A Wedding Dress of Spitalfields Silk
At Kensington Palace is preserved a modest white satin dress of Spitalfields silk of one hundred and seventy years old, made for a tiny woman with a miniscule waist, barely five feet tall and just twenty years of age. Lain upon the table in the former dining room of Princess Margaret and sequestered from natural light behind closed curtains, it has a delicacy that is almost ethereal, as if it were a gown left behind by a sylph or a passing fairy – but in fact this was the dress that Queen Victoria wore when she wed Prince Albert on 10th February 1840.
Just four months earlier, Victoria had set eyes upon her grown-up cousin for the first time only yards from where I had come to view her dress. And as I was led through the echoing passages at the Palace – where Spitalfields Life was granted special access to see this garment sewn of cloth woven in Spitalfields – I came into a fine stair hall known as the Stone Steps at the core of the building. Victoria was born in a room at the top of these steps, which as a child she was not permitted to climb or descend without another holding her hand, such were the stifling restrictions known as the Kensington System imposed upon the young queen by her mother. Although Victoria had been crowned at eighteen, until she married she could not move out to live independently at Buckingham Palace.
Yet upon these steps on 10th October 1839, Victoria was aroused by a vision of such rapture that it changed her life -“At half past seven I went to the top of the staircase and received my two dear cousins Ernest and Albert, – whom I found grown and changed and embellished. It was with some emotion that I beheld Albert who is beautiful…. so excessively handsome, such beautiful blue eyes, an exquisite nose, and such a pretty mouth with delicate mustachios and slight but very slight whiskers, a beautiful figure, broad in the shoulders and a fine waist.” This was the man who would father her twelve children, and five days after their meeting she proposed to him.
When Victoria chose the dress to marry Albert, she broke from the lavish precedent of George IV’s eldest daughter Princess Charlotte who had married in a heavy dress of silk net embroidered with silver. Victoria might have been expected to wear red velvet robes trimmed with ermine and a gown of ostentatious wealth for her marriage, but instead she chose to wear a simple white satin dress that was within the aspiration of any woman of means – a decision that reflected her wish not to emphasise the difference in status between herself and her groom.
The dress was made in two pieces, a skirt and bodice sewn of the finest gauge of ivory silk satin woven in Spitalfields. The simple bell-like skirt was supported by layers of petticoats and Victoria wore a corset of whalebone beneath the bodice. White Honiton lace ruffles adorned her sleeves, with a band of lace at her neckline, while a lace overskirt and train of lace completed the dress. The graceful simplicity of Victora’s youthful conception broke with tradition, expressive of her confident independent spirit, yet it initiated the custom for the white wedding dresses that we know today.
Although plainest among the wedding dresses in the royal collection, Victoria’s is the most radical in its assertion of the wearer’s personality, expressive of her personal desire not to outshine Albert, while equally, in her selection of Spitalfields silk and Honiton lace, celebrating the accomplishment of the native textile industry. A gesture of consummate diplomacy when there were those who might criticise her choice of a foreign husband. But beyond these declared intentions, through its lack of decoration, Victoria’s dress has a human quality as a piece of clothing, emphasised here in the place where she lived, and where one day she walked out of the door forever to commence her new life with Albert.
“10th February 1840, Got up at a quarter to nine, Mamma came and brought me a nosegay of orange flowers. Wrote my journal, had my hair dressed and the wreath of orange flowers put on. Saw Albert for the last time alone, as my bridegroom. Dressed. I wore a white satin gown with a very deep flounce of Honiton lace, imitation of old. I wore my Turkish diamond necklace and earrings and Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch…”
Once she arrived at Buckingham Palace after her marriage – Victoria wrote - “I went and sat on the sofa in my dressing-room with Albert, and we talked together there from ten minutes to two till twenty minutes past two.” Only this silk gown and its creases were witness to that intimate half hour when Albert and Victoria were first alone together as husband and wife. But we know she carried the affectionate memories of the day, because Victoria continued to wear the train of Honiton lace from the wedding dress for the rest of her life and, even after Albert’s death, as an old lady in black, she wrapped herself in the white lace that enshrined her tenderest emotions.
Standing alone in the small dining room of the apartment in Kensington Palace, I cast my eyes upon the one hundred and seventy year old gown gleaming upon the table for one last time. This dress of Spitalfields silk was an instrument of liberation for Victoria, to leave the restrictions of her childhood and her past, to enter the arms of the man she loved, and to walk out in the wide world of potential that lay before her.
Marriage of Victoria and Albert by George Hayter, 1840
Top: Queen Victoria in her Wedding Dress by Franz Winterhalter, 1840
With grateful thanks to Joanna Marshner, Senior Curator, Kensington Royal Palace.
You may also like to read about Ann Fanshawe’s Dress of Spitalfields Silk.