More than half a century ago staff at the Fashion Museum in Bath decided the distinctive style of Alexandra, who had come from Denmark in 1863 to marry the future Edward VII, was so pared back that her lilac silk evening gown didn’t look like a proper princess’s dress at all. They added a heavy band of fringed beading to brighten up the severely plain neckline.
“It seems an extraordinary decision to us now,” curator Elly Summers said of the embellishment added by a predecessor when the museum moved in 1963 from Kent to the magnificent Assembly Rooms in Bath. “We wouldn’t dream of doing that now – but the alterations are part of the museum’s history, so we wouldn’t take the beading off.”
There was no question of jazzing up Alexandra’s 1910 gown, which is covered from head to toe with bands of gem-studded embroidery, but Summers thinks she may never have had the chance to wear it. Having spent 37 years as Princess of Wales, the longest in royal history, Alexandra was queen for less than 10 years before Edward died in 1910 and she would have gone into sober mourning black.
Her gowns are among the most stylish in a new exhibition opening this weekend at the museum, tracking more than a century of delicate royal decisions balancing style, visibility, practicality for clothes that had to be worn for hours in the public gaze, and patriotism.
Princess Margaret got away with wearing Christian Dior, who described her as “a fairytale princess”, but usually the royal women relied on British designers and often British materials. In 1863 Alexandra brought her own beautiful Belgian lace wedding gown, but was forced instead into a blizzard of Honiton lace and swags of orange blossom: the exhibition demonstrates how as soon as she could she had the gown drastically remodelled, stripping off the frills and abandoning the giant crinoline.
The museum was founded by the costume historian Doris Langley Moore, whose collection included some royal gowns she found in a boutique in London, and many pieces donated or loaned by aristocratic friends and members of the royal family including the Queen Mother. The connections were so close that one of Summers’s predecessors was invited to Kensington Palace to choose from couture outfits laid out in Princess Margaret’s bedroom: in the end she got permission to take the lot. “That hasn’t quite happened to me yet,” Summers said.
- Royal Women, Fashion Museum Bath, 3 February – 28 April 2019
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