Wallis Simpson was a polarising figure in the British Royal Family and continues to divide royal watchers today. Born on 19 June 1896 as Bessie Wallis Warfield, Simpson would go on to marry the former King Edward VIII.
The women in the British Royal Family have been using fashion and style to make statements for centuries. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother very specifically used fashion to create a specific look. Sweeping skirts and a silhouette that accentuated the waist were a hallmark of her evening wear, and calf-length coats and high heels gave an illusion of height. Simpson took a very different approach to fashion, though.
Simpson knew that style was crucial to her success. She once said, “I’m not a beautiful woman. I’m nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else.” She favoured sleek and streamlined pieces and was often seen as severe when compared with the Queen Mother. Simpson embraced haute couture and designer fashion while the British Royal Family tended to stick with the British Norman Hartnell. She was a regular customer of Givenchy, Mainboucher, Schiaparelli, and Dior, often sitting front row at their couture shows. Schiaparelli’s pieces, in particular, worked perfectly to highlight her incredibly thin frame and provide the backdrop for her impressive jewellery collection.
If you are looking to see Simpson’s clothing in person, there are three museums that you will want to visit: the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Musée de la Mode et du Textiles in Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
The Metropolitan Museum holds several notable pieces. They hold her Mainboucher wedding ensemble (though it has faded to cream from its original blue) from her 1937 marriage to the Duke of Windsor. They also hold her Mainboucher evening gown that she wore for a Cecil Beaton portrait that was published in British Vogue in 1939.
The Victoria and Albert Museum holds several pieces worn by Simpson. She personally chose the House of Dior’s Bal Masque cocktail dress, which you can currently see in the Dior: Designer of Dreams exhibition at the V&A. Their collection also contains a silk crêpe evening jacket from Mainboucher that is strikingly similar to the coat that the Duchess wore in her engagement photos.
If you would like to emulate the Duchess of Windsor’s style yourself, you may have a chance. Simpson famously wore Elsa Schiaparelli’s “Lobster Dress,” created with the surrealist Salvadore Dali. The House of Schiaparelli re-released the gown in the SS 2017 collection.