five princesses, on their marriages. The lace flounce reveals the exquisite patterns contained within the design, in which the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Dyce appears to have been involved, according to new research (Ibid, 120). It has been suggested that the wedding dress was made by Mary Bettans in London’s Jermyn Street, who was dressmaker to Queen Victoria for the most extended amount of time.
Mrs Bettans was listed as residing at 84 Jermyn Street, in the London Post Office directory for 1843. The Royal Collection attributes the wedding dress to Mrs Bettans (RCIN 71975; Staniland, 121). The wedding lace was overseen by Jane Bidney, who had premises in St. James’s Street, which was of course, close enough to St James’s Palace, where the marriage ceremony was to be performed. The cost of the wedding lace veil and flounce ranged from between £1,000 and £1,500 (J. Roberts, Five Gold Rings: A Royal Wedding Souvenir Album from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II, 20); the cost of the Queen’s wedding trousseau was eventually paid by the Privy Purse (Staniland, 121).
For Queen Victoria on her wedding day, we must imagine that her personal happiness must have been so great in anticipation, that she had little time to describe what she wore. We know that she awoke in Buckingham Palace on the morning of 10 February 1840. A watercolour by the artist James Roberts gives us a glimpse of the room, some eight years later. She got up at ¼ to 9 and breakfasted three-quarters of an hour later. The Queen seems to have been more interested in writing a note to her bridegroom, which she wrote as cold rain splashed against the windowpanes. It is tempting to suspect that the Queen was simply impatient and anxious to get to St James’s Palace, to be married to Prince Albert, with whom she was so passionately in love. This is an explanation to the simple word that she used in her journal entry, to describe getting ready in her wedding clothes: ‘Dressed’ (cit., Viscount Esher, The Girlhood of Queen Victoria: A Selection from Her Majesty’s diaries between the years 1832 and 1840, 318).
There is little to indicate more than this. The Queen notes that her mother, the Duchess of Kent, had brought her a nosegay of orange flowers and that her beloved governess, Baroness Lehzen, had made her the present of a ring. The only sentence we have is the following: ‘I wore a white satin gown with a very deep flounce of Honiton lace, imitation of old’ (cit., Ibid, 318). At the time of the publication of the Queen’s diaries (1912), Esher added in his footnotes that the lace that the Queen mentioned was at the time of publishing, in the possession of Queen Alexandra. The flounce was deeply treasured by Queen Victoria, as an item of costume of extreme significance; she wore it at the wedding of the Princess Royal in 1858 and at the wedding of the Prince of Wales, future George V, in 1893. Importantly, both of these marriages were celebrated at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, which probably accounts for why the Queen wore this most personal of pieces. The magnificent lace flounce survives today, in the Royal Collection.
The Queen noted in her entry for that day in her journal, that the marriage ceremony had been a simple one, simplicity being also the overall impression of her own wedding dress. Apart from the Winterhalter portrait of Queen Victoria in 1847, we of course, have the painting The Marriage of Queen Victoria, 10 February 1840, by Sir George Hayter. This painting shows the Queen in her wedding dress, but without the beautiful sapphire brooch that she certainly wore on the day, and which correctly featured in the portrait made later by Winterhalter, seen prominently on the collar of her wedding lace (Charlotte Gere, Victoria & Albert, Love and Art: Queen Victoria’s Personal Jewellery, 7). Queen Victoria does not appear to have referred to the missing brooch, despite her passionate devotion to detail.
On arrival at St James’s Palace, Queen Victoria had gone into the dressing-room, where she was awaited by her bridesmaids, and delayed entering the Chapel Royal until Prince Albert’s procession was fully inside. It was in this simple, cream satin dress however, that the Queen entered the Chapel, to the tune of the organ as the trumpets ceased. The Queen’s journal does not contain any reference to the fact that the bridesmaids had difficulty with the wedding train, which was too short to enable them to hold it in the normal manner and process at a regular pace (Marquess of Lorne, V.R.I, Her Life and Empire, 120; cit., Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria, 121). After returning to a crowded Buckingham Palace, through the streets filled with a cheering public, Queen Victoria withdrew to her dressing-room at Buckingham Palace, with Prince Albert, where they both sat upon a sofa together.
Judging from her journal, she seems to have worn the wedding dress to the wedding breakfast, because she writes ‘dearest Albert leading me in, and my Train being borne by 3 Pages’ (cit., Viscount Esher, 321). After the breakfast, she continues: ‘I went upstairs and undressed and put on a white silk gown trimmed with swansdown, and a bonnet with orange flowers’ (cit., Ibid). The bonnet was preserved by the Queen and worn by her on her carriage ride as she and Prince Albert drove away for their honeymoon at Windsor Castle. The ‘going-away’ bonnet of 1840, with a deep brim and covered with ribbed silk, is decorated with orange sprays. It survives in the Royal Collection. Later, the undressing became something of a private ceremony, a personal reversal of the old royal ‘coucher’, or ‘going-to-bed’: ‘At ½ p. 10 I went and undressed and was very sick, and at 20 m. p. 10 we both went to bed; (of course in one bed)’ (cit., A. N. Wilson, Victoria, 103). There is no reference of where the wedding dress – taken off at Buckingham Palace – had been stored.
Queen Victoria did not live to see her wedding anniversary in 1901; she died at Osborne on 22 January 1901. I checked the Queen’s journal for the last one that she did celebrate during her life – 10 February 1900. The Queen was at Osborne on this day; unsurprisingly, the diary entry opens up with the Queen’s noting that it was the sixtieth anniversary of her wedding.
The Queen’s wedding dress is preserved in the Royal Collection and was displayed until recently, under glass at Kensington Palace, allowing the onlooker a living sense of encountering the diminutive Queen Victoria as a bride on her wedding day. It was kept at the Museum of London, where it was recorded as being, in 2010.