It doesn’t happen very often, in fact this could well be the first of its kind when the sixth heir to the British throne has caused a stir in the world’s cauldron of chatter and set the media in a frenzy about his upcoming nuptials. The heir, of course, is Prince Harry of Wales and his bride (and sudden sweetheart of young girls everywhere) – Meghan Markle. Perhaps the keen interest coming from the public has a lot to do with his mother late Princess Diana, who continues to be the world’s beloved. A young innocuous bride at 19, Diana charmed the world instantly as she stepped down her wedding carriage on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral.
Royal weddings continue to hold their stature among the world events even today thanks to the bridegroom’s elder brother Prince William who resuscitated life into the dwindling interest in monarchy itself with his wedding. But like any wedding, every eye and camera lens is focused on the bride and her attire. Now add a historic lineage to the bridegroom and you have a recipe of a social event not meant for the faint-hearted. The royal bride may have all the experts under the sun to guide her towards the aisle but it is her own personality that reflects through one single hero of the day – the wedding gown. Fashion lovers and aspiring fashion geeks pay attention because a lot of history pertaining to the world of artisan and fabric is sewn in these royal wedding gowns. Let’s begin with the royal wedding that began it all to the latest royal wedding of the 21st century and their work of artistry on the white silk canvas.
Princess Grace of Monaco
As another American actress enters the royal fold lets travel 62 years back to the wedding that took the world’s fancy and gave birth to the ‘Wedding of the Century’ moment in pop culture. MGM’s sweetheart and box office goddess Grace Kelly was getting married to Prince Rainier of Monaco in April of 1956. The wedding gown was a gift from MGM studio. Helen Rose – a costume designer at MGM and one who designed many costumes for Grace Kelly took 400 yards of fabric that included antique Belgian lace, Faille silk (a type of taffeta silk), tulle, and silk net. The dress had hundreds of hand-sewn seed pearls and more on the Juliet cap that held her veil. Beneath the lace bodice and pleated faille silk skirt were layers including a slip, underbodice, and skirt support, while the skirt train had the foundation, ruffled petticoats, and a train insert. The look was complete with a faille cummerbund that accented the restrained image of the gown. The dress was conservative and traditional while rendering a fairytale princess look to her persona. The long train of the veil was made with antique Belgian applique lace with motifs on the edges. Staying loyal to her era, Grace Kelly had the Holy Bible instead of a floral bouquet in hand while walking down the aisle. The bible was sewn with lace and embroidered with pearls to match the dress. Princess Grace of Monaco set a benchmark for a royal wedding gown in the books of fashion history. Brides both famous celebrities and otherwise have taken inspiration or have unabashedly mimicked her style for their wedding. One of such famous brides would be a royal bride herself but more on that as we go along the post.
Queen Elizabeth II
Defending your choice of life partner with the King of England in the backdrop of World War II is no easy task, let alone being handed coupons to buy wedding gown fabric. Queen Elizabeth who was also an heir to the throne didn’t have it on a silver platter when it came to her own wedding, unlike her grandchildren and children. Imagine saving up rationing coupons just make your wedding attire, a dream of every bride right? Norman Hartnell known for his embroidery was commissioned to design the first royal wedding after World War II. He designed the wedding gown in ivory silk with a heart-shaped neckline and star-patterned train. The embroidery was inspired by Botticelli’s painting Primavera and echoed the sentiment of rebirth after the great war. Hartnell embroidered wheat, roses, and stars with silver gold thread and added symbolism to the royal wedding gown. The gown had a full-length skirt with long sleeves and 10000 seed pearls sewn into it. The silk came from China, pearls from the United States while the craftsmanship like crystals, sequins, and embroidery was all British. The veil was exquisitely embroidered lace that stretched 15 feet. The tiara was lent by her grandmother and had its own drama contribution to the already stressful day – it snapped. The jeweler was rushed to mend it at the last minute and in a hurry couldn’t help but leave a visible gap in the front of the tiara. Queen Elizabeth had to struggle a lot to just walk down the aisle but her wedding gown is something to admire and take inspiration even today. Although a stickler for tradition and rituals the queen herself rebelled to marry for love and also wore open toe satin sandals on her wedding day away from the conservative closed toes shoes.
Princess Diana at her naive best wasn’t old enough to shoulder the responsibility of a royal wedding and one that’ll be etched in the hearts and minds of people forever. Of course, she did splendidly under enormous public scrutiny and without any comforting love from her groom, unlike many brides. Her eye for fashion, style, and taste for flamboyance was witnessed by millions across the globe on her wedding day, but what she radiated more than bridal glow was her tenacity and grit to stand up for herself. What set Diana’s wedding gown apart from Princess Grace were the layers of history behind each material used for the gown. David & Elizabeth Emanuel designed and created the gown with Ivory Silk Taffeta by Stephen Walters & Sons from Suffolk, Carrickmacross lace that belonged to Queen Mary, 10000 pearls and hand-embroidered sequins on the gown. From the iconic Spitalfields silk weavers using Jacquard looms to the artisan skills of lace weaving from the Irish town of Carrickmacross there is a lesson in fashion and European history in that wedding gown. Stephen Walters & Sons responsible for the specially woven taffeta silk in Diana’s gown have been in silk business since 1720 and were the apprentice to the Huguenots from France who immigrated to Spitalfields, England and brought with them the craft of silk weaving. Queen Mary’s Carrickmacross applique originated in the County of Donagh, Ireland in 1820 and the special train of lace was crafted by sixty artisans for her visit to India. Then comes the 25-foot train which kept increasing to its final length as Diana kept requesting for a longer train. If you thought that’s an excess of ivory taffeta, the 153 yards of tulle veil outran it marvelously. The neverending veil was anchored to her head by the 18th-century diamond tiara – an heirloom of the Spencer house. The designers had stitched a diamond-encrusted horseshoe trinket hidden into the dress for good luck. You can’t complete a wedding gown without matching silk shoes and Diana’s came embellished with 542 sequins and 314 pearls on silk. The enormity of the gown outweighed the frail framed Diana and the train of silk was just too huge to fit in the royal carriage she rode from Clarence House to St Paul’s resulting it to crumple the gown when she stepped out. There was a stain of perfume on her dress but nothing, not even the cold feet nor the frosty arm of Prince Charles deterred Diana from being the angelic bride that day. Princess Grace may have set a benchmark for royal weddings as an event but Diana really raised the bar to giddy heights as far as the wedding gown is concerned. Many have tried to emulate it but rarely have you seen an impeccable flattery to the original.
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge
After the on again and off again with Prince William for 8 years they finally put Diana’s ring on it. Beaming with happiness and relief Kate Middleton was ready to take on the monumental expectations of a royal wedding that Diana left unchallenged by many brides after her. Kate was marrying a very different British royal from that of her mother-in-law, her’s was the love of her life and she was loved back. Britain was different, the world was different in 2011 from thirty years before the wedding. Prince William was the fresher, younger more approachable face of the monarchy and perhaps one of the two people of the royal household who could keep stoking the embers of public interest. Kate’s wedding could fan a flame of public approval to her future as a royal. Media was already chasing her since her college days thanks to her choppy relationship with William so her choice of the dress had higher stakes than that of her mum-in-law. Channeling her inner Grace Kelly but with a discreet V neck, Catherine Middleton chose Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen to design her gown. Let’s be very honest her dress was not running a competition with Princess Diana but it was aimed at the modern classy bride of the 21st century who appreciated traditions. While the overall design resembled Princess Grace’s conservative bridal attire, Sarah Burton used both ivory and white colors in satin gazar. Satin gazar is known for wedding gowns as the stiffness of the fabric helps it to hold the gown in shape. The intricate applique of the bodice was done at the Royal School of Needlework and used Sophie Hallette silk tulle. There were flowers like roses, lilies, shamrock on the bodice. French Chantilly and English Cluny lace were used along with tulle and satin gazar to give the skirt and underskirt of the gown a blooming flower look. Sarah Burton was mindful of the time when the maid of honor would hold up the 9-foot train and the underskirt would be visible hence she dressed it in tulle skirt. The back of the bodice had 58 gazar buttons to finish the look. Unlike Grace Kelly, the skirt had no cummerbund but the thin waist of the bodice was accentuated by padding near the hips to plump the shape of the gown. The veil was held by a 1000 diamond studded tiara lent by the Queen which was a gift from her father King George VI to her mother Queen Mother. Much like Princess Diana, Kate’s gown also featured Carrickmacross lace representing Irish artistry along with British craftsmanship. Alexander McQueen complemented the sweeping gown with ivory satin heels with hand embroidered lace.