Upon the death of a beloved husband and loyal consort, the last thing on a queen’s mind, surely, would be clothes. And yet the fact that Queen Victoria spent the last four decades of her reign shrouded in black after Prince Albert succumbed to typhoid remains one of the facts about her that would result in a terrible Pointless score.
There is a royal protocol for everything, and since the Duke of Edinburgh’s passing on Friday we have become reacquainted with the tradition of royal mourning, which will see all the family’s activities put on hold until April 22 and all communications sent on black-edged stationery. Flags across the country are being flown at half-mast and, for the first time, royal social media accounts have switched their profile pictures to black coats of arms instead of smiling photos.
There are fashion rules, too – that all family members must wear black or dark colours. It’s a directive with fascinating roots that has been subtly reinterpreted, tested and updated over the years.
“Mourning dress has been part of European royal culture for centuries, but it reached its peak in the 19th century with the influence of Queen Victoria, who set a standard for the rest of society to follow,” says Matthew Storey, curator at Historic Royal Palaces, which holds the Royal Ceremonial Dress collection. “When her beloved husband died in 1861 she abandoned the colourful clothes of her married life and, with the rest of the royal court, adopted black clothing as an outward sign of grief. Her subjects duly followed suit, causing a rush on suppliers of mourning fabric up and down the country.”
That was a time when death was something of a societal obsession and there were strict rules around the wearing of “widows’ weeds”. “Widows were required to wear black, then either white or mauve, for at least three years before being able to return to richly coloured clothing. Victoria chose never to leave mourning and wore her now iconic black dresses and white widow’s caps for the rest of her life,” Storey continues. There was no concession even at moments of celebration: “She even insisted that her daughter, Princess Alice, had an all black trousseau when she married in 1862.”
The mood oscillated from the dour to the unexpectedly glamorous; Victoria often wore her bridal veil with her black dresses and took to wearing a necklace containing a lock of Albert’s hair, but she also popularised striking jet jewellery. “Her clothing was anything but dowdy,” Storey confirms. “Every example in the collection is exquisitely made and highly embellished, as befitted her status. Victoria may have been a widow, but she was always a queen.” A set of four pieces of Victoria’s mourning jewellery, commissioned when Alice died in 1878, were sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month, fetching £80,000, almost 10 times their original combined estimate – proof that Victorian mourning rituals remain a point of fascination.
After Victoria’s death, mourning dress became even more opulent. An exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2014, Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire, included two exquisitely beautiful embellished purple gowns worn by Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII, in the year after her mother-in-law’s demise. You’d really only know they denoted mourning if you were familiar with the strict dress codes of grief. And when Edward died, weeks before Royal Ascot in 1910, there was no question of cancelling, but attendees wore magnificent black outfits instead. That year’s event is now remembered as Black Ascot.
The ultimate masterclass in making mourning dress into a regal fashion statement came in 1938, when Queen Elizabeth’s mother, the Countess of Strathmore, died weeks before a pivotal royal tour to France. More than a mere charm offensive, this was the king and queen’s first foreign visit since the abdication of Edward VIII and came as the prospect of war loomed gravely over Europe. A black wardrobe simply wouldn’t do, as it was imperative to come bearing optimism.
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s couturier, Norman Hartnell, looked to the “white mourning” or deuil blanc convention deployed by medieval royals and seen in portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots after she lost her father-in-law, mother and husband within months of each other in 1560 for inspiration. Within weeks he had scrapped the original colourful outfits intended for the tour and crafted an entirely white set of looks in their place.
“The Queen has taken with her on her state visit to Paris a superb white wardrobe consisting of 12 gowns, seven coats… one cape, eight hats – and a lace parasol,” the Telegraph’s report from July 20 1938 read. “Created by leading London designer Norman Hartnell, it symbolises the links between the two countries.”
The report went on to explain that Hartnell had referenced the French Pompadour look and pannier, as well as English garden florals and Victorian silhouettes. Hartnell had the idea to revive the crinoline after being shown Winterhalter’s portraits of Queen Victoria and her family by the new king.
Though the reason for the Queen’s all-white dressing was sombre, the reception to the wispy, lacy creations was rapturous. “No wardrobe of modern times has created greater interest than the state wardrobe chosen by the Queen for the visit to Paris," another glowing Telegraph review reported, going on to publish sketches of the gowns in glorious detail. The autumn fashion collections shown later that year were heavily influenced by the Queen’s “white wardrobe” and her style more generally – Schiaparelli and Molyneux both included tartan as a nod to her Scottish heritage.
The Queen loved her white collection and the style muse status it had bestowed upon her so much that the following year she commissioned Cecil Beaton to photograph her at Buckingham Palace wearing the designs, resulting in a romantically optimistic set of portraits that do little to suggest that the clothes they capture are a symbol of mourning, nor that the Second World War is months away. The floaty, delicate look of Hartnell’s designs influenced the Queen Mother’s style for the rest of her life.
After this, the royal mourning dress story becomes less one of romance and more one of serious, funereal chic.
When George VI died and Princess Elizabeth became queen in 1952, she was on holiday in Kenya. She rushed back to Britain, but when the plane landed, a black dress had to be taken on board for her to change into, an incident that means that no royal reportedly now travels without a black outfit in their luggage, just in case. On alighting the plane, the 25-year-old queen looked elegant yet solemn in her dark coat, brooch and neat hat.
At her father’s funeral, eight days later, the new queen, her mother, grandmother Queen Mary and sister Princess Margaret cast ethereal figures in their long black veils, said to be around 18 inches over the face and one and a half yards down the back. “There is no court regulation with regards to them,” the Telegraph had written in 1936, “but the practice of wearing them has always been observed at the funeral of a Sovereign.”
It was notable, then, that at the funeral of the Duke of Windsor in 1972, the Royal family refrained from wearing veils. The abdicated king’s wife, Wallis Simpson, however, sported a couture coat and chiffon veil that Hubert de Givenchy had reportedly stayed up all night to make for her. Simpson’s biographer, Anne Sebba, wrote that Wallis was catty about the Queen Mother’s look, saying that her hat “looked as if a plastic arrow had been shot through it”. By contrast, the Queen wore a black version of the turban style hats she loved at the time, adding Queen Mary’s Dorset Bow brooch.
Diana, Princess of Wales was the last royal to toy with mourning dress convention. For a gala in aid of the Royal Opera House, her first public engagement as Prince Charles’s fiancée in March 1981, she wore a low-cut black gown by David and Elizabeth Emanuel.
“I remember walking into my husband-to-be’s study and him saying: ‘You’re not going in that dress, are you?’” Diana later told Andrew Morton. “I replied: ‘Yes, I am’. And he said: ‘It’s black! But only people in mourning wear black!’ ” News of black as a shade of sophistication hadn’t quite reached royal circles at that stage.
Diana’s most famous mourning look was perhaps the straw hat, black dress and heart necklace worn for the funeral of Grace Kelly, which she attended in 1982, her first solo foreign engagement. The Princess continued to wear black in non-mourning scenarios, too, but it has been reported that she opted for a strapless black velvet Victor Edelstein dress for a film premiere in 1991 as a mark of respect for the death of King Olav V of Norway.
Saturday will see the first funeral of a senior member of the Royal family since the Queen Mother’s death in 2002. Though we are under no illusions that fashion will be the most important consideration, or be studied in the same way it would at a wedding, looking appropriate and rising to the occasion is what the royals do best. Just look to Philip’s own track record of gleaming military uniforms, sharp Savile Row suits and dashing sporting attire.
Team Mountbatten-Windsor’s closest modern rehearsal for mourning attire is the black outfits we see them wear on Remembrance Sunday each year. For the Duchess of Cambridge, in particular, this has become an ever more pliable opportunity to dress to impress. Over the years she has graduated from plain coats to styles with sharp flourishes – tasselled epaulettes, shiny gold buttons and frogging – made for her by her most-trusted fashion houses, Alexander McQueen and Catherine Walker, and sculptural statement millinery.
If the strictest form of mourning codes were to be adhered to then we’d see black tights and minimal jewellery or decoration, but it seems more plausible that sentimental pieces will be worn to symbolise the story of the Queen and Prince Philip’s marriage, family life and work. The Queen’s dresser, Angela Kelly, who is known for the thought which she puts into the sovereign’s clothing, will have put careful consideration into Her Majesty’s options (last Remembrance Sunday saw her wear a black tweed coat flecked with black sequins) and the rest of the family will follow her lead.
As for whether the Queen will do a Queen Victoria and continue to dress in colours of mourning, that seems unlikely. The Duke of York described his mother as “stoical” at the weekend and it’s already being reported that she is keen to continue her duties once the allotted fortnight of mourning is over, with the state opening of Parliament due to take place on May 11.
While Her Majesty may not revert to the bright colours with which she has become synonymous straight away, there is her 95th birthday to celebrate in the coming months. And she does have some wonderful purple outfits in her wardrobe already.