Thursday, 16 March 2017

Royals in Paris: the White Wardrobe

William and Kate are due in Paris this weekend
(photo credit By Benh LIEU SONG - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link)

Many stylish royals have walked through Paris but one made their mark more than most. Queen Elizabeth, later the Queen Mother, made such a fashion splash on her State Visit to the capital of France in July 1938 that the clothes she wore then are still known by one phrase - the White Wardrobe. The White Wardrobe became one of the best known sets of clothes of the 20th century and it remains a landmark in style and royal dressing even now. As we get ready for another royal visit to Paris, this time by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, here's a look back at one of the most famous of them all where the White Wardrobe ruled.

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.

Queen Elizabeth caused a style sensation from the moment the visit began. Norman Hartnell's hastily redesigned wardrobe caused a sensation. The fashion of the time was sleek, straight lines and understated simplicity. Hartnell, instead, turned to the Victorian era and took the crinoline as his inspiration. The outfits were romantic and filled with detail, a total fashion turnaround, and the reception was on an unparalleled scale.


Perhaps the best known of the gowns now is  full length lace dress with crinoline inspired skirt worn to a tea party at the Bagatelle Gardens in the Bois de Boulogne.  The stiff hoops and boning of the original Victorian gowns is gone - this is a fluid reimagining of royal style. But the softness stood out against the starkness that had come to dominate couture in recent times. There were signature parasols and huge hats covered in feathers. Elizabeth and Hartnell created a look that dominated fashion pages and would inform her future royal style. 

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. 

Back in England, Elizabeth dusted down the gowns and posed in their style for the famous portraits by Cecil Beaton which cemented her image firmly in the public consciousness. But they remained hidden in the wardrobes of Clarence House until after the Queen Mother's death in 2002. In 2005, they formed the centrepiece of an exhibition at Buckingham Palace during its summer opening that year and attracted huge crowds. Their inspiration remains. One of the most famous royal wardrobes ever will linger long in Paris.

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