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.
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.
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