Looking back at the gowns from royal weddings gone by

Charles and Diana in 1981. Back then, girls were swept away by the grandeur of the gown, with its 25ft train. Hopefully Meghan Markle — who will break with tradition by proposing a toast — will reflect a more modern aspiration than Disney princess. Picture: PA

As Meghan Markle finally reveals her wedding dress today, Carolyn Moore takes a trip down memory lane and looks back at the gowns chosen by royal brides, from Diana to the queen herself.

Want to know what the biggest trend in wedding dresses will be for the next decade? We’ll find out at mid-day today, when former actress and activist, Meghan Markle, with her mother, Doria Ragland by her side, steps out of a limousine and into the glare of the world media spotlight.

Watched by millions, she’ll ascend the steps of St. George’s Chapel to marry Prince Harry – a role you might say she was born to play, but at 36, with a successful career behind her and ‘a deep desire to affect change’, Markle is not your prototype princess bride. She’ll be the 16th royal bride to wed in historic St. George’s, but the first to be accompanied by her mother – just one of the tradition-busting stamps this feminist and her prince are thought to be putting on their big day.

Since they announced their engagement in November, Kensington Palace has said the couple’s nuptials would be “guided by tradition”, but as we’ve seen since their touchy-feely engagement interview, through a series of hand- holding public appearances, and an engagement shoot that looked straight out of a fashion magazine, this is a couple intent on doing things their own way. And with Harry now safely sixth in line to the throne, and a softening of the monarchy towards the next generation, it seems they’ll be encouraged to put their own spin on things — the better to endear them to an adoring public who, less than three decades ago, were tiring of an institution that seemed increasingly removed from reality.

As viewers of The Crown might surmise, Tommy Lascelles would be spinning in his grave, but in an era where the son of the future monarch can marry a divorcée, wedding announcements are made on Twitter, royal RSVPs are returned via email, and the bride will be making a toast, it’s fitting that — beyond the regulation pomp and protocol — certain rules can be relaxed. After all, if royal weddings are a cultural snapshot, it’s the personal touches that make them markers of their time.

For Will and Kate it was their surprise spin down the mall in a balloon-laden Aston Martin that was the most relatable moment of their fiercely formal day, but as far back as Queen Victoria, royal weddings have sought to marry the spirit of the times with the legacy of cherished traditions. For her part, Victoria’s decision to marry in a simple ivory dress instead of her coronation robes popularised the white wedding gown. Keen to signify that hers was a marriage of love — a personal contract rather than a political transaction — she chose a style of dress popular at the time, and, in doing so, gave royal weddings their aspirational appeal.

For the then Princess Elizabeth, it was an acknowledgement that, post-World War II, Britain needed a boost, and that her wedding — broadcast on radio to 200 million people — would lift the nation’s spirits. Her dress designer, Norman Hartnell, was inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera to create a gown signifying rebirth and restoration. Her sister, Princess Margaret’s, was the first royal wedding to be televised, recognising a cultural shift and demonstrating a willingness on the part of the royal family to move with the times.

With every press release from Kensington Palace, it’s become increasingly clear that Harry and Meghan — a very modern couple, older and with more life experience than many royal couples before them — are keen to drag the royal wedding into the 21st century. According to Kensington Palace, they want a day that “reflects their personalities”, and we know more about this wedding ahead of time than almost any royal wedding before it, which is just one of the ways the couple have endeavoured to “make sure that members of the public would feel part of the celebrations”.

From inviting 1,200 commoners made up of service members, schoolchildren and charity workers to picnic in the grounds of Windsor Castle on the day, to having a gospel choir perform during the ceremony, to requesting charity donations in lieu of gifts, this is a royal wedding, their way; and while you can’t exactly call a wedding with 800 guests ‘informal’, it is clear they intend to dial back the pomp while still giving the public a show.

The Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, with Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, on their wedding day in 1947.
The Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, with Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, on their wedding day in 1947.

Unlike the Queen’s other married grandchildren — Peter Phillips, who married in St. George’s Chapel ten years ago, and Zara Phillips, who married in an off-the-peg gown at a small church in Scotland in 2011 — Prince Harry is still the son of the future monarch, so even if the couple reject the formality of William and Kate’s day, and have stricken world leaders (including Teresa May) from the guest list, they still need to play to the crowd - a skill at which Ms. Markle has already proven adept.

Key to that will be the dress, and Markle’s ability to recreate the global intake of breath inspired by Kate Middleton’s arrival at Westminster Abbey, rather than the furrowed brows that greeted Diana’s infamously crumpled 25-foot train.

Royal watchers suspect Markle will wear the Spencer tiara, as a tribute to her departed mother-in-law; the ring placed on her finger is likely to be from the same nugget of Welsh gold which has been used for royal wedding rings for almost a century; and we know her bouquet will contain garden roses, peonies and foxgloves, plucked from the grounds of the royal palaces. While it hasn’t been confirmed, it will likely also contain a sprig of myrtle, a tradition started by Queen Victoria in 1840 and followed by every royal bride since; and there’ll be no drying it upside down in the airing cupboard for Meghan, who is expected to leave her bouquet on the Grave of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey, a tradition started by the Queen Mother in 1923.

The Queen Mother (then Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon) went for a radical blend of classic and up-to-the-minute flapper style when she wed George, Duke Of York, in 1923. Picture: Topical Press /Getty
The Queen Mother (then Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon) went for a radical blend of classic and up-to-the-minute flapper style when she wed George, Duke Of York, in 1923. Picture: Topical Press /Getty

We also know the couple will cut a lemon and elderflower cake covered in buttercream frosting and fresh flowers — a contemporary departure from the traditional fruit cake — and that both florist, Philippa Craddock, and pastry chef, Claire Ptak, have highlighted their emphasis on local sourcing, seasonality and sustainability.

What we don’t know yet is a single detail about the dress that will doubtless spawn a thousand imitations, much as Kate Middleton’s before it, and Diana’s before that.

While several designer names have been tossed around — British-based Canadian designer, Erdem, heritage brand Burberry, Kate’s choice, McQueen, or British couturiers Ralph & Russo, the duo behind the daring £56,000 (€64,000) gown worn by Markle in her engagement portrait — the couple’s emphasis on sustainability might point to a less likely choice: high fashion eco-designer, Stella McCartney, who ticks all the boxes, and, as recently as last week, refused to deny she was the chosen one.

Not known for fuss or frills, the designer is already a go-to for Markle, and suits her pared-back style. While Kate, as the wife of the future monarch, was obliged to consider posterity, the sense of occasion, and the scale of Westminster Abbey when choosing her now iconic McQueen gown, Markle has a little more freedom, and will likely make a modern choice — and pay for it herself.

Perhaps she’ll look to an unlikely source of inspiration in the Queen Mother, who, unexpectedly for a staunch traditionalist, wore one of the most contemporaneously fashionable royal wedding gowns of the last 100 years, with her flapper-style dropped waist and lace veil. It’s less likely she’ll look to the Princess of Wales, whose dress, though it influenced bridal style for much of the 1980s, hasn’t stood the test of time. The same can’t be said for Princess Margaret’s dress. Criticised at the time for being too simple, the Norman Hartnell design is now recognised as a timeless masterpiece — so much so that Margaret’s daughter-in-law, Serena Stanhope, paid tribute to the classic at her wedding in 1993.

Princess Margaret, who wed Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, was criticised for a dress then deemed too simplistic but now recognised as a design classic.
Princess Margaret, who wed Antony Armstrong-Jones in 1960, was criticised for a dress then deemed too simplistic but now recognised as a design classic.

Whichever she decides (and she’ll likely have a change of dress for the reception), as someone who one wrote that she wanted to “focus less on glass slippers and more on pushing through glass ceilings”, one suspects she may play down the fairytale aspect epitomised in the photos of Diana and Kate, with their Disney-esque Princes on their arms. Her dress may not have the historical significance of Kate’s or Diana’s, but, like every royal wedding dress before it, it will be replete with symbolism, and possess the power to influence for years to come.

We can only hope Meghan Markle decides she wants to symbolise more than just the dream of becoming a Princess Bride.

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