Two English princes, sons of the monarch, with ducal titles, marry beautiful women who attract the interest of the public at home and abroad. Fashion magazines use them to promote various styles. Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex, 2010s? Nope. Try Clarence and Kent, 1810s.
Both duchesses in question hailed from small German principalities–one smaller in square mileage than San Antonio, Texas– which would seem unlikely sources of fashion trendsetters in England and America in the 1810s. But in 1818, Her Serene Highness Adelheid Louise Theresa Caroline Amelia, 25-year-old daughter of the Duke of the tiny German state of Saxe-Meiningen, and Princess Marie Luise Viktoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, married two of England’s royal dukes: Prince William, Duke of Clarence, and Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, respectively.
Young brides, two royal weddings–the English fashion press naturally leapt on the possibilities, and within a month of the new duchesses’ arrival, fashions named “Clarence,” “Kent,” and “Meiningen” were being touted in London magazines.
Above is the earliest appearance of a fashion named for the Duchess of Clarence. It is doubtful that the “Meinengen [sic] corsage” had any design source in the tiny German principality. The fashion press at that time was always naming new styles after current events and people in the news. Its new royal duchess was a perfect candidate for being honored this way. On the other hand, William deGregorio, who has done extensive research into the color and Clarence connection, found a reference to Clarence Blue –later associated with the Duchess–as early as February 1817, in Ackermann’s Repository of the Arts (I’m hugely grateful to Billy for letting me cite his research in this post).
The first royal portrait of Adelaide (as her name was Anglicized) depicts her in the vivid blue seen in the plate: perhaps she was trying to honor her new husband by adopting a color already associated with him? Yet as we will see, she does seem to have liked this color.
Adelaide and Victoria (who also changed to Anglicized spelling) were married at the Royal Palace at Kew on July 11 in a double wedding. Their husbands were the third and fourth sons respectively of George III.
Yes, THAT George III, supposed tyrant, bane of Revolutionary Americans’ fight for liberty, and amusing character in the Broadway musical Hamilton. (Side note, in fairness: he wasn’t really such a bad guy; many historians say he was at the mercy of his advisors. He even had nice things to say about George Washington later on. And you have to sympathize with his mental illness and horrific treatment to which he was subjected–portrayed in the movie The Madness of King George.)
The back story to the double wedding is worthy of a soap opera.
So, previously on All My Monarchs, the Prince of Wales (later George IV) has taken over as Prince Regent in 1811, because of his father George’s growing mental incapacity. Princess Charlotte, the Regent’s only child, whom he had with his despised and estranged wife Princess Caroline of Brunswick, has given birth to a stillborn son and died in childbirth in 1817. Overwhelmed with guilt, her obstetrician has killed himself.
Now there is no other legal heir to the throne, despite George’s having thirteen living children (plenty of illegitimate ones–the royal dukes had a propensity for longterm love affairs and even morganatic marriages with commoners–even, horrors!–actresses–you’ll have to stream previous seasons of All My Monarchs to learn more). “The Royal Marriage Race,” as it was dubbed, now ensues, to marry off George’s available sons and produce an heir as soon as possible.
William, who had the most illegitimate children of any of his generation (twelve: ten by the actress Mrs. Jordan), now marries Adelaide. Edward’s bride is the sister of Prince Leopold, widower of Princess Charlotte whose death had precipitated this race for an heir. Soap operas can’t compete with the British royal houses for interconnected families and tragedies; Leopold will also be the matchmaker for Victoria and Albert in another twenty years.
German principalities and duchies were the go-to for British royal marriages, as long as they were Protestant; the reigning House of Hanover came from Germany, so it probably felt quite comfortable to choose German brides.
The same month that La Belle Assemblée (let’s abbreviate it to LBA) published the Clarence/Meiningen dress, they published a portrait of the new Duchess of Kent, with obsequious commentary on her and her husband. It also offered a description, but no illustration, of “the Victoria déshabille, or Duchess of Kent’s morning dress: it is of a beautiful lavender coloured Italian crape, made partially high, with pelerine cape, and is elegantly trimmed with satin of the same colour as the robe.”
The same issue offered a colored plate with multiple Clarence references. In comparison, the lavender morning dress seems a bit of a bone thrown in Victoria’s direction. Was this due to Adelaide’s higher rank, as wife of a prince one step higher up in the line of succession?
The dress above is described as “richly embroidered with Clarence blue. Clarence bonnet, finished at the edge with a double cordon of blue and white double larkspur blossoms…Clarence spenser [sic], of a fine marine blue, with mancherons and lapels of white satin.” The issue’s General Observations on Fashion and Dress added that “For the carriage, as a morning airing costume, the Clarence spenser and bonnet are most in favour: they are of a fine marine blue…This bonnet… takes its name from the Duchess of Clarence.”
Rudolf Ackermann’s Repository of the Arts gave the Duchess of Kent a little more coverage. In the August 1818 issue, the usual two monthly color plates face each other, one featuring a Clarence bonnet in pink (Ackermann doesn’t seem to have read the memo–or drunk the kool-aid?–on Clarence Blue) and the other an evening dress with a “Kent toque” (a close-fitting, brimless hat; this one looks more like a turban).
The text describes the toque as composed of “Parisian gauze of a bright colour, richly embroidered in small roses.” The evening dress is described as a “British net frock;” machine-made net was a quite new invention, and plain and embroidered net became popular worn over colored slips for evening wear over a blue satin slip, with blond lace trim at the hem “in the French style.”
There’s really no reason to suppose the bonnet and toque were so named because their namesakes were actually seen wearing anything of the kind. (Surely if they had been, the writers would have said “as seen worn by the Duchess at X occasion,” rather than “takes its name from the Duchess of Clarence.”) But Adelaide must genuinely have liked the vivid blue associated with her: several subsequent portraits portray her in similar tints, long after the trendy name went out of use.
Her coronation portrait features deep blue robes, which may be her own choice or may have been chosen to complement her husband’s. This blue, however, is darker than what we’ve seen called Clarence Blue before.
But did the fashion press’s touting of Clarence blue have any effect? Should we take a magazine’s claim that this or that color, or style of hat, was really trending, at face value? It’s difficult to prove causal connections between fashion coverage and consumers’ taste, due to the small selection of surviving garments. (Too little headwear survives for us to assess whether anyone ordered and wore a Clarence bonnet or Kent toque.)
But several blue dresses and a pelisse whose style details date them to the late 1810s or early 1820s survive, their colors quite similar to that in the 1818 portrait and the fashion plates. As William deGregorio points out in his essay about one of these dresses, offered by Titi Halle in the 2016 catalogue of Cora Ginsburg, “Before this time, lighter blue shades called “azure” and “celestial blue” had been most popular.” The dress offered in the catalog was from Connecticut; it is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
You can see more pictures of this dress at
https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/708524. To read DeGregorio’s research on Clarence blue, see http://coraginsburg.com/catalogues/2016/CoraGinsburgCatalogue2016.pdf
A pelisse (coat) with a Scottish provenance, dated 1818-24, is in the collection of the Cincinnati Museum of Art, as DeGregorio’s essay notes.
Another dress, with an unspecified American provenance, is in the DAR Museum collection. It can be dated to about 1818-20 based on the skirt width and construction (gores creating a slight A-line, a change from the narrow tubular skirts which precede it) and the hem trim. http://agreeabletyrant.dar.org/gallery/1810s/blue-silk-dress/
Both the Met’s dress and the DAR dress use tone-on-tone blue silk trim at shoulder, wrist, and hem. The long sleeves are similarly shaped to flare over the hand, with more piped satin trim ; one dress has puffs, the other an epaulette at the shoulder:
The North Carolina Museum of History owns a vivid blue figured silk dress dated 1824 (the online catalogue doesn’t say so, but the date may indicate that the dress was worn at a ball in honor of Lafayette during his 1824-5 tour of America). Perhaps its owner called this color “Clarence Blue.” It has detachable longer undersleeves: you can see many more views and details at http://collections.ncdcr.gov/RediscoveryProficioPublicSearch/ShowItem.aspx?67423+
It may seem unlikely that Americans were aware of– and cared to follow– such a specific English trend, but American newspapers reprinted English accounts of Adelaide’s arrival and marriage, as well as the fashion descriptions mentioning “Clarence Blue.”
In June of 1830 on the death of George IV, Adelaide became Queen. Did the fashion press celebrate this promotion? You bet: but she was no longer Duchess of Clarence. Instead, leading up to the coronation in September of 1831, a new color, “bleu Adelaide” appears in lists of fashionable colors in January, April, September, and October in La Belle Assemblée (the color name is always written in French and in italics, sometimes with an accent on the first e in Adelaide). It wasn’t Clarence blue rebranded: LBA’s fashion notes for January 1831 first list “full, rich colors” and then says that “light colours, as rose, pale lemon-colour, [and] bleu-Adelaide…are most worn in full dress.” (The Duchess of Kent inspired no new styles.)
Above, from LBA, April 1831: “gown of bleu Adelaide gaze orientale” with a blue crape toque on gold net, “with a profusion of white ostrich feathers.” A generic light or sky blue, but bear in mind that these were hand-colored plates and therefore could vary in shade (sometimes we see dresses in completely different colors).
Adelaide was not a trend-setter by design, but by accident of her marriage, and through the marketing efforts of the fashion press at key stages of her life, her marriage and her assumption of the throne. The same is true of the Duchess of Kent.
Adelaide’s marriage was happy, and she was liked by the British people for her character and charity, as well for being a good influence on her husband (though he was never a spendthrift rake in his brothers’ league). She did not, however, produce the much-needed heir. Tragically, she suffered several miscarriages and stillbirths; one daughter lived a matter of hours, another just a few months. Her brother-in-law the Prince Regent ascended the throne in 1820 on the death of George II, becoming George IV, and ruled until his death in 1830. William became King William IV and Adelaide became Queen, ruling until William’s death in 1837.
In the event, it was the Duchess of Kent who gave birth to the heir in the next generation: Princess Alexandrina Victoria. We know her as Queen Victoria.
The 2009 movie The Young Victoria cast Harriet Walter as Queen Adelaide. Kudos to costume designer Sandy Powell: making one Clarence Blue dress for Adelaide may have been a coincidence, but two? Powell clearly did her research. What a lovely Easter Egg for those of us who know what she’s doing!
Adelaide is known to have been very kind to her niece (as we see in the movie). She lived until 1849. As late as about 1840, she was painted in another vivid Clarence Blue dress in silk velvet.
The city of Adelaide in Australia is named for Queen Adelaide. I can’t help thinking, as I write this post, of the wildfires there. If you would like to donate to the Australian Red Cross, which is helping people displaced by the fires, here is a link: htpps.//fundraise.redcross.org.au.arc. Funds for the mostly volunteer firefighters are spread among various regional groups; google “help Australian firefighters” and choose whichever you like. And you can help wildlife at this site: https://www.wwf.org.au/get-involved/bushfire-emergency#gs.qz8x90 or here https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-thirsty-koalas-devastated-by-recent-fires/donate (this koala hospital, which has received a lot of international attention, is sharing donations with other organizations helping wildlife nationwide). You are free to ignore this; please forgive my inserting current events into a history blog. It’s too important not to at least mention.
Once again I express my gratitude to William deGregorio, the first to identify Clarence Blue as a trending color in 1818, and to Titi Halle for allowing me to use her photographs of the dress.