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Conserving Royal Wedding Dresses

 
The wedding dresses belonging to Princess Charlotte (1816), Queen Victoria (1840), Alexandra of Denmark (1863), Princess Mary of Teck (1893), Princess Margaret (1960) and Princess Alexandra of Kent (1963) are usually carefully stored at Kensington Palace.
 
Princess of Wales wedding dress
 

Conservation and heritage charity Historic Royal Palaces has just completed a major project to conserve five beautiful British historic royal wedding dresses. The work was undertaken by six of HRP’s specialist textile conservators and took 1000 hours to complete. The dresses that were given the ‘royal treatment’ included the exquisite, 195-year-old silver embroidered gown worn by Princess Charlotte (the only daughter of King George IV) in 1816, as well as stunning creations worn by Alexandra of Denmark (1863), Princess Mary of Teck (1893), Princess Margaret (1960) and Princess Alexandra of Kent (1963).

Image: Alexandra of Denmark's wedding dress (1863)- This full-skirted white court dress made from English silk, lavishly decorated with Honiton lace was worn by Alexandra of Denmark when she married Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII and Queen Alexandra in 1863. © The Royal Collection/Historic Royal Palace.

 
 
 
Princess Mary wedding dress

Along with nearly 10,000 other items of royal clothing dating from the 17th century to the present day, this unique collection of wedding dresses are usually kept in carefully controlled storage conditions at Kensington Palace, enveloped in many layers of protective and supportive packaging materials.  However, the forthcoming royal wedding provided a timely opportunity for Historic Royal Palaces to conserve and treat these extraordinary dresses. And whilst the dresses will not be on public display, Historic Royal Palaces have offered the world’s media an exclusive opportunity to view, film and photograph them so these beautiful dresses and their fascinating stories can be enjoyed online, on television and in print.

Image: Princess Mary of Teck's wedding dress (1893) - This white satin dress decorated with a pattern of British and Irish flowers, tied together with a lovers’ knot was worn by Princess (Victoria) Mary of Teck when she married Prince George, Duke of York (later King George V) in 1893. © The Royal Collection/Historic Royal Palace.

 
Princess Charlotte wedding dress
 

The conservation process began with a general condition assessment of each dress, which in the case of Princess Charlotte’s dress involved microscopic surface examination of its silver lamé embroidery. An audit of how previous conservation treatments have fared and whether they are due for removal or replacement was also carried out. The conservation team aims for any new treatments to last around 50 years when the technology allows, avoiding over-handling of these delicate textiles.

Image: Princess Charlotte's wedding dress (1816) - This elaborate cloth-of-silver empire line dress embroidered with flowers and trimmed with Brussels lace was worn by Princess Charlotte when married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg in 1816. This remarkable, glittering dress is 195-years-old, the oldest royal wedding dress that Historic Royal Palaces cares for. © The Royal Collection/Historic Royal Palace.

 

The treatment stages involved for the conservation varied according to the materials and condition of the dresses.  Princess Charlotte’s dress, the oldest in the collection, required the most conservation treatment. In contrast, Princess Alexandra’s 1963 dress required no treatment at all but still required a specially designed bespoke mannequin mount to safely support the delicate lace fabric and its impressive train.

 
Queen Victoria wedding dress

Queen Victoria's wedding dress (1840) - The silk satin wedding dress worn by Queen Victoria in 1840, when she married Albert Saxe-Coburg, is prepared by a conservator for conservation work to begin. Victoria popularized the white wedding dresses, and this simply, yet elegant wedding dress will be displayed at Kensington Palace from March 2012 as part of the ‘Victoria Revealed’ permanent exhibition at Kensington Palace, when Historic Royal Palaces’ £12 million major project to redevelop and transform the palace is complete. © The Royal Collection/Historic Royal Palace.

 
Queen Victoria wedding dress
 

A few of the dresses had weak points which required strengthening, either because a splash of champagne at the wedding had left an invisible mark that over time has chemically degraded the fabric leaving a stain or hole, or simply because the fabrics are so old that their original materials have degraded over the years, leaving damaged areas at points of weakness in the structure of the dresses, for example around pockets, under arms, petticoats or corseted bodices.

Image: Details of Queen Victoria's wedding dress (1840) - Details of Honiton lace on the sleeve of the silk stain wedding dress worn by Queen Victoria in 1840, when she married Albert Saxe-Coburg. Victoria popularised the white wedding dresses, and this simply, yet elegant wedding dress will be displayed at Kensington Palace from March 2012 as part of the ‘Victoria Revealed’ permanent exhibition at Kensington Palace, when Historic Royal Palaces’s £12 million major project to redevelop and transform the palace is complete. © The Royal Collection/Historic Royal Palace.

 

The materials used in treatment conservation are often prepared by the conservation team in-house to ensure they are of the correct type and quality. The fabrics and threads used to patch and repair the dresses were all dyed to match the original fabrics by Historic Royal Palaces’ conservation dye technician.

 
Queen Victoria wedding dress

Queen Victoria's wedding dress (1840) - The silk satin wedding dress worn by Queen Victoria in 1840, when she married Albert Saxe-Coburg, is prepared for conservation work to begin. Victoria popularised the white wedding dress, and this simple, yet elegant wedding dress will be displayed at Kensington Palace from March 2012 as part of the ‘Victoria Revealed’ permanent exhibition at Kensington Palace, when Historic Royal Palaces’ £12 million major project to redevelop and transform the palace is complete. © The Royal Collection/Historic Royal Palace.

 

A sixth royal wedding dress in the collection, belonging to Queen Victoria, will undergo conservation work before it goes on public display next year in the forthcoming Victoria Revealed exhibition at Kensington Palace (from March 2012).

 
Princess Margaret wedding dress

HRH Princess Margaret's wedding dress (1960) - A conservator puts finishing touches to the simple but stunning wedding dress worn by HRH Princess Margaret when she married Lord Snowdon in 1960. The glamorous dress comprised a fitted bodice and a full skirt of fine diaphanous silk. © The Royal Collection/Historic Royal Palace.

 

 
Wedding dress conservation in numbers:
 
  • 1000 hours were spent on treating and mounting the dresses (500 hours on Princess Charlotte’s dress alone)
  •  6 expert textiles conservators with 100 years combined textiles conservation experience
  • 195 years – the age of the oldest royal wedding dress in the collection (Princess Charlotte’s dress)
  • 12,000 – the number of items in the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection at Kensington Palace, cared for by independent charity Historic Royal Palaces
  • 2012 – the year when Queen Victoria’s wedding dress will be publicly displayed at Kensington Palace in new permanent exhibition Victoria Revealed
 

 
Conservation Case Study –
Princess Charlotte’s Wedding Dress (1816)
 
Princess Charlotte wedding dress

Princess Charlotte's wedding dress (1816) - A conservator puts finishing touches to Princess Charlotte’s wedding dress (1816). This elaborate cloth-of-silver empire line dress embroidered with flowers and trimmed with Brussels lace, worn when the Princess married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, is 195-years-old, the oldest royal wedding dress that Historic Royal Palaces cares for. © The Royal Collection/Historic Royal Palace.

 
 

Miriam Langford, Treatment Conservation Manager at Historic Royal Palaces, explains the process involved in caring for Princess Charlotte’s 195 year-old wedding dress:

“Princess Charlotte’s dress is an elaborate empire-line dress made from cloth-of-silver, a silk net with an embroidered silver lamé spot motif and scalloped borders of silver embroidery in both floral and shell patterns. The conservation treatment to this dress involved removing a previous adhesive treatment from over 40 years ago which was beginning to fail and release where it had previously provided support and re-treating the frail and worn areas with linings, and in some cases facings, of conservation grade nylon tulle, dyed to match the silk.  The treatment chosen for the current condition of the dress was an array of supportive stitching in ultra-fine mono-filament silk threads, almost invisible to the naked eye, which help take the weight of the very pure and heavy silver embroidery out of the weakening original silk net fabric.

 
Princess Charlotte wedding dress

Detail of Princess Charlotte's wedding dress (1816) - Conservators from Historic Royal Palaces conserve Princess Charlotte’s elaborate cloth-of-silver empire line wedding dress embroidered with flowers and trimmed with Brussels lace. This remarkable, glittering dress (worn when the princess married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg in 1816) is 195-years-old, the oldest royal wedding dress that Historic Royal Palaces cares for. © The Royal Collection/Historic Royal Palace.

 

“One of the glorious aspects of this particular dress is that the silver does still glitter and shine after nearly 200 years.  When we display the dress we have to ensure that we eliminate the possibility of pollutants landing on the silver surface and causing tarnish when it has survived for so long without succumbing to this dark fate.  Our textile conservators have worked closely with our preventive conservation team to ensure that the dress is protected in both its storage and display environments, keeping it safe for generations to come.”

 
 
 
 
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