How Queen Victoria's White Wedding Dress — and Carriage Ride — Paved the Way for Meghan Markle
Victoria "needed to signal submission," says historian Lucy Worsley of the royal's choice of white
While it was expected for the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to wave to well-wishers along the parade route, for the 20-year-old Victoria nearly two centuries ago, it was radical.
“Before this time, royal weddings had happened in the evening, behind closed palace doors, and the public had not been part of the occasion,” says Lucy Worsley, who helms the new PBS show Victoria & Albert: The Wedding, which premieres on January 13.
“With [Prime Minister Lord] Melbourne’s guidance, she did it in daylight,” Worsley says of the “royal propaganda coup” surrounding Victoria’s 1840 wedding to Albert. “Melbourne made her travel to St. James’s Palace in a carriage so that everybody could see and cheer, and afterward she went with Albert back to Buckingham Palace. And then on the third trip they went from Buckingham Palace to Windsor – so everyone could do so again.”
Worsley, who is author of the accompanying book Queen Victoria – Daughter, Wife, Mother, Widow, adds of the open royal wedding style pioneered by Victoria: “It is a machine for manufacturing good warm feelings about monarchy … and it is still working.”
Another innovation? Victoria’s white gown. “She needed to signal submission, that she was going to be good from now on; that she was going to be a wife — so she wore the simple white dress,” says Worsley. “It became the ancestor of a million big white wedding dresses that people wear to this day.”
The PBS show comes as further celebrations of Victoria’s life are set for the looming 200th anniversary of her birthday on May 24, 1819. Later this year, a new show at Kensington Palace will celebrate her and include a petticoat that may have been what Victoria wore under her wedding dress. (It is also featured in Victoria & Albert: The Wedding.)
The commanding Victoria took the lead and “called Albert into her closet and told him they were going to get married. She had the whip over him.” Albert, on the other hand, was a romantic who used jewelry to say things he wasn’t able to verbalize.
The exhibit at the palace will include a diamond-and-emerald set designed by Albert. “His making jewelry for her was a huge sign of love,” says Worsley, who is chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that tends to historic buildings associated with the monarchy. “He was quite a shy character, cerebral and logical and was very different from the emotional, passionate Queen Victoria. One of the ways he would communicate with her was through these gifts.”
For the PBS show, Worsley and her team recreate the ceremony, the food, the clothes and the carriage ride. “We had an awful lot of fun with the food,” she says. “We recreated the wedding cake. It was nine feet around the circumference, it weighed nearly 300 lbs. and took four men to carry it up the stairs. And it was soaked in 21 gallons of French brandy.”
Victoria’s wedding breakfast wasn’t “a huge public feast, but a small group of relatives who gathered for the meal at the palace. That was to underline that we didn’t just have a queen but a royal family. It was a brand.”