Anticipating what Kate Middleton aka the Duchess of Cambridge would wear on her wedding day evoked a Christmas morning type anticipation of not only the bridal but fashion world when she married Prince William. Add to that Kate has the clean and regal look of a socialite akin to Grace Kelly that would make any British designer anxious and honored to get the commission. I thought it might be fun to look back through the eras and see who was who when as far as designing the gowns goes.
Princess Elizabeth married Philip Mountbatten of Greece and Denmark in 1947. The couple has survived half a century of Cold War, a radically changing London in the swinging sixties, and a few very testy years concerning the state of the monarchy. Still, they are solid and have had one of the longest marriages in history. On the Queen and Duke’s 60th wedding anniversary, an exhibition ran from November 2007 to September 2008 at Buckingham Palace commemorating that day when post-war England rejoiced in a very royal wedding celebration —just the shot of magic dust the country needed.
Making their first appearances since 1947 are the royal bridal ensembles. Elizabeth’s gown (above) and the portrait-collared bridesmaid’ gown in the below photo were designed by Norman Hartnell, a brilliant designer who had been Dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth (Queen Mum) since 1938. Part of his claim to fame was taking commissions on wedding gowns for European society in the 1930s-40s era. Known for his intricate bead work adorning miles of tulle and satin, with the commission of Elizabeth’s gown, he used an ivory duchesse satin ornamented with thousands of crystals and 10,000 tiny pearls imported from America. He said the elaborately embroidered star designs on the 13-foot train were the inspiration of Botticelli’s Primavera, signifying revival and hope after so many years of war and austerity. The tiara pictured below is ‘something borrowed’; Elizabeth wore this priceless jewelled diadem which was especially made for her grandmother Queen Mary.
Bead work and applique on Elizabeth's gown and train. An army of seamstresses worked almost round the clock for eight weeks to complete these gowns.
One of the eight bridesmaid gowns. The detailed embroidery on the tulle reminds me of something you'd find in Claire Pettibone's collection.
Queen Mary's Tiara
It is interesting that in an age when closed-toe pumps were standard for formal weddings, Elizabeth went with these little fashionista satin platform sandals with silver buckles and peekaboo toes.
A last note about Elizabeth’s gown: If it weren’t for a savvy restoration team (Keeper of the Robes), her magnificent silk dress would have deteriorated years back. The weight of the bead work over time has weakened the fabric to such a point, in order for it to hang properly, a cotton underskirt had to be constructed to keep the skirt and bodice in one piece.
Hartnell again but this time around his assignment was a bit different. Princess Margaret, who married celeb photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones was something of a fashion plate despite her tiny stature. Thus she was not a crown princess who had to stick to such strict protocol so the creative process in designing her gown could be opened up a bit. Margaret didn't want any fussy details like crystals, lace or embroidery on the dress. She believed because of her diminutive height that lavish details might over power her look. Instead she chose the most beautiful silk organza she could find worn over an underbodice. The bling went on her head in the form of the famous Poltimore tiara. Comissioned in 1870 for Lady Poltimore, it was bought at auction, especially for Margaret. Her hair was coiffed sixties style adding a ton of height and paired up with this tiara did indeed add stature.
I look at these pictures and remember with a certain sentimentality the day Anne's engagement was announced. Then as now, I'm reminded what a beauty she was, miles ahead of her time. While her wedding dress was pretty standard while ho-hum for 1973, on video at the Westminster Abby Wedding, the satin moves beautifully and the detail is magnificent. Below is the engagement photo with finace Captain Mark Phillips. Check out the dress in embossed organza . . . a real tour de force of design and to me, timeless. The portrait below is circa the early 70s with a headband I know any one of us would wear today.
For years everyone waited to see what lucky girl Charles would make his bride. There was as much expectation around who would design her gown and what it would look like as today's fascination with Kate. Diana's 1981 storybook gown changed the look of bridal wear overnight. Until that magical day in July, we saw her emerge from her golden carriage, the industry was plagued with repros of 1970s funk. Diana with the help of David and Elizabeth Emanuel, at the time, virtual design unknowns outside West End London, made the funky high-collared satin bridal gemmies of the time suddenly go away. Bridal designers worldwide began to innovate and begin the real evolution of bridal as fashion.
While her dress by today's standards may look like a critical case of uber-pouf, in 1981 it was the real-life fairy tale dress the design industry needed in order to move forward
Designer Lindka Cierach created Sarah Ferguson's wedding gown when she married Prince Andrew in 1986. Made of ivory taffeta, the gown was embroidered throughout with thistles (celebrating her Scottish heritage) and her family's coat of arms. Sarah had an interesting set of headpiece variations. She wore a wreath of flowers on her head as she processed down the aisle of Westminster Abbey. Once she emerged from the registry after signing the marriage certificate, she changed into a tiara (a gift from her new mother in-law) for the recessional. Sarah went to the altar as a young lady and emerged on her husband's arm a married woman.
We remember her best as Lady Diana Spencer's eldest bridesmaid. Lady Sarah Armstrong-Jones was a teenager back then. July 14, 1994, Princess Margaret's only daughter married actor Daniel Chatto. Not your typical royal event, a scant 200 guests graced the invite list to St. Stephen Walbrook, the relatively small 17th-century church, a stone's throw from St. Paul's (where Charles and Diana wed). If you can believe it, there were no TV cameras and Sarah didn't show up in the family's gold coach.source
While there was no family heirloom tiara holding the bride's veil in place, Sarah did sport a circle of honeysuckle and looked timeless in her custom-designed Jasper Conran. Conran's simple confection was a white draped georgette with a ruched bodice reminiscent of the 1940s, especially in the bodice. To date, Conran's designs for Sarah Armstrong and her maids remain some the best and most inspiring work in bridal fashion.
June 19, 1999, HRH Prince Edward married Sophie Rhys-Jones in Saint George's Chapel in Windsor Castle. The ceremony was small and low key at least compared to most royal weddings. Sophie's ensemble was fresh and original while at the same time elegant and perfect for royal nuptials. British designer Samantha Shaw created the coat and dress ensemble of ivory silk organza and silk crepe. It was covered in crystals and pearl beadwork around the neck, sleeves, and train. A cathedral veil of silk tulle was also dappled in beadwork and attached to a tiara. Sophie wore a pair of matching silk shoes.