THERE’S nothing quite like a royal wedding. The sins of the world are washed away and we all collectively sigh and believe in the promise of love again, if only for a moment. Here it is, after all, the stuff that fairy tales and lovers’ dreams are made of, played out in the flesh. Back in the day, a royal wedding meant a period of peace, as marriages between royals were usually meant to cement treaties. Now, royal weddings are celebrations of two people in love, with all the luck and privilege the world can offer. For a few moments, we will be part of their love story, so important to us, for we have become so hungry for fantasy in a dimming world.
In honor of the wedding between Prince Harry of Wales and actress Meghan Markle, we bring you a list of wedding dresses that in one way or another, have changed history, or at the very least, the lives of the royal brides who wore them.
Yes, we went all the way there. The woman who gave her name to an era left her imprimatur on the way weddings are celebrated the world over. We’re not saying that she did so single-handedly, but before her marriage to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1840, few brides wore white. Brides who came before her, of any social class, wore their best dresses, sure, but they weren’t necessarily white. Now, any other color would seem a bit strange. The adoption of the white wedding dress, because it was worn by Queen Victoria, is a testament to the power and influence of the British Empire, which at its height covered 24% of the Earth’s land area.
Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt’s wedding dress is iconic because she would be the last Russian empress to celebrate her wedding in such finery, after 300 years of autocratic rule by the Romanov dynasty. When her husband Nicholas II’s rule ended with the Russian Revolution, it also ended the belief that the office of the royal can only be answerable to God. Born a granddaughter of Queen Victoria, superstitious Russians whispered that the new empress would come with a coffin, because the 1894 wedding came so soon after the death of her father-in-law, Alexander III. Few would know the significance of this belief when Alix and her family would be swept off the throne and off this earth in a little more than two decades. Alix wore a silver brocade gown with diamonds at the bodice, and over this, an imperial mantle of cloth-of-gold and ermine. Jewels made for imperial brides before her adorned Alix, including a tiara with a pink diamond weighing in at more than 13 karats. The weight of the imperial regalia made it difficult for the bride to move, perhaps a metaphor for the weight of imperial duty, and a portent of the difficult times which lay ahead. But she looked beautiful that day, according to several reports, and probably had no idea what she had gotten into.
This dress cost a lot for the Duchess of Windsor to wear on her wedding day on 1937. For Wallis Simpson to be able to wed in this pale blue Mainbocher dress, King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom had to abdicate his throne in 1936 in order to marry this twice-divorced American socialite. While it is difficult to imagine anyone giving up love for duty or country these days, their romance then would threaten a constitutional crisis. The dress would be significant, for had this wedding not taken place, George VI may not have ascended to the British throne to take his brother’s place, and therefore, his daughter Elizabeth II would not be on the throne today. Not to mention that Edward VIII may have harbored warm feelings towards Nazi Germany, and if he had chosen duty over love at that time, who knows what the world would be like now?
The wedding of then Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, symbolized hope for the United Kingdom, victorious but scarred from the Second World War. The 1947 wedding was extraordinary in that royal pomp and ceremony was conducted amidst wartime rationing due to austerity measures still in place after the war’s end. The bride had to be allotted extra clothing rationing coupons for royal couturier Norman Hartnell to create the white satin dress, said to be inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera. The bride wore her grandmother Queen Mary’s fringe tiara, which would snap in two while she was dressing, and had to be hastily repaired in time for the wedding.
The wedding between American actress Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956 merged the glamor of Hollywood and European royalty, and inadvertently carved out a new role for royals. Few now would still see royals as true political figures, but instead as celebrities whose lives are to be consumed by the public. The dress of silk taffeta and lace was designed by, appropriately, a Hollywood costume designer, the famous Edith Head, for what would be the former actress’s defining role as princess-consort of a small European nation.
In another case of having to choose between love and duty, Elizabeth II’s sister, Princess Margaret, was denied her lover, the divorced war hero and royal staff member Group Capt. Peter Townsend. The world gave a collective sigh in 1960 when the princess announced, five years after her failed romance, that she would marry society photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones, later the Earl of Snowdon. The princess’s long-sleeved silk organza wedding gown, modern and simple in its silhouette, would foreshadow the role Princess Margaret would play in bringing modernity to the House of Windsor. Her royal wedding was the first between a commoner and a king’s daughter in centuries,and the first to be televised. Her marriage would also be the first one in the family’s history to end in divorce since 1901. This would make it easier for society to accept the breakdown of the marriages of her royal nephews and niece in later years.
Lady Diana Spencer’s story up to her wedding day was the stuff of fairy tales. Born the daughter of an aristocrat, she lived as simply as her status allowed her as a nursery school teaching assistant, and was swept up to fame and the world’s love and adulation when she married the heir to the British throne, Charles, Prince of Wales in 1981. The enormous ivory silk taffeta and antique lace gown she wore had a train that measured 25 feet, which made quite the statement at St. Paul’s Cathedral. In a documentary, her wedding dress designer, Elizabeth Emanuel said: “It’s always been about a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, and that is her story.” This was to explain why the dress had been so voluminous that it would hardly fit in with her and her father in the Glass Coach she rode to the ceremony, and why it had gotten so crumpled as she descended from the coach. Her veil, meanwhile, was secured by the Spencer family tiara, which had been worn at the weddings of her ancestors. Their marriage would serve to revive the spirits of the British monarchy, which by the 1980s had been seen as dull and quite stodgy — 750 million people around the world, after all, watched their wedding on television. Few would have guessed that the marriage would be torn apart in 1996 by the couple’s own instability and infidelity. While Diana’s life ended in 1997, many would remember her not only for her charm, beauty, and sweetness, but also for her humanitarian efforts against the use of landmines and raising awareness about HIV/AIDS, depression, and eating disorders.
The failed marriages of the children of Elizabeth II tarnished the royal family’s reputation considerably. It was argued that aside from their duties of state, the royals were supposed to serve as models for virtue, and if they couldn’t do that, what else were they good for? The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, a well-loved member of the family, in 1997 also cast a pall on her former in-laws. But no matter: some of Diana’s charm had rubbed off on her two sons, Princes William and Harry. Prince William of Wales married heiress Catherine Middleton in 2011. The bride, now known as Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, wore a creation by Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen. The close-fitting, long-sleeved gown featured lace, satin, and appliques in its design, and the bride wore the Cartier Halo Tiara, an heirloom from the days of The Queen Mother. A royal wedding, again, would provide the spark to light up the British Royal Family. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s seemingly successful marriage, complete with three photogenic children, continues to fuel the British Royal Family’s publicity machine. — Joseph L. Garcia