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A Wedding Dress of Spitalfields Silk

April 29, 2011
by the gentle author

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.

10 Responses leave one →
  1. jeannette permalink
    April 29, 2011

    perfect.
    loved the profile of the painter, too. those beautiful weaver’s spaces on top of the houses — reminds me of v. woolf’s vision, i think, of the jessamy brides — an unwritten sapphic novel in which she envisioned a pair of ladies living on top of a tower. gorgeous light and views; i always think of weavers (my family were huguenot weavers) as reading religious tracts while treadling, in the beautiful light.

  2. April 29, 2011

    I have never seen the top portrait. Despite its romanticism, it does capture the feeling of a young woman nervous of the big day.

  3. April 29, 2011

    This is an extraordinary morning! Looking out the upper windows of my Spitalfield’s studio on to Commercial Street, I see the Golden Heart pub ballooned and bunting-ed for the street party in honour of the Royal Wedding. On my cutting table is a lace bridal ensemble, work in process for my June 16th bride who will wed in Wedmore, Somerset. On television is the early commentary for reveries in Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square and the grounds of Buckingham Palace. And now I read your excellent post describing in detail the Spitalfield silk used in the wedding gown made for HRH Queen Victoria. Wonderful to be working in, and connected to such history!

  4. May 4, 2011

    Beautiful … very informative post. Thank you

  5. Suze permalink
    May 5, 2011

    I’ve just finished reading “Becoming Queen Victoria” and am delighted to see your photos and read your commentary.

  6. May 17, 2011

    Thank you for sharing that wonderful gown and the context it remains in. I live in New Zealand and so often feel at the end of the world, how I would love to be able to pop around the corner and visit a gown like this one. Thanks to your blog, I have been able to do that.

  7. May 21, 2011

    This is a wonderful insight. Thankyou so much. To see Victoria’s dress in parts in such detail is particularly interesting to me. As the blog says it was a design which was the fashion at the time. My great great grandmother came to NZ in 1842. Because of that I have a great interest of the design of the dresses around 1839 – 1844. I was in our local library looking for dresses of that era when it dawned on me from a picture that Victoria’s dress was that pattern. But to see her dress in the different close -ups that your photos show is an unbelievable surprise for me. The design is consistent with my research – dome-shaped skirt by means of the gauging at the waist, the central point of the bodice below the waistline etc. This is truly a wonderful blog.
    Dresses of this particular design as far as my research goes are few and far between in NZ. Auckland Museum has one from the Spicer collection which I have seen and the curator was kind enough to send me close-up photos of the inside from various angles giving great views of the seams, piping, lining etc. The frock was given to Mrs Mary Ann Williams (1802 – 1878) by Lady Franklin in 1847. Mrs Williams taught sewing and domestic skills at a mission station near Thames, New Zealand. Lady Franklin came to NZ via India. What baffles me about this dress is the bright colour – red, green and yellow paisley, as the Victorian dictum for womens’ demenour during the very early 1840s
    was for pale, reticent-looking colours. Because of the rarity of these dresses in NZ and the fact that my gt gt grandmother arrived in 1842 I would like to do a replica dress of that very specific era but nothing has materialised yet.!! Thankyou for this wonderful insight in Queen Victoria’s wedding dress.

  8. Benita Wheeler permalink
    May 22, 2011

    Queen Victoria set the standards for wedding. I always love reading about her wedding. I’ve read her journals and she seem like a really strong woman at a time when women did not have many choices.
    Thank you for the information.

  9. hopell permalink
    January 19, 2013

    yes i can’t belive dresses and rooms in victorian times could be so exraordinary as this it’s just magnificent

  10. Shawdian permalink
    September 17, 2017

    Thank you, a good enjoyable & interesting article for which I am grateul to see this beautiful Wedding dress. However for some odd reason I find looking at the dress is a little creepy, which could be because just last week I spent an hour studying Queen Victoria’s bed the one in which she shared with her beloved Albert & where she took her last breath. Queen Victoria enjoyed many summer’s here on the IOW at her holiday home, Osborne House. Designed & built for her to relax as a family home by her soulmate, her beloved Albert, Osbourne is a treasure trove of rooms holding within some of the most magnificent & splendid pieces of workmanship made especially for her from around the world & like this dress, quite takes one’s breath away. But it is the Queens bed in which still has Victoria & Albert’s name elegantly above each side on the head board plus the knowledge of her last hours passing away in that bed which left within me an extraordinary impression just like this dress. Maybe the creepness comes because this beautiful dress represented the start of Queen Victoria’s hopes & dreams for many future romantic years with the man she adored & loved (her HOPE dress) and the bed reprents the end of the tragic romance as well as her own life. I can almost
    imagine that dress floating up as if her spirit is still within. The elegant dress is exquisite & powerful, as intended for a Queen, prominence & dignity being paramount.

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