On 11 September 2012 the oldest surviving wedding gown in British royal history will go on display at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion. It was the wedding dress worn by Princess Charlotte of Wales, the only legitimate child of George IV, at her wedding to the dashing but rather impoverished Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg Gotha in May 1816. This important and stunning dress will become the new centrepiece of the exhibition Charlotte – the Forgotten Princess in the Prince Regent’s Gallery in the Royal Pavilion.
In 2011 the dress was briefly displayed for a media photo call of royal wedding dresses prior to Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding. But the gown has not been on general public display since 1997. It has been lent by HM The Queen for the exhibition.
Charlotte was nowhere near as bold in her dress sense as her father George IV, who was known for his vanity and his excessive taste in clothes, but she did choose fabrics, garments and accessories carefully. She also displayed a certain social and economic conscience, making a point of supporting the British textile industry, particularly the silk manufacturers in Spitalfields. She was often seen wearing relatively plain and elegant empire style dresses, accessorised with sumptuous shawls of superior quality. This can be seen in Henry Meyer’s engraving after Chalon 1816 , or in the image of Charlotte’s and Leopold’s first public engagement after their wedding, a visit to the Covent Garden Theatre in June 1816, in which a magnificent Paisley shawl is draped over her shoulder.
Her wedding dress was equally understated, but of great quality and subtlety. It showed that she had taste, was interested in fashion and high quality materials, but without appearing to be too gaudy and exuberant. The dress is unusual in that it appears to have been made almost entirely of silver coloured materials. It is in fact made from silk and silver thread and decorated with lace, a fabric which, weight for weight, was more expensive than gold in the Georgian period.
The magazine La Belle Assemblée printed the following description of the dress in 1816, which invokes a tantalising picture of a sparkling and shimmering, yet tasteful, gown:
‘The wedding-dress, composed of magnificent silver lama on net, over a rich thread slip, with a superb border of silver lama; the embroidery at the bottom forming shells and bouquets; above the border an elegant fullness, tastefully displayed in festoons of silver lawn, and finished with a brilliant rolio of lama. The body and sleeves to correspond, trimmed with beautiful point Brussels lace. The mantle of rich silver tissue, lined with white satin, trimmer round with a superb silver lama border in shells, corresponding with the dress, and festooned in front with diamonds. Head dress, a wreath of rose-buds and leaves composed of brilliants.’
Two further dresses were made for the occasion, presumably worn by Charlotte at various stages of the wedding procedures on the day, one of them a gold lama dress with a white satin slip, the other another silver lama dress, ‘richly embroidered […] with rich silvers blond lace’.
When Charlotte appeared at Carlton House in the Mall, where the wedding took place, she was cheered by large numbers of people who had gathered in St James’s Park, and even the Prince Regent, who had not always been an affectionate father, was in good spirits. He welcomed the young couple in his private apartments and from there led them to the Crimson Drawing Room, where the marriage took place.
Given the public interest and the significance of this wedding in royal history it is remarkable that more images of the event do not exist. No official wedding portrait was produced and a number of the engravings that depict the ceremony are fictitious.
It is tempting to interpret Charlotte’s choice of a silver dress as overt colour symbolism: it alludes to virginal white, the association of silver with the moon and the female sphere, or simply as an elevation of white to a more regal, more precious material, reflecting her status as heir apparent to the British throne. These may explain her colour choices, but Charlotte also simply followed fashion. In the first two or three decades of the nineteenth century silver was a popular choice of fabric colour and material, and many examples of silver dresses, accessories and furniture fabrics can be found in popular magazines such as La Belle Assemblée and Ackermann’s Repository of the Arts. The latter included not only fashion plates and descriptions of costume, but also real fabric samples.
From around 1813 silver fabrics, trims and decorative embellishment are a prominent feature in women’s fashion, as this example of a ladies’ evening dress from the March 1814 issue of Ackermann’s Repository illustrates:
The outfit is described as ‘a white crape, or fine muslin petticoat, worn over white satin, embroidered in silver lama round the bottom. A bodice of olive, or spring-green satin, ornamented with a silver stomacher. Short, full sleeve, and rounded bosom, trimmed with a lull silver border to correspond. A fan frill of fluted lace, continued round the back, and terminating in front at the corner of the bosom. A silver fringe round the bottom of the waist. The hair in irregular curls in front, falling low on each side, drawn smoothly on the crown of the head, and brought in a small bunch at the back. A bandeau of pearl, twisted round the curls behind. Necklace and cross of pearl eardrops, and bracelets to correspond. Occasional scarf of white silk, richly embroidered in silver and coloured silks, Gloves of white kid. Slippers of green satin, with silver rosettes.’
It is highly likely that Charlotte would have read both Ackermann’s Repository … and La Belle Assembles (the former was dedicated to the Prince Regent) and been influenced by these notes on fashion. She chose silver fabric for at least one other dress in 1816, which has been on display in the exhibition in the Royal Pavilion for the last six months.
Soon after her wedding to Leopold in May 1816 Charlotte herself influences fashion and is frequently referred to in popular magazines. In August 1816 Ackermann’s fashion pages describe a bonnet inspired by one worn by Charlotte as, ‘ornamented at the side by a bunch of roses only […] it is certainly an elegant, simple, and tasteful bonnet, and will, we have no doubt, continue a favourite during the summer months.’
Within her family Charlotte was not alone in her love for silver. In July 1816 Charlotte’s aunt Princess Mary married the Duke of Gloucester and also chose a wedding dress and robe made of ‘silver tissue and lined with white satin’. By coincidence, her father’s passion for silver extended from commissioning and collecting silverware to using silver on an unprecedented scale in the decorative design scheme of the Royal Pavilion interiors. It is perhaps too far-fetched to suggest that he was inspired by his daughter’s choice of wedding dress, but it is typical of George IV to pick up on a fashionable colour or material and use it excessively in other contexts.
Silver in the Royal Pavilion
Silver applied to wall decorations such as printed or stencilled wallpaper, cornices and mouldings, or as a wood finish is relatively rare in historic interiors, for the simple reason that silver tarnishes and cannot be easily polished or repaired. However, George decided to use silver in many ways and in several rooms in Royal Pavilion. We see it as a shimmering background, often interpreted as mother-of –pearl by contemporaries, of Robert Jones’ narrative Chinoiserie panels in the Banqueting Room, on the many silvered bells under the canopies of the north and south end of the same room, and even in the large dragon which appears to be holding the chandelier. This dragon was carved from wood, then silvered and eventually glazed with one or more layers of translucent paint. In the Royal Pavilion inventory from 1828 it is described as ‘a very superb Lustre of matchless design and workmanship, upheld to the center of the dome by a flying dragon boldly carved, silvered and tinted’.
Silvered and glazed carved ornaments are also found in the Music Room, designed by John and Frederick Crace. The best example of the unusual impact of silver can perhaps be seen in the dragon and snakes on the west wall by the windows. A fire in the 1970s destroyed the original carvings and the process of carving, silvering and glazing had to be re-created. We might have lost the original creatures, but we have gained a vision of how the ornaments would have shimmered shortly after the room was finished in 1823.
Silver is also a major design element in Robert Jones’ 1822/23 scheme for the Saloon, which is currently being restored and re-created. Here, Jones designed not only a wallpaper stencilled with silver leaf but he also part-silvered the cornices and mouldings, often using silver leaf and gold leaf together on one ornamental feature. This remarkable combination of gold and silver wood and plaster finishes, in combination with a silver wallpaper, would have made the room appear much brighter than previously thought. The original Robert Jones silver wallpaper from 1822 tarnished rapidly, as did a reproduction installed in the early twentieth century. This picture shows parts of original wallpaper which survived behind the door frame, the equally blackened twentieth century replacement and a sample of the proposed replacement in the current restoration scheme.
In no other English building from that period was silver used so lavishly on ornamental features and wall decorations. There is only one house where silver is used boldly and playfully on a similar scale: the Chinese Drawing Room at Temple Newsam in Leeds. The silver decorations there are slightly later than those in the Royal Pavilion (1827-28), but there is a direct connection between the two interiors which might partly explain the similarities in the use of silver: George IV, when Prince of Wales, gave several rolls of Chinese export wallpaper to Lady Irwin of Temple Newsam, on the occasion of his first visit in 1806. The wallpaper was used many years later by Lady Irwin’s daughter, Lady Hertford, with whom George had an affair. She began redecorating the Chinese Drawing Room in 1822, incorporating the wallpaper given to her mother and using silver lavishly on the cornices and borders of the wall panels. It is likely that Lady Hertford was inspired by either the recent silvered decorations at the Royal Pavilion (even if they had only been reported to her) or by earlier silver elements in the Circular Room of George’s London residence Carlton House, where the walls were ‘entirely covered with silver, on which are painted Etruscan ornaments in relief, with vine-leaves, trellis work.’
Alexandra Loske, Guide and Researcher at the Royal Pavilion