“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
“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.'”