LONDON — Every royal has her major fashion moment, when her personal style crystallizes and fixes itself in the mind of the public.
Who could forget the moment when Princess Diana swapped her bouffant for edgy, slicked-back hair? Or Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall’s transformation from mumsy to royally chic in the Philip Treacy headpiece and Robinson Valentine coat at her spring wedding?
Sixty-seven years ago, on the eve of the outbreak of World War II, another royal’s style was rapidly taking shape: that of Queen Elizabeth, the wife of then-King George VI, who later would become known as the Queen Mother and great-grandma to Princes William and Harry.
“Queen Elizabeth’s White Wardrobe, Paris 1938,” is the main exhibition this year at the Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace. It showcases the seven dresses and outfits English couturier Norman Hartnell designed for the royal couple’s first state visit to France. That trip to Paris, aimed at reinforcing Anglo-French solidarity against Hitler’s Germany, was to become a turning point for the Queen Mother’s style.
“It was a moment of image creation, when Queen Elizabeth found her look and the style of clothes she would wear for the rest of her life,” said Caroline de Guitaut, who curated the show, which runs until Sept. 27. “The look was at once elegant, regal, soft and picturesque.”
From the very beginning, Hartnell was nervous about the designs. After all, they would be scrutinized by the most famous couturiers in the world. At the very last minute, he was also forced to change the color of the dresses — and make everything white. A few days before the trip, the queen’s mother had died and he suggested white as an appropriate color of mourning.
Hartnell’s outfits for the 37-year-old queen had all the drama and soft edges of an earlier era. He took his inspiration from the Franz Xavier Winterhalter portraits of Queen Victoria in the Royal Collection, and revived hoop skirts and crinolines for evening and fluttery shoulder “wings” on dress sleeves for day.
The grand evening dresses all bore Hartnell’s signature jeweled embroideries — silver sequins, spangles and diamanté — and frothy layers of tulle, taffeta and Valenciennes lace. For day, the dresses, fashioned from lace and tulle, were long and flowing with a Southern Belle feel.
The queen also carried a transparent lace and tulle parasol with a bejeweled handle. Hartnell was quoted as saying that, when the queen opened her parasol at a garden party in the Bagatelle, she “at a stroke resuscitated the art of the parasol-makers of Paris and London.”
In the end, the wardrobe was a hit: The French made Hartnell an officer of the Académie Française and that year’s fall collections in Paris took their inspiration from those four summer days. Not long after, the queen asked Cecil Beaton to photograph her in those dresses, as well as some pastel outfits Hartnell had designed for her, and her look was fixed in history.
Indeed, even in her later years, the Queen Mum never relinquished her soft, pastel suits and dresses and feather plume hats. They would become as much her signatures as her gentle smile and metronome-like wave. She died in March 2002 at the age of 101.
Hartnell wasn’t the only designer working overtime for the 1938 state visit, though. The French couturiers also did their part, and the exhibition showcases their work, as well: France and Marianne, two toddler-sized Jumeau dolls the children of France gave as a gift to the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, who didn’t accompany their parents on the trip.
The dolls came complete with their own trousseaux, 150 items including a garden party dress and hat by Jean Patou; a day dress, coat and hat by Marcel Rochas; leather gloves by Hermès, and a coral, pearl and gold necklace and bracelet by Cartier.