Simply Fitting - Clothing the King
By Ruth A. Symes
Everybody’s talking about the modest – some say rather old-fashioned - way the Duchess of Cambridge dresses her little ones. But the public obsession with royal childrens’ wear is not a modern phenomenon. It probably goes as far back at least as far as the times of Queen Victoria. And Kate’s sartorial choices for her growing brood are probably actually based on a well-thought out respect for history and tradition rather than on her own personal preferences or whims.
|Via Wikimedia commons|
Queen Victoria was all about bringing the monarchy to the people. After the decadence of previous royals, including her own uncles, the Queen reignited public devotion through the civic duties that she undertook with her husband and growing brood of (eventually nine) children. After the launch of the fabulous new man-of-war, Victoria, at Portsmouth Docks in 1859, The Hampshire Advertiser commented with a degree of pride that ‘Her Majesty and the Royal children were dressed very neatly but plainly and presented a somewhat striking contrast to the gay costumes of many of those around them.’ The Hampshire Advertiser, Saturday November 19th, 1859).
‘Plain’ apparel for Queen Victoria’s children created a clear distance between the Royal children and others – the ‘gay’ costumes around them were a mixture of the extravagant attire of the rich and the tawdry get-ups of the poor. By contrast, the elegant unfussiness of Victoria’s brood suggested that they were virtuous, above reproach, and models of Christian austerity. Royal simplicity was not meant to be meek or ordinary, nor was it a passing phase. Rather it was a powerful signal to the country. It was also an enduring one. The Greenock Telegraph pointed out some forty years later (when discussing the all-white outfits of the three of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren Prince Edward/David, Prince Albert and Princess Victoria Mary, who were closest to the throne), ‘their little garments are, of course, made of the finest materials, but the style is simple in the extreme.’ (September, 1898)
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children,
Credit: Wellcome Library Gallery, via Wikimedia Commons.
Simple clothing for juvenile royals continued to meet with approval in the Edwardian period – an era otherwise renowned for lavish costume. In 1905, Pearson’s Weekly commented approvingly that, ‘The Princess of Wales [Mary of Teck – later wife of George V] has never followed fashion in the dressing of her children. Absolute simplicity is maintained in all they wear. As babies the Royal children have always worn muslin in preference to silk, and when in town, Princess Victoria Mary always appears at lunch in a cream nun’s-veiling frock, with simple tucks, and devoid of lace edgings or other adornments. In Scotland, a warm plain blue serge frock is substituted, with a thick reefer jacket, while for church and visits a plain white cloth coat and white hat are worn.’ In the same article Mary’s young son ‘David’ (later Edward VIII) was applauded for his self-restraint because, ‘although anxious to wear an Eton jacket, he has not yet worn any other than Jack Tar (sailor) suits, or the Stuart Tartan kilt when in Scotland.’ (Pearson’s Weekly, May 11th 1905).
|The children of King George V and Mary of Teck, 1910|
By Arthur James Hope Downey (1877-1943)
As with Queens Victoria and Mary, Kate’s kidswear tells us something about what Kate (or more probably those that advise her) want to say about the monarchy. Prince George’s outfits of shorts, knee socks and patterned jumpers have been described in the press as his ‘standard uniform’ – to emphasise what it is suggested he is, a public servant in-the-making. Princess Charlotte, meanwhile, has been spotted in George’s hand-me-downs and also in outfits that are strikingly similar to each other - her pink dress in the Queen’s 90th birthday portrait, for example, was similar to one she was wearing 18 months earlier on a Wales’s family Christmas card.
Kate probably wouldn’t go as far as the practical Princess Mary of Teck who, when in February 1904 was presented with the fact that her daughter’s blue silk bridesmaid’s dress had gone missing in the post, stepped up to the mark and quickly made her own ‘facsimile dress for her daughter to wear on the morrow.’ Nevertheless, it seems that the public holds Kate in similar esteem for resisting spending huge amounts of money on items that might be worn only once - especially at a time of austerity nationwide. Indeed the press reports that the Duchess frankly owns up to not wanting to cause a nationwide ‘frenzy’ of shopping for children’s clothing.
So, unlike seven year old Harper Beckham, dubbed a ‘fashionista’ from birth and never seen without a prominent logo gracing her person, George, Charlotte and soon little Louis Wales too, no doubt, are positioned - at least for now - outside the ephemeral currents of fashion. Emphatically not the offspring of celebrities or oligarchs - whose fame and wealth might be here one minute and gone the next - the Wales’ children wear clothes that in both cut and colour hark back to the childhoods of their father and Uncle Harry, and indeed sometimes much further back than that.
The fledgling Royals do not wear simple clothes to blend into the background. The apparent ‘plainness’ is loaded with meaning; a plainness that is meant to be compared positively with the ‘cooler’ dress of the kids of celebrities and the sometimes over-precious attire of the sons and daughters of the aristocracy. The popularity of Wills and Co., depends on their continuing representation of an enduring set of values – family life, value for money, lack of vanity, prudence and good workmanship. When the children wear similar colours to their parents, (the whole family sometimes appears in a delightful palette of pastel blues or pinks), they project an appealing image of an old-fashioned British family unit united by blood, cloth and history. This family, says the clothing, will endure.
As the new Duchess of Sussex contemplates starting – and dressing - a family of her own, she might be well advised to take a look at some of the approving mentions of unadorned princes and princesses in the British press over a century ago. For as one paper put it: ‘Wealthy Americans would deem such wardrobes as far beneath their notice, their own children being laden down with costly laces and embroideries. The Duchess of York possibly dresses her three little ones for a less sum than many rich American mothers spend on one child, but how much to be preferred is the simplicity and good taste exhibited by her Royal Highness who usually considers lavish adornment vulgar and out of place when used for children.’ (The Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette of September 29th, 1898).
Meghan you have been warned!
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