Botanical Princess GownsFlowers, naturally, have always been favored at weddings. And for many British royal brides, even for the bridal gown itself. According to Christopher Warwick in Two Centuries of Royal Weddings, Queen Victoria’s grandmother, Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, wed King George III in 1761 wearing “silver brocade woven with patterns of flowers—some say carnations—in three types of gold thread.”
“Flowers, both real and artificial, made a comeback at mid-19th century weddings,” explained Marriage à la Mode, and the bouffant crinoline gowns of the time were “positively awash” with trails of either wax orange blossom and myrtle—like Princess Alexandra’s silver tissue gown when she married the Prince of Wales in 1863; or artificial roses and white heather—like the fluffy white silk gown Victoria, the Princess Royal, wore in 1858. Tufts of tulle and lace were often added to the botanical fancy, making these over-the-top dresses pure confections. “Many of these gowns,” Warwick commented, “were so heavily festooned and garlanded with leaves and orange blossom that the wearers tended to resemble a variety of exotic horticultural exhibits rather than wide-eyed brides.”
Toward the end of the 19th century, when crinolines were gone and hourglass silhouettes were the fashion, the fitted, low-cut gown of Princess May of Teck—the future Queen Mary—seemed, perhaps because of her well-endowed figure, “engineered rather than sewn,” according to historian Ann Monsarrat. However, the gown was notable for its woven fabric loaded with symbolic floral sentiment. The white satin brocade had a silver design interwoven of roses, shamrocks, thistles, orange flowers, heather and true-love knots—as romantic as it was patriotic.
Princess Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947, even on a wet and dreary November day, was a shining break from the austerity of the grim post-war years. Her ivory silk satin gown—overflowing with floral motifs—was glamorous, opulent and symbolic. The silkworms used to make the silks both in Scotland and England were brought from Nationalist China instead of “enemy silkworms” from Japan or Italy. Designer Norman Hartnell, inspired by Botticelli’s 15th century painting Primavera, had the gown and long silk tulle court train intricately hand embroidered with thousands of tiny crystals and seed pearls in garland designs of jasmine, smilax, lilac, and York rose blossoms. (However, even the future queen needed ration coupons for her wedding gown’s fabric, so women from all over the country sent their coupons to their beloved princess. They were politely, and with messages of deep gratitude, returned by the Palace.)
In the spring of 2011, it was the bride of the queen’s grandson, Prince William, who carried on Britain’s floral tradition. Kate Middleton looked regal in a white silk gazar couture gown with lace—handcrafted by artisans at the Royal School of Needlework—in delicate patterns of roses, thistles, daffodils and shamrocks, inspiring a bit of “O! to Be in England” sentiment in all of us! ~
[This article is an excerpt from my book The End of the Fairy-Tale Bride: For Better or Worse, How Princess Diana Rescued the Great White Wedding.]