As the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland knows well, crowning a queen regnant is a rather big deal.
Sixty-three years ago yesterday, all the pomp of the nation was gathered up for just such an occasion, the coronation of the Diamond Queen, Elizabeth II. On that second day of June in the year 1953, the bluest-blooded echelons of noble ladies slipped themselves into freshly purchased and finely tailored laces and silks, perhaps dipping into the vaults for matchbook-sized family emeralds to hang about their throats. Even the middling sorts donned their starchy Sunday best, knowing the importance of looking properly scrubbed as they hollered from street corners, waving Union flags at the team of gilded coaches rattling past.
The queen, of course, needed to exceed all expectations of dress as she processed slowly down the wide nave of Westminster Abbey. Orbs and sceptres have never matched overly well with rags. And so Her Maj’s preferred dressmaker, Norman Hartnell, was charged with designing a resplendent, august frock with a silhouette meant for showcasing not only the young monarch’s trim frame, but also her love for, and careful leadership of, her vast realm. Hartnell ravaged fashion archives and batted nine design proposals back and forth with the court’s symbology experts, and with the queen herself, before sketching out an acceptably stately gown.
What resulted was a flowing A-line number in luscious off-white satin (pure, virginal white was out of favour as the queen was already a married woman and mother), woven from fibers acquired at Lullingstone Castle’s private silk farm. A feminine heart-shaped neckline, adept at keeping the royal “low-slung Hanoverian bosom” in check, met dainty cap sleeves; and the bodice tapered to form a sleek shell around the queen’s narrow waist before fanning out into a supple skirt, from which a modest train puddled. The clean lines of the dress’ base was then encrusted with lavish embroidery. Thousands of minuscule, twinkling diamonds and golden crystals, pale amethyst stones, sequins and seed pearls were scattered prettily across the skirting in a lattice-work motif, where rest pastel-hued silks sewn into detailed floral emblems. Gold and silver threads, the last of which were stitched into place by members of the queen’s household, add gravitas to the outburst of bucolic sumptuousness.
To make the coronation dress fit for the nation, not only for Queen Elizabeth, insignia hailing from each of the countries in the Commonwealth at the time was dutifully incorporated into its design. The polychrome Tudor rose of England, Scotland’s blithe thistle, the sturdy leek (strictly the leek, not the daffodil!) of Wales, shamrocks for Northern Ireland (one four leaf clover was cheekily sewn on the left of the dress for good luck, just below where the Queen’s hand rested throughout the day), Australian wattle, Canada’s proud maple leaf, creeping ferns for New Zealand, South African protea, Pakistan’s hearty wheat, cotton and jute, and two fragile lotus flowers representing India and Ceylon. To evenly distribute the weight of Empire, the dress was lined thickly with rigid taffeta and three sheaths of horse hair.
After eight months (3,500 hours) of fussy, finger-pricking toil by the Royal School of Needlework, the hefty garment was delivered to the queen three days prior to Coronation Day. In her customary succinct tact, she proclaimed it to be “glorious.”
Hartnell’s satin masterpiece remains more than an immortal party dress. Like the aristocratic bloodlines that bore her, the queen understood the strength of sartorial propaganda upon immense occasions. Her entire ensemble of trailing ermine robes and priceless diadems spoke clearly. Yet loudest of all, her coronation gown dictated a loom-woven, hand-embellished lesson in diplomacy— Queen Elizabeth II’s first declaration as a constitutional monarch, a visually arresting promise in fine cloth to all her peoples, hither and thither, to reign with the ideals of respect and inclusion in mind.
Source: The Royal Order of Sartorial Splendor Blog