As far as royal influencers go, Queen Victoria reigns supreme.
Testimony to that is PBS’ “Victoria & Albert: The Wedding,” a two-part series scheduled for Jan. 13 and 20. Legions of brides wear white wedding dresses, due to Queen Victoria according to royal historian Lucy Worsley, who reimagined the 1840 nuptials for the program. In addition to being chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces, which looks after Kensington Palace, the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace in London, she is working on a new exhibition devoted to Queen Victoria that will bow at Kensington Palace May 24, which marks the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birthday. Worsley recently published the biography “Queen Victoria: Twenty-Four Days That Changed Her Life.”
While the historian was delighted to learn Queen Victoria proposed to Prince Albert, she said their union did not start out as the “great romance” that it did in fact become. Worsley said, “It started with her being quite reluctant. It was an arranged marriage that their family had set up, when they were born actually. She had been holding out on it, holding out and holding out. After she became queen at 18, she enjoyed herself but she made some foolish decisions and ran into some bad press. That’s why, I think, she finally decided, ‘OK, I’m going to give him a chance. I think I do need a man by my side. I will bring him into my life by proposing to him.’ After that, they did fall in love. But it started off for political reasons.”
The choice of the white dress was part of a wider scheme to open up this whole event as a public spectacle. The message she needed to give was — ‘Look, I am going to be a good girl from now on. I belong to you the people. I’m not going to make any more foolish, headstrong decisions. I am going to submit myself to this man and everything is going to be more stable and you’re all going to be more happy,’” Worsley said.
As for the lasting effect of white, Worsley said, “She just knew the power of gesture and the power of wearing the right thing on the right day, and getting that reported on and painted by artists and circulated in the popular media. Although, she does not have the reputation for being particularly fashion forward. She wasn’t. If you were fashion forward in the 19th century, you were actually considered to be slightly immoral, suspicious and frivolous. It was not a good place to be. She was slightly behind the cutting edge of fashion, but this dress just struck a chord. Everyone thought, ‘Yeah, I want to get married in exactly the same outfit.’ And people still do. It’s crazy how much it looks like your classic big, fat white wedding dress today.”
Along with holding the ceremony in daylight hours — unprecedented in 1840 — the fact that Queen Victoria chose to marry in white “rather than magnificent, stiff decorated royal robes was important. That was a sign of submission,” Worsley said. “She was saying, ‘I am a woman as well as a queen. You’re going to be seeing me be a bit more womanly, and a bit less queenly.’”
Royal watchers are known to quiz Worsley about the current royals, but she noted working for HRP means looking after properties they no longer live in. ”So it’s not like we bump into them on a daily basis. But it is very interesting watching them from the point of view as a historian and seeing them continue with so many of these ancient traditions,” said Worsley, pointing to last year’s two royal weddings as further proof.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s decision to ride through the streets in a Landau carriage wasn’t the only Queen Victoria-inspired touch. Her wedding dress (designed by Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy) wasn’t that “dissimilar” from Queen Victoria’s silk satin one, nor was Princess Beatrice’s wedding gown (by Peter Pilotto), Worsley noted.
“Here we have a woman dressed like Queen Victoria driving through the crowds in a way that Queen Victoria herself developed, and getting married in a church where so many of Queen Victoria’s own children got married and where she spent a huge amount of time in her later life. And it’s the monarchy presenting itself as a family business with many members. There’s not just the queen. There’s the whole lot of them — the children and the grandchildren, etc.,” Worsley said. “This way of being a monarch by setting yourself up as a role model was invented by Queen Victoria. She had to do that in a way, because before she came to the throne, monarchs had something like cold, hard power. You know, the power to chop people’s heads off. From Queen Victoria onwards, that’s gone for the monarchy. What they have instead is influence, and that means what you wear, how you act, how you dress, how you behave, the ceremonies, the rituals — all of that becomes the key way that you can exercise your power.”