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The wedding dress of Queen Elizabeth II

After the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten at 11:30 am in Westminster Abbey on 20 November 1947, the bridal gifts given to Princess Elizabeth were exhibited at St James’s Palace, numbering over 2,500. Like the gifts, Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress, designed by the leading British couturier, Sir Norman Hartnell, was also put on display. It had been made up from one approved design within the portfolio Hartnell had submitted less than three months earlier, in mid-August 1947. The wedding was the focus of enormous public interest both in post-war Britain and abroad, with a film of the event screened at cinemas throughout the country, seen by many thousands of people.

The wedding dress had been eagerly imagined by the British population before the ceremony, to the extent that the windows of Hartnell’s premises in Bruton Street, Mayfair had to be whitewashed, with curtains hung up to protect the exclusivity of his design from public disclosure. The location of Bruton Street underlines another connection with the future Queen Elizabeth II, who was born at 17 Bruton Street, at the London home of her maternal grandparents, the Earl and Countess of Strathmore, on 21 April 1926. Following its display at St James’s Palace, Princess Elizabeth’s bridal gown was exhibited across Britain, in the cities of Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol, Preston, Leicester, Nottingham, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds and Huddersfield. The bridal veil was made of silk tulle – a departure from the Honiton lace so favoured by Queen Victoria for the Royal Family’s brides. Touchingly, even the bridal shoes worn by Princess Elizabeth have been preserved in their original box, in the Royal Collection. Like the fabric used for her wedding dress, the shoes were of duchesse satin with silver and seed pearl buckles, picking up on the applique used in the wedding dress itself. The box that still contains them has the monogram ‘E’ under a crown.

The fabric for Princess Elizabeth’s bridal gown was duchesse silk satin from the firm Winterthur Silks, near Dunfermline – one of the three silk mills in the area. The ivory silk was made from that of Chinese silkworms at Lullingstone Castle and produced in the J & T Alexander Linen Mill at Canmore Works. It was woven by Warner & Sons.  Hartnell’s magnificent wedding dress was embroidered with sparkling crystal beads and white seed pearls in a tulle, floral design, which he created alongside the House’s head embroideress, Miss Flora Ballard. Due to the restrictions of rationing still in place in post-war Britain, Princess Elizabeth had had to collect clothing coupons for her dress.

The full court train of pearl-embroidered ivory silk net was 13 foot long and patterned with stars, apparently inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera, according to the House of Hartnell. The wedding train still exists in the Royal Collection.

Sir Norman Hartnell had designed the pearl pink satin wedding dress of the Duchess of Gloucester in 1935 and created the dresses worn by her bridesmaids, Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Hartnell subsequently designed for Queen Elizabeth, who requested that Hartnell, in turn, design the wedding dresses of Princess Elizabeth in 1947 and Princess Margaret in 1960. Hartnell was later to claim that the dress he made for Elizabeth was “the most beautiful dress” that he had made to date. Hartnell also created the designs worn by Princess Elizabeth’s eight bridesmaids, Her Royal Highness  Princess Margaret, Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra of Kent, Lady Caroline Montagu-Douglas-Scott, Lady Mary Cambridge, Lady Elizabeth Lambart, The Hon. Pamela Mountbatten, The Hon. Margaret Elphinstone and The Hon. Diana Bowes-Lyon. Hartnell also designed Princess Elizabeth’s ‘going-away’ outfit; it was a dress and matching coat in blue, with accessories in a mushroom shade and a blue felt bonnet-beret with ostrich feathered and plumed quills. The Princess wore this outfit as she set out for Waterloo Station with Prince Philip for their honeymoon.

The bridesmaids wore wreaths by Jac Ltd of London, consisting of miniature white sheaves, lilies and London Pride, made from white satin and silver lame. We might perhaps remember, the pencil and watercolour sketch made by Princess Elizabeth’s paternal great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria, who herself created the design for the simple, white dresses of her twelve bridesmaids in 1840, trimmed with sprays of roses. Princess Elizabeth’s bridesmaids all carried bouquets made from white roses, white orchids, lilies of the valley, gardenias, white bouvardia and white nerine, supplied by the London florist, Moyses Stevens, who today hold the Royal Warrant as Moyses Stevens Flowers Ltd, by appointment to the Prince of Wales. Moyses Stevens’ Mayfair branch closed during the war and re-opened in 1948, the year after Princess Elizabeth’s marriage.

Princess Elizabeth’s bouquet of white cattleya, Odontoglossum and Cypripedium orchids were made by the Worshipful Company of Gardeners, by the Florist, Mr M H Longman. The Worshipful Company of Gardeners has a distinguished history, with the Company’s origins dating back to its first mention in City Corporation records as early as 1345. With a nod to Queen Victoria, it also contained a sprig of myrtle, from the bush which had been grown from an original sprig of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, the Princess Royal’s wedding bouquet. A sprig from this bush was also used for the wedding bouquet of myrtle blossoms held by Princess Alexandra of Denmark – the future Queen Alexandra – on her marriage to the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, in 1863.

Posies of myrtle and white Balmoral heather were placed on the tables of the guests at the wedding breakfast, as gifts on the occasion. Nor was this the only connection with Queen Victoria – Princess Elizabeth wore a tiara of diamonds, gold and silver – the ‘Queen Mary’s Fringe Tiara’ – made for Queen Mary by E. Wolff & Co for Garrards, in 1919. This tiara was in itself, originally part of a tiara purchased by Queen Victoria from Collingwood & Co and made into a necklace as a wedding gift for the future Queen Mary on her marriage to the Duke of York in 1893. Queen Victoria herself described it as a necklace which could also, in fact, be worn as a diadem. Queen Mary gave this tiara to Queen Elizabeth, who lent it to Princess Elizabeth for her wedding. Another of Queen Mary’s gifts included the ‘Duchess of Teck’s Earrings’, which had been given to Princess Elizabeth in January 1947 and which she wore on the wedding day. These had once been owned by Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, the youngest daughter of George III (1776-1857). The so-called ‘Queen Anne Pearl Necklace’ was a gift from the King and Queen, which Princess Elizabeth wore to match the Teck earrings, although the Royal Collection also lists the ‘Queen Caroline Pearl Necklace’ as having been worn by Princess Elizabeth on her wedding day as a present which had been given her by her parents.

Following the wedding ceremony, Princess Elizabeth sent her wedding bouquet to Westminster Abbey, to be placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as her mother Queen Elizabeth had done, at her wedding to the Duke of York in 1923. A replica of the original wedding bouquet was made for Her Majesty The Queen on the occasion of her Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1997.

Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress remained one of Hartnell’s most historic commissions, alongside the coronation gown, which had been intricately embroidered by hand with “10,000 seed pearls and thousands of white crystal beads”. Queen Elizabeth’s wedding dress had been – in contrast to those designed by Hartnell for her daughters – described as “the simplest ever made for a royal wedding” in The Times. Hers had been made of ivory chiffon moire and dyed to match the antique veil which had been lent to her on her wedding by her future mother-in-law, Queen Mary.

The wedding ring of the future Queen Elizabeth II was made from a nugget of Welsh gold from the mine of Clogau St Davids.

©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.