March 29, 2012

{Social Changes Led by a Princess}

[This is an excerpt from Chapter Eight of my upcoming book The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride.]

“When the royal family enfolded Diana,” an article in Newsweek stated the week after the Princess’ funeral, “they thought they had got a rather dim girl from the landowning Norfolk aristocracy—not exactly the stuff of revolution. They could not have known that she would be transformed into an international superstar who would make their lives hell.” Even the feminists of the time were fooled by the mouse that roared. Wondering how more conservative could Britain become when this pretty, pale girl from old landed gentry married into the stale confines of royalty, British journalist Beatrix Campbell called her wedding gown “a shroud,” fearing Diana was giving over her life to disappear inside a dusty patriarchal construct. Others saw it differently.

Diana emerged into the world’s consciousness during the second year of Margaret Thatcher’s landmark run as Prime Minister and Britain, entrenched in a recession, was in turmoil: the country’s traditional industries were in crisis, race riots were destroying neighborhoods in the cities. “Into this unrelieved gloom the royal wedding injected a welcome splash of color and glamour,” the Newsweek article continued, summing up how those who would become “the Princess’ people” felt. “For that reason alone, Diana always carried a fund of good will with her. Yet at the time, few appreciated the central significance of the new princess; she was young and unformed, with enormous potential for growth.” And indeed, from that summer in 1981, Diana’s growth into a striking, outspoken woman paralleled Britain’s own progressive abundant growth into the modern era. Diana may have spent her childhood in the country, but she needed the bustle and stimulation of the city and like much of the country’s youth, Diana loved “London’s glitzy rebellious values.” And for better or worse, she brought “an American style of emotionalism,” as feminist writer Naomi Wolf expressed, to the rigid skin of British reserve.

The Labor Party picked up this youthful call to modernize with forty-three year-old Tony Blair’s campaign for prime minister. Since his “agenda echoed Diana’s,” according to Catherine Mayer’s 2007 Time magazine article “How Diana Transformed Britain,” Diana met in secret with him and his election team in support of Blair’s “mandate to build a more inclusive, caring Britain.”  By the time of her death, only months after Blair’s election, she seemed to embody “how new Britons wanted their country to be.” After centuries of practiced reserve and mystery, it took the Royal Family a little longer to realize the extent of how much the country was changing even though they had clues inside their own family which had been moving, as Newsweek reported, “from archaic rule to modern dysfunctionality.” Then the shock of the Princess’ death left them unprepared for the rising new era of more open public self-expression, the unbuttoning of England’s stiff upper lip sensibility. But thanks to a great degree to Prince Charles’ close relationship with his sons and his continuing Diana’s more equalitarian upbringing for the young princes (as well as the Queen and Prince Philip’s devotion to them), the monarchy learned some of the lessons of Diana. “The People’s Princess,” Mayer wrote, summing up Diana’s impact, “had unlocked hearts, reordered values, presided at the triumph of emotional intelligence over cold intellect, of compassion over tradition.”

Diana shook up some of the most sensitive of human relations, not only of the British Establishment, but also in countries where we think equality reins. “‘She embraced the modern, multicultural, multiethnic Britain without reservation,’” Trevor Phillips, a black television executive who later had a position in the New Labor government, told Newsweek at the time of the Princess’ death. “You could be British and black, Asian or gay—and Diana wouldn’t even notice,” the editors of Newsweek acknowledged. She hugged men with AIDS, “touched lepers in Nepal,” caressed the horrific wounds of children in Africa; she dated Sikh and Muslim men, even falling in love with one. “Unlike most Europeans,” Phillips added, “she had ‘no flinch, no anxiety about race…for non-white Britons, she was like a beacon in the darkness.’”

Dickie Arbiter, who had been press secretary to various royals, including Diana, and was in charge of media arrangements for her funeral, “recalls a strange, muted, mournful night after the Princess died,” Catherine Mayer described for Time. “He encountered a group of wheelchair users on their way to lay flowers at Kensington Palace” and overheard them saying: “‘Who’s going to speak for us, now?’” As Arbiter continued to muse about all of the marginalized citizens for whom Diana had given voice, he paused and added: “‘She’d have made a good Queen, you know.’”

Whatever title Diana had or would have had, she got our attention for what really mattered and her heart’s purpose lives on. “The fact that she was—undeniably—on occasion manipulative, deceitful and self-centered,” Mayer emphasized, “should not blind us to the fact that, during her 17 years in the limelight, she had grown as Britain had grown, changed as Britain had changed, and that by the time she died she had something increasingly vital to offer.” ~

[This is an excerpt from Chapter Eight of my upcoming book The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride. More next week.]

March 25, 2012

{To Marry an English Lord}

In light of the popularity of the BBC costume drama, "Downton Abbey," authors Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace have re-released their wonderfully entertaining and well-researched book, To Marry an English Lord. I discovered the original book from 1989 when I was researching a presentation I gave at the Atlanta Historical Society. And now it appears that the book was also one of the inspirations for Julian Fellowes, author of "Downton Abbey."

Here is what was said when the book was first released:

In 1895, nine American girls, including a Vanderbilt (railroads), LaRoche (phamaceuticals), Rogers (oil), and Whitney (New York trolleys), married peers of the British new money, among them a duke, an earl, three barons and a knight. It was a peak year of a social phenomenon that began when the entrenched members of Old New York snubbed these "new money" families following the Civil War, sending them off to England in quest of class and bequeathing to us Anglomania, Preppy, the Jet Set, and even Princess Di.

And here is what is said about the re-released 2012 version of To Marry an English Lord: Tales of Wealth and Marriage, Sex and Snobbery:

Consuelo Vanderbilt,
later Duchess of Marlborough
From the Gilded Age until 1914, more than 100 American heiresses invaded Britannia and swapped dollars for titles--just like Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, the first of the Downton Abbey characters Julian Fellowes was inspired to create after reading To Marry An English Lord. Filled with vivid personalities, gossipy anecdotes, grand houses, and a wealth of period details--plus photographs, illustrations, quotes, and the finer points of Victorian and Edwardian etiquette--To Marry An English Lord is social history at its liveliest and most accessible.

So before the new Season Two of "Downton Abbey" begins next fall, treat yourself by reading a copy of To Marry an English Lord. As well as tiding you over 'til the next season, you'll also learn the real story of this lavish American-English connection! ~

March 21, 2012

{Princess Diana's Gowns on Display at Kensington Palace}

Kensington Palace is re-opening this month after a magnificent and massive restoration! Two of the many special displays to honor the event are fashion exhibitions.

One of the gowns Princess Diana wore for the 1997 Mario Testino photo shoot, her last.

Five of Princess Diana's gowns are on display including the Emanuel black strapless silk taffeta evening gown she wore for her first official appearance after her engagement to Prince Charles. It was at this gala where Diana first met Princess Grace. (There are also other special presentations relating to the late Princess at Kensington Palace, her former home.)

Designers David & Elizabeth Emanuel's "infamous" strapless gown.
Another royal favorite, Queen Victoria's wedding dress, will be seen for the first time in more than a decade.

Queen Victoria's circa 1840 wedding gown.
The exhibition is part of Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee celebration this year. ~

March 7, 2012

{Thank You for Everything}

[This is an excerpt from the "Grateful Heart" section of chapter eight in the upcoming book The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride that uses Princess Diana's life as a backdrop for life lessons for all women.]

I’m reminded of the story—I don’t remember where I first read it—of a Buddhist nun working with people in the direst conditions of poverty and sickness. Yet her mantra, posted where she and everyone who came to her facility could see it, belied her difficult circumstances: “Thank you for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever.” Whenever I’m complaining or feeling blue or unhappy that I can’t afford to buy something I want, I think of this woman’s attitude of gratefulness and I immediately feel blessed.

As I read of Princess Diana’s life after her marriage and various accounts about how she complained (and I’m not saying that everything was easy or rosy for the young princess), but where was her sense of gratitude for this “bounteous privilege,” as Lady Colin Campbell described the lavish circumstances of her life? Diana had landed in the “two most pre-eminent positions open in the world to a woman.” Becoming the Princess of Wales—“with all the glamour, cachet and opportunity that had to offer”—Diana would also become “the Queen Consort of Great Britain, Northern Ireland, Canada, Jamaica and the many other Commonwealth countries which remain monarchies.” Again I underline: position, fame and wealth are not what happiness is all about—this is one of the essential life lessons Diana shared with the world. However, what often gets left out if we find ourselves in unhappy circumstances is gratitude. To be grateful for what we’ve got, acknowledge the abundance that surrounds us, and take responsibility if something is not working out.

Although a teenager star-struck by royalty, Diana enthusiastically went after becoming a princess knowing it was a big job and there would be a price; and the main cost—which was never hidden—would be “paying back the nation for the bounteous privilege that would thereafter be one’s due,” Lady Campbell emphasized. She then reminded readers in her Diana biography that “compared to the concerns of the rest of humanity, a Princess of Wales would have no right to complain.” What the princess would have, the author added, would be “a positive and indubitable obligation…showing appreciation to everyone and everything that had made her good fortune possible.” (i.e.: To have a grateful attitude.)

It may not have been the glittering opulence of royalty that blinded your good sense or intuitive nudges in some decision you made that didn’t work out. It may not have been such a rarified and honored position or proposal as Diana received that you had accepted then realized you made a mistake (for whatever reasons, this was not the life you wanted after all). But if you found yourself in a pickle or simply wanted to change the course of your life, could you do it without blame or anger, without making others wrong? Could you thank the people involved for the opportunity to serve, or the love they shared, or the gifts they gave? Could you even request their support in making your change with grace and appreciation? “Thank you, for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever.” ~

[This is an excerpt from the "Grateful Heart" section of chapter eight in the upcoming book The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride that uses Princess Diana's life as a backdrop for life lessons for all women.]

March 1, 2012

{Kate Says "Thank-you"}

[Reprint from the Telegraph by Tim Walker, February 29, 2012: Duchess of Cambridge pays secret thank-you visit to royal wedding dressmakers]

Without any fanfare, the Duchess of Cambridge has paid her dues to some of the unsung heroines of the royal wedding. Kate made a secret visit on Tuesday [February 28, 2012] to the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace, where she said thank you to the master embroiderers who helped to create her bridal gown.

Susan Kay-Williams, the school’s chief executive, tells me: “It was lovely to meet the Duchess of Cambridge and to show her what the Royal School of Needlework does.”

I am told that around 30 of the renowned school’s full and part-time staff turned out for her visit. One of the Duchess’s friends says: “Catherine was keen to express her gratitude in person to the women who worked so hard on her dress. She was very conscious of the pressure that they were under.”

Glove-wearing women at the south-west London school, which was founded to keep the traditional art of hand embroidery alive, worked on the dress amid such secrecy that they did not know the identity of its designer until moments before the announcement that it was Sarah Burton, of the fashion label Alexander McQueen.

The intricate gown was hand stitched using the Carrickmacross lace-making technique. Individual flowers were hand cut from lace onto ivory silk tulle to create a design which incorporates the rose, thistle, daffodil and shamrock. ~

[Reprint from the Telegraph by Tim Walker, February 29, 2012: Duchess of Cambridge pays secret thank-you visit to royal wedding dressmakers]