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queen alexandra

What Queen Alexandra Wore

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Queen Alexandra facing away from the camera, showcasing her back and the cascade of fabric bustle leading to a lengthy train, ca 1877
Queen Alexandra, ca 1877

From the earliest days of her arrival to England as the beautiful, vivacious Danish princess come to wed the Prince of Wales, Alexandra set the fashion trends of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Her most lasting trend was the wearing of dog collar necklaces and chokers, alleged to hide a surgery scar on her throat. The trend for ladies to carry bejeweled walking sticks was said to have begun with the “Alexandra limp”–another fashion craze borne from her adaptation to an illness.

In the 1908 article “Queen Alexandra’s Influence on Dress,” by Sarah Tooley for Woman at Home, she writes:

Queen Alexandra has never aspired to be an arbiter of fashion, as she dislikes change and never makes experiments in novel costumes, but her influence has been a subtle one. To her we owe the undying vogue of the tailor-made and the long plain skirt defining the lines of the figure. She has never abandoned this style, and by her example has discouraged repeated attempts to introduce the hooped petticoat and skirts flounced to the waist or in any way overloaded with trimming.

SIMPLICITY AND ELEGANCE.

She favours the statuesque style in dress, which preserves the slope of the shoulders, the line from arm to waist, and the suggested outline of the lower limbs :—

In the later seventies we have two modes which show the influence exercised upon dress by Queen Alexandra as Princess of Wales They are the Princess robe and the Princess bonnet. Both nude for elegance and simplicity and Were devoid of extravagance. The robe, which so perfectly suited the Princess’s slight, graceful figure, proved a relief from crinolines and bulging skirts and remained for long the general form of dress. The Princess bonnet followed in the same order of style. As the robe defined the lines of the figure, so the bonnet revealed the contour of the head and framed the face with bewitching simplicity. It was said to impart an innocent look even to a bold face, while it enhanced in a most charming way the refined, chaste style of Queen Alexandra’s beauty. It had a long reign of popularity. The curled toupée was the complement of the ‘ Princess bonnet, and a fashion which the Queen has retained,
though it has long ceased to be the exclusive fashion.

THE FAVOURITE EVENING STYLE.

The close-fitting toque, well displaying the toupée in front, has in Her Majesty’s case succeeded her favourite Princess bonnet, and close-fitting skirts with trim bodices have replaced the Princess gown. The pointed corsage is the Queen’s favourite style for evening. Occasionally the Queen wears a blouse, but it is never at all full, or deeply pouched, and the sleeves fall softly and gracefully, with an utter absence of bunched-out effect. But though the Queen may don a blouse occasionally for morning wear, she prefers the skirt and bodice of the same material, as it does not break up the lines of the figure.

To summarise the Queen’s influence on modern dress, we are indebted to her for discountenancing the efforts made now and again during the past twenty to thirty years to re-introduce either the crinoline or the stiffened petticmt, and for keeping in permanent use the graceful, plain skirt. She has further discountenanced the trailing dress for outdoor wear, and established the vogue of the tailor-made gown, in which the limit of simplicity is reached.

AGAINST WASP WAISTS AND HIGH HEELS.

The healthy influence exercised by the Queen is also apparent in the rebound against tight-lacing, which hrs held its ground for so long. The Queen is not an admirer of the wasp waist. She isagreat admirer of a trim and Well-defined figure, but believes that this can be attained best by attention to fit and cut. In such matters the Queen is fastidious to a nicety, and never overlooks a crease or a wrinkle in the fit of her clothes. Her garments are fitted over an exact model of her figure, which ensures perfection of fit, and saves Her Majesty the fatigue of trying on.

As the Queen’s example has been directed against the wasp waist, in like manner her influence has been opposed to high heels and compression of the feet. Her Majesty wears a small five in boots, and achieves daintiness by perfection of fit and cut.

HER MAJESTY’S FAVOURITE COLOURS.

The Queen’s taste in dress fabrics is in accordance with the trim style so peculiarly her own, and she has done much to popularise cloth, tweed and serge. She is also fond of velvet for more elaborate toilettes, and the fashion of this beautiful fabric, which has prevailed during the past year or two, owes much to the Queen’s example :—

With regard to colours, in years gone by the Queen was very partial to blue. To her influence is due the long popularity of black and white, a combination which can be made as chic as it is becoming, and is the safe refuge for the woman not gifted with an artistic taste in the blending of colours. Pearl grey, heliotrope, and mauve are now the Queen’s favourite colours and share her patronage with black and white.

Dr. Kate Strasdin, royal dress historian and author of Inside the Royal Wardrobe: A Dress History of Queen Alexandra, was consultant for the Fashion Museum’s current exhibition Royal Women.” Dr. Strasdin also helped identify a long lost gown as belonging to Queen Alexandra!

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Afternoon Tea at Marlborough House

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Queen Alexandra

In the old days at Marlborough House, when the late King was Prince of Wales, says a writer in the Lady’s Realm, the exclusive afternoon tea parties given by the then Princess of Wales to her most intimate friends in the celebrated “Marlborough House” set were a special and most delightful feature of Royal hospitality.

This season Queen Alexandra has revived this form of entertainments, though naturally Her Majesty’s guests are strictly limited in number and are confined to members of the Royal family or those honored with Queen Alexandra’s most intimate friendship.

Afternoon tea when guests are present is usually served in the Red Saloon, one of perhaps the most beautiful apartments in Marlborough House. It is one of the spacious reception rooms on the first floor, and Queen Alexandra particularly interested herself in its furnishing when Marlborough House was being rearranged for Her Majesty after King Edward’s death. The room is full of interesting things. On a large table near the fireplace there is a book of sketches done by various royalties which always interests Her Majesty’s guests. Many of the sketches are portraits; a particularly interesting and clever one is a sketch of the present King and Queen done by the Dowager Empress of Russia. It was done at Marlborough House shortly after their Majesties’ wedding. Other royal sketches are by the Duchess of Fife, the German Empress, and Queen Victoria.

Near a beautiful tapestry settee, a present to Queen Alexandra from the Czarina, is a case containing part of Queen Alexandra’s collection of antique jewel boxes. It is a priceless collection and every box has an authenticated history, some of the French jewelled boxes are of the fourteenth century. One of these was, by the way, an anonymous present to the late King; it came apparently from China, but who the donor was never transpired. The most recent addition to the treasures in this beautiful apartment is a clock, said to be five hundred years old. It stands on a table near to the eastern entrance to the apartment.

Red Saloon, Marlborough house
Red Saloon, Marlborough house

Afternoon tea is served at four o’clock and is quite an informal entertainment. The guests who would probably not number more than half a dozen arrive a few minutes before the hour, and at four, Queen Alexandra, accompanied by Miss Charlotte Knollys, enters the room. The guests, of course, all rise at the entrance of their Royal hostess and Queen Alexandra shakes hands with each.

Tea is generally poured out by Miss Knollys; though if the guests are very few this office is sometimes performed by Queen Alexandra. The cakes, sandwiches, etc., are handed round by one or two of the younger members of Queen Alexandra’s household, who are usually in attendance on such occasions. It should perhaps be explained that with the exception of Miss Knollys, there are now no resident members of Queen Alexandra’s household. Members whose presence may be required are notified of the fact and they go to Marlborough House in the morning.

The usual afternoon tea service used at Marlborough House is one that was a present from Queen Victoria to Queen Alexandra when Her Majesty became engaged to King Edward. It is an old Georgian service that was once in the possession of Queen Charlotte, and is probably the most valuable of the many tea services in the plate room at Marlborough House. Among the most frequent guests at afternoon tea at Marlborough House are the Marquis D’Hautpool and Lady Dalkeith, who are both old friends of Queen Alexandra. The Princess Mary is a very constant guest at afternoon tea; the Princess is generally escorted to and from Buckingham Palace by her governess, but occasionally comes with one of her elder brothers. King George and Queen Mary are, of course, also very constant guests at afternoon tea at Marlborough House, but when Their Majesties are present there are never other guests except members of the Royal family.

In the summer time, when the weather is very fine Queen Alexandra and Miss Knollys nearly always have tea in the conservatory when by themselves, and Her Majesty frequently gets through a portion of her correspondence here in the summer afternoons, but guests are not entertained in the conservatory. Queen Alexandra, when in London, I sometimes honors some of her more intimate friends by going to afternoon tea at their house.

Her Majesty’s hostess is notified in the morning of Queen Alexandra’s intention of taking tea with her in the afternoon, and the lady so honored must, of course, deny herself then to all other callers. This is an established rule of etiquette that anyone who is in the royal entourage understands and observes. In this connection a rather amusing incident once occurred which may be worth telling. It happened in the late reign. Queen Alexandra went one afternoon to tea with a friend who, of course, instructed her servant to deny her to other callers whilst Her Majesty was with her. Now the servant had only recently entered the lady’s service and was not very familiar apparently with the appearance of Royal personages, and he, therefore carried out his mistress’ instructions rather too precisely.

It happened that whilst Queen Alexandra was with her hostess the Duchess of Fife also called, but Her Royal Highness was gravely informed that she could not see the lady whom she called on as the Queen was with her.

“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” said the Duchess of Fife with a laugh,” I am sure she will see me,” and then seeing the doubtful look on the servant’s face she added “The Queen is my mother!”

This announcement induced the servant to show the Royal caller upstairs, though the doubtful look still lingered on his face and didn’t quite vanish until he observed the manner of the greeting that took place between his mistress and the Royal visitor.

Invitations to afternoon tea at Marlborough House are by the way generally written personally by Her Majesty, but even if the invitation is written by Miss Knollys it is never given in the form of a command. It is couched in the informal language a lady would ordinarily employ in giving a friend a quite informal entertainment.

It is the custom for anyone asked to Marlborough House to write her (or his) name in the visitor’s book on her arrival. This is a custom adhered to at all Royal residences. The old visitors’ books at Marlborough House contain a collection of autographs that form one of the most valuable of such collections in the world. The signature of practically all the most notable people in every country in the world may be found in these books. Li Hung Chang’s, the German Emperor’s, Lord Rothschild’s, Mark Twain’s, Gladstone’s, are some of the signatures that one may detect in glancing over these autographed pages. On one page occurs the name “Olaf” written twice; the first signature got blotted, and the blot did not please the little Prince, so he insisted on writing his name again.

The conservatory has, by the way, particular interest for the King and Queen of Spain, for it was there that the Royal couple used to meet very frequently when King Alfonso came to this country in the summer of 1905 to pay his court to the Princess Ena. In those days, of course, Marlborough House was occupied by the present King and Queen, and the then Princess of Wales would frequently ask the Princess Ena to afternoon tea to meet her Royal lover. Tea was served in the
conservatory, there were seldom any other guests, and after the Princess of Wales had performed her duties as hostess the lovers were usually left to entertain themselves.

The Lady’s Realm (1913)

Christmas with King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra

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Sandringham in 1880

Less opulent than Buckingham Palace, less iconic than Windsor Castle, and definitely less bombastic than Balmoral, the royal residence of Sandringham House in Norfolk was built for privacy and simplicity. Here, on his own country estate King Edward VII could relax from the formalities of his rank, he could romp with his family and close friends, and he had full control over the workings of the household. Though as King, he did not have as many opportunities to travel to Sandringham as he had when he was merely the Prince of Wales, Edward more than made up for his absence during Christmastime.

At Sandringham one could expect the holiday to be celebrated in a good old-fashioned style, “uniting all the mighty feasting, the sports and merriment, the decorative use of flowers and evergreens which trace back through centuries of our history past the Christian story into Druidical mists, to the pretty customs of the Christmas tree, with its adornment of tinsel, flags, crackers, and flaring tapers, and the midnight invocation of Santa Claus, which were brought over from Germany by the Prince Consort.” The guests consisted only of members of the Royal Family, who purchased their presents in advance in London, or selected items sent to Sandringham by the most fashionable tradesmen and department stores. In the ballroom was the great Christmas tree upon which hung the presents for King Edward’s grandchildren and every other member of the household, down to the humblest governess.

Christmas tree, SandringhamOn Christmas Eve, the King and Queen distributed joints of beef and other substantial foodstuffs to the labourers, workmen, and cottagers on the Sandringham Estate. In addition, gifts such as warm garments, toys, and other useful items were sent around to the cottages. On Christmas morning, the adults were wakened by the State Piper, who played his bagpipe as he walked around the house. Of course the children were awake and full of glee, and there was much excitement when the adults went down for breakfast in the Dining Saloon. The presents were passed around as everyone ate–or tried to eat–breakfast, and to that purchased by the family members for one another at Sandringham were the piles and piles of gifts posted or sent by rail from the many relatives abroad.

After this, everyone tramped from room to room, examining the decorations of holly and mistletoe put up by Queen Alexandra, her daughters, and members of the household, and then went upstairs to dress for church. The King and Queen led the way on foot across the park to the church of St. Mary Magdalene, which was also decorated by Alexandra. The Royal Family sat within the chancel, and the rest of the church was filled with “the suite and servants, some of the children of the Royal Schools, and a few visitors”. The sermon, in accordance with the King’s wishes, never exceeded twenty minutes, and once the service ended, the congregation rose and remained standing until the whole of the Royal Family had departed.

Going to church on Christmas morningThe children were left to eat luncheon (a concession to the holiday was the flambeed pudding!), while the adults spent the afternoon out of doors, motoring, driving, ice-skating, walking, riding, and visiting the kennels. After tea, the children were herded downstairs and into the saloon, where their presents hung from a blazing Christmas tree. Everyone spent a few hours in games with the junior members of the Royal Family until they were tired out and sent to bed. Later that evening, everyone who pulled a ticket were summoned to the ballroom, where a table circled the Christmas tree was laden with presents. Courtiers, tenants, and servants received gifts from the King and Queen, usually comprising of “handsomely-bound books, articles of jewelry, etc from the King, and books, art pottery, art needlework, wood carving and silk dresses from the Queen–the latter being chosen as presents to the upper servants.” Edward delighted in this activity, and Alexandra threw herself into the spirit of the day, flinging packets of crackers and sweets to queue of people.

The crowning ceremony of the day was Christmas dinner. At 8:45 Sandringham Time, the guests and all members of the Household commanded to dine with their Majesties assembled in a large drawing room about fifteen minutes before the appointed time to settle who was to take whom in to dinner. Three minutes before the clock chimed, everyone passed through the drawing room two by two, in order of precedence, and took their seats at the series of oval tables laid in the Grand Dining Saloon. Servants clad in splendid liveries of scarlet coats and waistcoats trimmed with gold braid, wearing gold stocks in place of collars, white satin breeches, stockings, and shoes stood at attention, and there were special footmen immediately behind the chairs of the King and Queen, to whom the regular footmen brought dishes from which these special footmen served Their Majesties. The tables were laden with gold and silver plate, rare flowers, and a pure white china service decorated with the Royal Arms and the Garter. The menu comprised of barons of beef, cygnets, turkeys, plum puddings, mince pies, etc, of which everyone had to consume within the hour allotted to dinner.

Sandringham bowling alleyAt the end of dinner, the Queen signaled the most exalted guest and everyone rose as the ladies retired to the drawing rooms. The King and the gentlemen followed suit in twenty minutes (Edward, when Prince of Wales, found dawdling over port and cigars with men tiresome, and shortened that postprandial interlude drastically), after which there was either a dance or a Command Performance of that season’s most fashionable play or musical comedy, or perhaps simple pleasures such as bridge, parlor games, music, or a turn in the American-style bowling alley. This intimate Christmas celebration lasted into the wee hours of the night, and the following day was when the servants’ had their Christmas dinner, where certain favored guests were issued invitations, and they and the King and Queen joined the merriment belowstairs.

The next few days after this were usually devoted to a shoot. Four to six crack shots were invited to Sandringham to enjoy what was considered the best shooting in England. All farm machinery was at a standstill so as not to disturb the birds, and farmhands with blue and red flags, attired in smocks and with red bands around their hats, were taken to their places by the gamekeepers. Game carts were sent to the places where the firing was likely to the “hottest,” and when all was ready, the vehicles carrying the King and his guests rumbled across the estate. The guns were out all morning, booming and crackling across the sky. At one pm, the ladies were expected to grace the luncheon tent with their presence, where everyone dined on plain and simple dishes like Irish stew, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, or boiled beef and batter pudding. By the close of December, the celebrations at Sandringham had ended; however, King Edward and Queen Alexandra always extended their holidays with their annual New Year’s house party hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire at Chatsworth, where they enjoyed the same degree of intimacy and privacy as at Sandringham.

Sources
“Christmas with the King and Queen” by Mary Spencer Warren, The London Magazine, 1904
“How They Spend Christmas at Sandringham” by J.M. Carlisle, The Windsor Magazine, 1899
King Edward As I Knew Him by Charles William Stamper
“Royal Homes of Sport: Sandringham” by Alfred E.T. Watson, The Badminton Magazine of Sports & Pasttimes, 1904
“The World’s Pageant” December 26, 1906, The Bystander