When British Royalty took FASHION to the French! How the Queen Mother’s dramatic white outfits rescued a vital State Visit – and single-handedly revived the parasol industry
- When the British court was plunged into mourning, they had an ingenious plan
- With storm-clouds gathering over Europe, the Queen mother starred in white
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There have been many state visits to France but one of the most memorable came on the eve of war – and that was thanks to the late Queen Mother’s sensational choice of fashion.
George VI and Queen Elizabeth had been due to due to leave for Paris on 28 June 1938 but, five days before, the queen’s mother, Lady Strathmore, died following a heart attack.
The visit was vital to boost the Anglo-French alliance as the threat of war with Nazi Germany loomed and the British government was determined it should go ahead.
The tour was postponed until 19 July but there remained the thorny problem of royal mourning.
Mary Queen of Scots in mourning white following the death of her husband Francois II, King of France. It would prove a useful precedent for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth leaving for Paris in July 1938. The Queen left for Paris in black but arrived in Paris in mourning white
Black or purple designs would create a gloomy image, rather than something upbeat and defiant. It was the royal couturier, Norman Hartnell, who came up with the solution.
White, he pointed out, is an accepted colour of mourning.
Mary Queen of Scots wore white – en deuil blanc – following the death of her first husband, Francis II of France.
Queen Victoria insisted that at her funeral, which she saw as a reunion with her beloved Prince Albert, the coffin should be draped in white.
Although responsible for the colour, Hartnell credited King George with inspiring the style.
The king took the designer to see paintings by Winterhalter of the Empress Eugėnie of France and Empress Elizabeth of Austria and said this is how he wanted the queen to look.
Hartnell called it the ‘regal renaissance of the romantic crinoline’ and set to work to create a dozen white designs at breakneck speed.
It helped that white materials were easier to use ‘as there is no matching of materials required, and no special dyeing to cause delays.’
The Queen left London dressed in deepest mourning but emerged from the train in Paris in dazzling white. Hartnell’s favourites included the billowing dress of ‘hundreds of yards of Valenciennes lace, sprinkled with silver’ for a reception at the Elysėe Palace. He also adored ‘a spreading gown of thick white satin’ worn at the opera.
The most lauded design was the fairytale dress worn at a Garden Party at Bagatelle. ‘It was of the finest cobweb lace and tulle,’ he recalled ‘it was worn with a sweeping hat delicately bordered with white osprey.’
She also carried a transparent lace and tulle parasol and when she opened it to shield from the sun ‘at a stroke she resuscitated the art of the parasol makers of Paris and London.’
The King and Queen attend a garden party alongside President Lebrun and Mme Le brun at the Bagatelle held in their honour in Paris, 1938
The Queen carried a transparent lace and tulle parasol and when she opened it to shield from the sun. ‘St a stroke she resuscitated the art of the parasol makers of Paris and London’
Queen Elizabeth placrd a single poppy upon the wreath previously laid by the King at the Australian War Memorial during their state visit to Paris in 1938
Queen Elizabeth II admired her mother’s elegant mourning’ wardrobe from the State visit to Paris in 1938 for a special exhibition for the summer opening of Buckingham Palace
Caroline de Guitaut, Assistant Curator for Works of Art, adjusts the ‘day dress’ at the preview of Queen Elizabeth’s White Wardrobe, Paris 1938
The fashion-conscious Parisians showered the chic Queen with praise. One excited French diplomat exclaimed: “Today France is a Monarchy again. We have taken the Queen to our hearts. She rules over two nations.”
The stunning creations still survive in the Royal Collection and in 2005 formed the Special Exhibition during the Buckingham Palace summer opening.
Official photographs of the Queen in the same crinolines were taken by Cecil Beaton the following summer and became the defining image of Queen Elizabeth at the start of World War Two.