Inside the Royal Wardrobe: A Dress History of Queen Alexandra by Kate Strasdin

“This is not just the story of Alexandra’s clothes; it is the story of the life that inhabited them.” –Kate Strasdin in her book Inside the Royal Wardrobe: a Dress History of Queen Alexandra. 

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Queen Alexandra at her coronation, 1902, Royal Collection Trust

Fashion historian Kate Strasdin was my inaugural guest on Fashion History Talks! and today, I have the pleasure of providing a glimpse into her beautiful book Inside the Royal Wardrobe: a Dress History of Queen Alexandra. The book is the culmination of years of hands-on research by Strasdin into the wardrobe and life of the woman born Princess Alexandra Caroline Marie Charlotte Louise Julia of Denmark, but history knows her simply as Queen Alexandra. I am the first to admit that prior to reading this book, I knew little of Alexandra’s importance or her sartorial legacy. I knew only that she was the supremely elegant wife of King Edward VII, the man whose reputation for philandering and a careless pursuit of entertainment defined the so-called “Edwardian” era to which the first decade of the 20th century is so aptly named.

Born in 1844, Alexandra learned how to sew as a young girl and even made her own dresses before becoming engaged to the Prince of Wales at the age of 16. Through forty plus years of marriage, first as a princess and later as a queen, Alexandra navigated her high-profile position and marriage with grace and composure, never failing to project anything in public but the height of sophistication and elegance–and with an impeccable wardrobe to match. But as Strasdin’s book reveals, there is much much more to this fashionable, impeccably dressed Queen than meets the eye. And she looks directly to the Queen’s clothing itself to prove it.

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A half-mourning evening dress worn by Queen Alexandra following the death of Queen Victoria, 1902, The Metropolitan Museum of Ar

Strasdin’s interest in Alexandra’s wardrobe was peaked while working as an assistant with a large costume collection in the 1990s, where a large number of Alexandra’s gowns by the French haute couture house Redfern were donated. An astonishing amount of Alexandra’s wardrobe survives in museum collections the world over thanks to the acumen and foresight of her servants who preserved her clothes for posterity.

Strasdin used this extant wardrobe as the basis for her research and demonstrates the roles that material culture—and in this case, specifically articles of dress—can reveal to us about a person’s life. From Alexandra’s tiered hand-made lace wedding gown to the purple be-sequined evening gown worn in half-morning for the death of Queen Victoria, Strasdin uses her clothing to paint a fuller, more detailed portrait of the Queen. A queen who was not only fashionable but fashion conscious, and a woman whose deliberate and calculated use of dressed helped her to navigate her high-profile position throughout her entire life. She used what she wore both as a tool in defining her public image and as an impenetrable armor against the world.

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Alexandra’s tailored waistcoats made by J.Busvine & Co, 1890s, FIDM.

As inanimate objects, material culture has often been undervalued by historians in terms of its cultural and social significance but as Strasdin reveals, Alexandra’s clothing has plenty of stories to tell, one just needs to know where to look.

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Alexandra’s wedding dress, Royal Collection Trust

When the nineteen year old Princess Alexandra of Denmark married Edward, then Prince of Wales, on March 10, 1863, she was already acutely aware of the importance clothing would play in her knew role, as well as its symbolic power. Her mother-in-law, Queen Victoria, ensured her wedding dress was the epitome of patriotic virtue, swathed in tiers and tiers of Honiton lace painstakingly made by hand over months in the city of the same name. That Victoria exerted absolute control over her daughter-in-law’s debut image is evident in the fact that the Princess was gifted a Brussels lace dress from Victoria’s uncle, King Leopold of the Belgians as a wedding gift. Brussels at this time was inarguably the producers of the finest lace in world. Queen Victoria quickly dismissed the dress as inappropriate for a Princess of Britain and insisted it was entirely of British manufacture.

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The Prince and Princess of Wales on their wedding day, 1863, Royal Collection Trust.

However, the hidden interior of the wedding dress hints at an act of insubordination by Alexandra. The dress survives in the Royal Collection and was thoroughly studied in person studied by Strasdin who made a wonderful discovery: stitched inside the lining, hidden from view, was a piece of Brussels lace. And while we may never be able to confirm it, if it came from Uncle Leopold’s wedding gift, its presence represents a quiet act of subversion by the new Princess, “an early attempt by Alexandra to achieve a small measure of control, albeit hidden from view at this time.”

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Queen Victoria and Princess Alexandra, March 1863, Royal Collection Trust.

In many ways, Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra could not have been more different, and these differences were clearly manifested in the wardrobe they both wore. From the start of her marriage, Alexandra’s youth and beauty immediately earned her the public’s admiration, as she stood in such stark contrast to the reclusive Queen Victoria. Surely this young Queen, presented in the height of 1860s fashion, injected a breathe of fresh air into the life at court in which Victoria was most noticeably reserved. After the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria wore mourning clothes until her death in 1901. Hence, where Victoria was always in black, Alexandra’s favorite color was white. Where Queen Victoria solely patronized British dressmakers and industry, Alexandra extended her patronage to the Parisian haute couture.

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Alexandra in her signature tailormade, 1876. National Portrait Gallery, London.

As a young woman of high social rank, Alexandra’s forays into high fashion were covered down to the smallest detail in the press, admired by women the world over. And after discovering the incredible amount of photographic documentation of her over the years–and I mean thousands of images–I completely understand the public’s fascination with the beguiling beauty.

Despite, the attention given in the press to her extravagant gowns, it was Alexandra’s adoption of the simple but in her impeccably constructed tailor-made ensembles for daywear in which the Queen made “her most individually distinctive contribution to fashion among her peers.” While Alexandra may have towed the fashionable line in other elements of her dress, her adoption of the two piece suit, almost as a uniform, put her at fashion’s fore.

One of my favorite stories from the book is about a visit made to England by Alexandra’s younger sister, the czarevna–and future Empress–of Russia, in the 1860s. When Maria stepped off the boat to greet her sister, it instantly became apparent that the two women were wearing identical outfits, the result of a plan months in the making. The sisters continued to dress exactly alike for the entirety of the visit! Thank goodness for photographic evidence of this venture or I might not have believed it to be true. That Alexandra allowed herself this almost whimsical sartorial experience with her sister hints at a love of the playfulness of fashion that might otherwise be prohibited in her more formal of attire.

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Alexandra and sister Maria Feodorovna, future Empress of Russia, 1873, Royal Collection Trust.

Another of the book’s highlight was the attention paid by Strasdin to the many men and women who worked behind the scenes–or seams rather–of Alexandra’s wardrobe. Alexandra did not achieve and maintain that impeccable image by herself. Strasdin provides a fascinating glimpse at the jobs and lives of the many dressmakers, dressers, lady’s maids and bevy of other staff and vendors that were integral to maintaining Alexandra’s royal visage. I learned SO MUCH and leave you with an excerpt from Inside the Royal Wardrobe: a Dress History of Queen Alexandra. I encourage you to order this book yourself or request a copy for your local library, so that you and others can enjoy it as much as I did!

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Queen Alexandra  by François Flameng, signed 1908, Royal Collection Trust.

“The role of the dresser within the royal household cannot, it seems, be too highly emphasized in maintaining the appearance of her royal mistress, through her skills as dressmaker, repairer and the cleaning of delicate fabrics…The proximity of the dresser to her mistress both physically and mentally placed her in an almost unique position within the household. Unlike the ladies-in-waiting whose weeks in service operated under a rota system, the dressers and wardrobe maids were a permanent fixture of the wardrobe room and therefore the Queen’s daily life. Their duties extended into the inner sanctum of the Queen’s morning and evening ritual of washing and dressing, preparations for which were minutely outlined in a pencilled note which was presumably written in order to instruct a dresser new to her position:

‘After the Queen comes in the dressing room the morning I am on duty give the water tepid for the face the eyes with a little camomile tea in it. Then the ears–then the large baisen [sic] with the water for the head–then put down the glass with the water for the ears–then the teeth and then the hands. After this prepare the bath and put out the sheet–then leave the room. After coming in take the table and the bath away. Afterwards ask if the back would be rubbed with (whisky?) or anything–Then fasten the stays–put the petticoat over the head–then give the drawers–then hold the box with the rings then the crinoline & the body petticoat & the tray with the brooches–then the skirt, then the body & the keys with the thinnest chain over the neck, tie the string of the body around the waist, put the brooch in & give the watch.'”

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Alexandra, Princess of Wales, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 186, Royal Collection Trust.

 

 

 

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Glamour on Board: Fashion from Titanic the Movie at Biltmore House, now through May 13

 

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(c) The Biltmore Company

I recently had the distinctive honor of being invited to visit Biltmore’s current exhibition Glamour on Board: Fashion from Titanic the Movie. George Vanderbilt spared no expense in his creation of Biltmore House, his grand 250-room Renaissance-era French chateau in Asheville, North Carolina, a marvel of Gilded Age era architecture. Today, an entire team of conservators and curators are tasked with the daily preservation and maintenance of George’s vision, a lavish interior filled with an impressive and eclectic mix of artifacts, curios and prized artwork from different time periods and cultures. Be it sumptuous curtains hand-woven in Lyon, France, rare samurai swords and vases from Japan, or the impressive collection of Albrecht Durer engravings, the home is magnificent! An avid collector, George read over 3000 books in his lifetime and collected over 20,000, half of which are on display in the two story library, overlooked by an 18th century Italian painting imported from Paris.

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George Vanderbilt, (c) The Biltmore Company.

I could not imagine a more perfect setting for the first large-scale exhibition of costumes from the 1997 blockbuster hit Titanic. Luxury ocean-liners such as the Titanic were known as “floating palaces” of the sea, an indication of their success in mirroring the ultra-luxurious settings of their most affluent clientele. For the Titanic, these clients might have included George and Edith Vanderbilt had they not changed their plans to travel on the ship shortly before its ill-fated voyage.

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(c) The Biltmore Company

The Titanic made every expense to imitate the lives of its most wealthy clientele and like the Vanderbilt home included grand ball and dining rooms, as well as a premiere swimming and work out facilities. But the Titanic also catered to the broad economic spectrum. Our tour guide took us downstairs into the kitchens, laundry rooms and servants’ quarters of Biltmore House, giving us “behind the scenes” access to a world often hidden from view, just as it would have been on the Titanic on which so many steerage-class passengers lost their lives.

Over fifty costumes by Academy-Award winning Designer Deborah L. Scott are thoughtfully interspersed throughout the Vanderbilt’s home, arranged in settings picked specifically by Biltmore’s Curator of Interpretation Leslie Klinger to mirror those of the film. I have decided that Leslie has THE dream job. Not only did she hand-select each and every costume for the  —i.e. she went to Los Angeles and into the costume archives!—as Curator of Interpretation for the Biltmore Estate, she is tasked daily with developing a better understanding of the ever-intriguing lives of the Vanderbilt family, the estate and the many people who called it home. Please stay tuned for an interview with Leslie in the coming weeks!

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Edith Vanderbilt, (c) The Biltmore Company.

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Part of Edith’s suite of rooms included her private bathing quarters.

I took multiple tours while visiting Biltmore House and each was fascinating as the next. In an “Upstairs/Downstairs” tour, we were admitted into Edith Vanderbilt’s “suite,” a series of rooms behind her bedroom and otherwise hidden from view. These rooms included her bathroom, massive closet and lady maid’s quarters. If you are making a connection to Downton Abbey here, you are not alone. I kept making the comparison between Downton and Biltmore time and again throughout the tour! Especially when we visited the private quarters of the respected and beloved head housekeeper (Mrs. Hughes, anyone?!), the domains of the butler and the numerous laundry rooms, kitchens and other facilities used by staff. I was pleased to learn how generous the Vanderbilt family was in taking care of their staff, and that it is a tradition still carried out today. Biltmore Estate that is still family-owned and operated.

I am a little embarrassed to say that prior to this experience I had NO IDEA that Biltmore Estate existed. But it is now hands down one of my favorite places in the country and quiet possibly the world! I have been to castles in Europe but none provided such open and intimate access, or such historical context! Biltmore House itself is a wonder of turn-of-the-century architecture and a fantastic testament to the legacy of one of America’s most renowned families. The surrounding Estate is a wonderland and we had the pleasure of staying there, at the four star hotel The Inn on Biltmore Estate, one of two available hotel accommodations on the property. Just a short walk and shuttle ride from the Inn was the Antler Hill Village Area which offers a wide array of culinary delights. We enjoyed a delicious farm to table meal at the Village Social before heading to a complimentary wine-tasting at the Winery’s tasting room next door. Biltmore House, which is about a fifteen minute shuttle ride from the hotel, offers its own range of delightful shops and restaurants. After our tours, we enjoyed many strolls in the Estate’s beautiful gardens, at one point stumbling upon the glass-roofed Biltmore Conservatory which houses a variety of exotic plants! I simply cannot say enough things about this wonderful gem of a place. I cannot wait to come back to this castle in the sky…

If you are interested in learning more about Biltmore, visit Biltmore.com or follow their official social media handles: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Find out more about the aforementioned exhibition and plan your visit here. Thank you again to Biltmore for hosting me!

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Just a girl and Biltmore.