Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Evening Courts

Following King Edward and Queen Alexandra’s famously glittering evening courts at Buckingham Palace it was customary for The Times newspaper to append to the following day’s “Court circulara descriptive list of the most notable gowns and dresses. This rewards close scrutiny, as much for what is usually omitted as for what is revealed. On the whole couturiers must have been sorely disappointed; they were never mentioned. Only bouquets created by Edward Goodyear, florist by appointment to the Court of St. James’s, were noted, though everybody carried them, and they were enormous. Within the established rules of Court dress dictated by the Lord Chamberlain’s department—white veil and ostrich-feather headdresses (three plumes if you were married, and two if not), long kid gloves, trains of a certain length and of specified fabrics, a shower bouquet, etc.—ladies managed to produce a surprisingly varied range of effects that also served to conform to a finely calibrated pecking order of magnificence according mostly to rank but also to disposable income. These two were not by any means the same thing. On Friday evening, May 13, 1904, for example, the Duchess of Buccleuch headed the list:
Train of cloth of silver, flounced with white Chantilly lace, and worn over a gown of black net embroidered with chenille over silver gauze. The duchess wore diamond ornaments, Queen Alexandra’s Coronation badge, their Majesties’ Coronation medal, the Order of Victoria and Albert, and the Jubilee medal and clasp.

The Marchioness of Lansdowne.—Train of heliotrope velvet, lined with white brocade and trimmed with old lace and passementerie [sumptuous trimming]. Her ornaments were pearls and diamonds, and Lady Lansdowne wore the Imperial Order of the Crown of India, the Orders of Victoria and Albert and St. John of Jerusalem, and the Jubilee and Coronation medals…

The Countess of Pembroke.—Train of cream satin and green crêpe de chine (of Bradford manufacture) draped with Carrickmacross [Co. Monaghan] lace, over a gown of green brocade, trimmed with Brussels lace. Pearl and diamond ornaments…

Lady Herbert.—Train of white satin, lined with tulle and silver gauze, over a gown of white crêpe de chine, embroidered with silver lilies. Her jewels were sapphires and diamonds.

Lady Margaret Bickersteth.—Train of mauve brocade, draped with chiffon and old lace, over a gown of pale grey satin, trimmed with antique Brussels point [thread lace made wholly with a needle]…

Lady Muriel Digby.—Train of white satin with lilies embroidered in pink and the stems jeweled, over a gown of white satin; the skirt trimmed with bows and feathers in silver and chenille work and draped with Brussels lace…

Lady Peacock.—Train of black satin mousseline [muslin], lined with ivory satin, veiled with black tulle and trimmed with Brussels lace, over a gown of black chiffon embroidered in jet, diamond ornaments, and a[n Edward] Goodyear [est. 1879] bouquet of mauve orchids and foliage.

The Hon. Mrs. G. Lawson Johnston.—Train of pink mousseline [wool] velour, lined with chiffon, over a gown of pink pleated chiffon trimmed with seventeenth-century English lace.
Mousseline velour? Oh! Ladies who were elderly, infirm, or for the time being in mourning were permitted to wear black, dove grey, and/or mauve ensembles, which generally had a higher than normal bodice, plus sleeves for warmth, but only if they obtained the Lord Chamberlain’s written permission beforehand. Readers attuned to the economics of Edwardian dressmaking were quite aware of the fine distinctions to be made, here, between grades of silk, from the twin peaks of brocade and plush velvet, down through satin, crêpe de chine, and chiffon to the foothills of tulle and net, then onwards to the comparatively impoverished flood plain of velour and wool substitutions. They were also alert to the differences between various types of “old” lace, Brussels lace and Brussels point, Valenciennes, Irish, and English lace (versus point d’Angleterre). The cost differentials could be enormous, and in any case heirloom lace of spectacular quality was virtually unobtainable. Only the most senior peeresses of the realm, usually courtiers, were in a position to wear orders and other “decorations” at all, and there also appears to have been a distinction in rank between ladies who wore diamond “ornaments” (mostly duchesses, marchionesses, and countesses), and lower castes whose diamonds The Times described as “jewels” instead (in other words viscountesses, baronesses, their daughters, and lower rungs of the ladder). All of this served to shuffle the ladies who made it onto the list into a sort of sequence, and innumerable breakfasts in Belgrave Square (the fashionable side) must have been ruined by the discovery that Lady X gained one notch of precedence over Lady Y, when Lady Y knew perfectly well that Lady X’s gown, though slightly more expensive than her own, was not nearly so attractive.

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