William and Kate are due in Paris this weekend
The State Visit to France by King George VI in 1938 was billed as one of the most important events since he had taken the throne following the Abdication in December 1936. It was intended to strengthen relations between France and Britain as the prospect of war against Nazi Germany grew ever more real. George and his consort, Elizabeth, were due to head to Paris at the end of June 1938. But on June 23rd that year, Elizabeth's mother, the Countess of Strathmore, died and the State Visit was postponed as the King, his Queen and their court grieved. The trip was rescheduled for 19th to 22nd July but while the queen consort stepped onto the boat at Dover dressed in mourning black, a wardrobe of that colour for the whole of this State Visit to France was seen as problematic.
For a start, it was high summer and Paris can get hot. But given the important nature of the trip, and the context in which it was taking place, black was seen as an unsuitable shade for the visit. Queen Elizabeth had to put aside her traditional mourning but there was no place either for the wardrobe she had planned with her chosen designer, Norman Hartnell, which was described as being of 'many lovely colourings'. A very quick rethink was needed and the designer was about to prove his genius, make his name forever and turn the Queen of England into a fashion superstar.
Queen Elizabeth walked into Paris dressed all in white and she remained in that colour for the whole of her State Visit. White had been the colour of mourning for French queens until the 1600s while Mary, Queen of Scots had worn white after being widowed as a teenager. It was duly respectful to the memory of her mother, and to the tradition of mourning, but it was bright and light enough to set Paris ablaze. But it would do more than that. Suddenly, this was the wardrobe that everyone wanted to see.
The crinoline inspired evening dress, worn for the State Banquet in Paris, fell into the same category. Queen Elizabeth didn't just tick the boxes and keep her hosts happy, she established trends - the autumn collections shown in Paris that year were influenced by her State Visit wardrobe.
There were nods to the shapes and styles of 1938 in parts of the White Wardrobe but what made this such a success was matching the design to the occasion. For a visit to a war memorial, Elizabeth and her designer kept the lines simple in an outfit close to the received styles of the day. This wasn't the moment for trend setting. But by then, the White Wardrobe had stirred up European and world fashion. Norman Hartnell became a star, and was made an officer of the Academie Francaise.
This was also a personal triumph in some ways for Elizabeth. The sister in law who had caused so much controversy, Wallis Simpson, was known for her love of fashion and French couture. In 1937, for her marriage to the former Edward VIII, Wallis had chosen a blue gown by Mainbocher which became one of the most photographed in the world. Just a year later, Elizabeth had trumped her in the fashion capital she loved so much.