Inside The Royal Wardrobe by Kate Strasdin

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Description:

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

Queen Alexandra used clothes to fashion images of herself as a wife, a mother and a royal: a woman who both led Britain alongside her husband Edward VII and lived her life through fashion. Inside the Royal Wardrobeoverturns the popular portrait of a vapid and neglected queen, examining the surviving garments of Alexandra, Princess of Wales – who later became Queen Consort – to unlock a rich tapestry of royal dress and society in the second half of the 19th century.

More than 130 extraordinary garments from Alexandra’s wardrobe survive, from sumptuous court dress and politicised fancy dress to mourning attire and elegant coronation gowns, and can be found in various collections around the world, from London, Oslo and Denmark to New York, Toronto and Tokyo. Curator and fashion scholar Kate Strasdin places these garments at the heart of this in-depth study, examining their relationships to issues such as body politics, power, celebrity, social identity and performance, and interpreting Alexandra’s world from the objects out.

Adopting an object-based methodology, the book features a range of original sources from letters, travel journals and newspaper editorials, to wardrobe accounts, memoirs, tailors’ ledgers and business records. Revealing a shrewd and socially aware woman attuned to the popular power of royal dress, the work will appeal to students and scholars of costume, fashion and dress history, as well as of material culture and 19th century history.

I love reading about historic women. The woman featured in Inside the Royal Wardrobe was Alexandra, Princess of Wales (later Queen Alexandra), a Danish princess who married into the British Royal Family. She was married to Edward VII and was the great-grandmother of Elizabeth II. 

Alexandra was known for being under the thumb of Queen Victoria, but Inside the Royal Wardrobe disproves this theory and showcases the subtle sartorial ways Alexandra may have rebelled. This fascinating read is a character study as opposed to a history lesson and all aspects of Alexandra’s wardrobe were analyzed.

What I love

The book features illustrations and color fashion plates which allowed me to better visualize Alexandra’s wardrobe. There is also a chart that details which colors Alexandra preferred to wear.

Between 1870 and 1890, Alexandra wore black 24 times and white 31 times. Her least favorite color appears to be pink as she only wore that color four times.

Kate Strasdin was able to find concrete proof that Alexandra rebelled quietly against Queen Victoria. One story is that King Leopold of the Belgians gave Alexandra some Brussels lace as a wedding present. Alexandra had plans to use it for her wedding dress but this was vetoed by Queen Victoria. The Queen felt that English silk was more appropriate. Alexandra didn’t have a choice in the matter and did as she was told. However, unbeknownst to the Queen, Alexandra sewed some of the Belgian lace inside the skirt of her wedding gown.

Interesting tidbits

Alexandra wasn’t a vain woman. She dressed the part as Princess of Wales and later Queen because she understood the importance of how the public perceived her. She viewed it as playing a role.

Privileged women and aristocrats were expected to attend fancy dress balls (fancy dress = costume). Fancy dress balls were a major aspect of the season. This means they had to buy their fancy-dress outfits far in advance for those last minute invitations. Families on the upper-end of the social ladder were able to use their ancestral garments as fancy dress. (!!!) I admit I had heart palpitations at the thought of actually touching an antique dress of historical significance.

When Edward VII and Alexandra stayed at the grand houses of the aristocracy, the aristocratic families were under stress to spend a lot of money on renovating the rooms the royal couple would use. This included new furniture. I read somewhere else that such Dukes went bankrupt trying to entertain Edward VII. I can’t imagine what a renovation must have done to their finances. (When I have guests, I normally buy sparkling water, some flowers and call it a day.)

Alexandra’s clothing survive in museums around the world because through the years she gave her clothes as gifts to her dressers. The dressers left the clothing to their descendants and so on until eventually families donated or sold the pieces to museums. Kate Strasdin tracked down clothing to reconstruct Alexandra’s dress history.

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What I don’t love

The paperback binding fell apart. The hardcover was too expensive so I bought the somewhat affordable paperback, but the pages began coming loose. This is not the author’s fault. Bloomsbury, if you are reading this, maybe try to keep your voracious readers in mind for your next book binding session?

Thanks for reading! xoxo, Jane

The Gown by Jennifer Robson

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The Gown: A Novel of the Royal Wedding by Jennifer Robson is a historical fiction set in Canada and England. This is the first novel I’ve read by this author. The story centers around three women, two from the past and one in our present day.

Description:

London, 1947: Besieged by the harshest winter in living memory, burdened by onerous shortages and rationing, the people of postwar Britain are enduring lives of quiet desperation despite their nation’s recent victory. Among them are Ann Hughes and Miriam Dassin, embroiderers at the famed Mayfair fashion house of Norman Hartnell. Together they forge an unlikely friendship, but their nascent hopes for a brighter future are tested when they are chosen for a once-in-a-lifetime honor: taking part in the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding gown.

Toronto, 2016: More than half a century later, Heather Mackenzie seeks to unravel the mystery of a set of embroidered flowers, a legacy from her late grandmother. How did her beloved Nan, a woman who never spoke of her old life in Britain, come to possess the priceless embroideries that so closely resemble the motifs on the stunning gown worn by Queen Elizabeth II at her wedding almost seventy years before? And what was her Nan’s connection to the celebrated textile artist and holocaust survivor Miriam Dassin?

With The Gown, Jennifer Robson takes us inside the workrooms where one of the most famous wedding gowns in history was created. Balancing behind-the-scenes details with a sweeping portrait of a society left reeling by the calamitous costs of victory, she introduces readers to three unforgettable heroines, their points of view alternating and intersecting throughout its pages, whose lives are woven together by the pain of survival, the bonds of friendship, and the redemptive power of love.

All three main characters are lovely, but I connected the most with Frenchwoman Miriam. Miriam is a survivor of Ravensbrueck, a concentration camp for women. (If you want to learn more about this concentration camp, then visit this page on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website.) It is clearly obvious the author did her research and she did it very well. Miriam reminded me of my mother who also survived the Nazis (though unlike Miriam, my mother was not sent to a concentration camp).

Even though Miriam was kind, well-spoken, a diligent seamstress and never gave anything away about her past (at least initially) I could sense her sadness and despair. I really bonded with Miriam as a character. This is what makes Jennifer Robson such a good author.

beautiful blooming bouquet bridal

What I love

I love the history and background about the Queen’s wedding dress. We (the reader) are literally in the sewing studio, watching the seamstresses hard at work. I was able to visualize every stitch. The author got everything right because she interviewed one of the four seamstresses who worked on the actual royal wedding dress. Again and again, it becomes obvious that serious research went into this story. But in a seamless way, which made this book so enjoyable to read.

There is one scene, where Heather, the modern-day character, spends an afternoon shopping at Fortnum & Mason. This really made me smile as I love Fortnums and was happy it played a small part in the novel.

What I don’t love

There is a rape scene. It’s not graphic or detailed, but it’s a major reason why one of the characters ends up on a different path in life. Had I known there was a rape scene in this book, I probably would not have read it. I’m really sensitive to scenes where women and children get hurt. In the end, I’m glad I didn’t know about it, because I’m happy I read The Gown. It was heartwarming and touching and I will be thinking of the characters for months to come.

I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but all three women have their happy ending. I guess I just want to throw that out there in case you think the subject matter is too sad. It was a phenomenal book and the months-long library hold was worth it.

Will you be reading The Gown?

xoxo, Jane

First image of the novel and a peek of my own wedding dress by me. Second image via Pexels.com