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"The Landing of H.R.H. the Princess Alexandra at Gravesend, March 7, 1863," by Henry Nelson O'Neil, 1864.

When Princess Alexandra of Denmark arrived on English soil in 1863 to marry the Prince of Wales, the heir of Queen Victoria, she was the very picture of modesty. No jewelry was visible and she wore a handmade bonnet. Alexandra may have been Danish royalty, but she wasn’t rich. Matter of fact, her family had lived on handouts to get by. She was shy, kind, and very beautiful. Everyone loved her immediately.

Queen Victoria, 1873

Queen Victoria of Great Britain, 1873

When Alexandra joined the British royal family, over two years had passed since Queen Victoria‘s husband, Prince Albert, had died.  Yet Victoria was still plunged into deep mourning. Victoria had wished she had died with her beloved Albert. Upon his death, she had renounced all pleasures and vowed to wear dreary black crape dresses the rest of her life as a token of mourning. She spent many of her waking hours kneeling in Albert’s carefully-preserved bedroom, crying and pleading with God to help her. (See “Queen Victoria in the Blue Room with a Bust.”)

Alexandra discovered that Victoria had amassed an enormous jewelry collection.  But, after Albert’s death, the Queen had became convinced that excessive display of jewels awakened anti-monarchial feelings in the English people. Princess Alexandra tried to convince her to wear her pretty, glittering things but to no avail. Famously, Victoria refused to wear a crown to the Thanksgiving service honoring her 1887 Golden Jubilee. The Queen of Great Britain arrived at the state ceremony wearing a bonnet.

Whereas Victoria had renounced all pleasures, Princess Alexandra had just begun to live. She had grown up poor and now she was rich and the future Queen of England! She was not about to be sucked into Victorian mourning dress. Although her husband, “Bertie,” was a serial adulterer, Alexandra accepted his infidelity and got on with her life, moving with him from party to party with the artsy crowd. Dressing herself in fine jewels and frivolous clothes became her passion – and she indulged herself completely.

Queen Alexandra at her Coronation, 1902

Initially, Princess (later Queen) Alexandra adopted dog collar chokers, called a ‘collier de chien’ to cover a small scar on her neck. For state and formal occasions, though, she plastered herself from head to waist in necklaces, tiaras, ribbons, sashes, and brooches of pearls, diamonds, and other jewels. Her long strings of pearls became her signature look. Alexandra became quite popular and women copied her style and bearing. American tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., remarked that:

Queen Alexandra “possessed the world’s most perfect shoulders and bosom for the display of jewels.”
 

Readers: “Queen Victoria’s Tiny Crown” follows this post.

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Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1854. They had been married 14 years and are both about 34 years old. This is the first time Victoria had been photographed. Queen Victoria reigned as Queen Regnant of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland from 1837-1901 and as the first Empress of India of the British Raj from 1876 -1901. Her reign as the Queen lasted 63 years and 7 months, longer than that of any other British monarch before or since, and her reign is the longest of any female monarch in history. The time of her reign is known as the Victorian Era, a period of industrial, cultural, political, scientific, and military progress within the United Kingdom.

Throughout their 21-year marriage, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria delighted in showering each other with gifts of art. A new major exhibition of the Royal Collection (March 19-October 31, 2010) at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, is the first ever to focus on the royal couple’s shared enthusiasm for art. “Victoria & Albert: Art & Love” showcases over 400 paintings, drawings, photographs, jewelry, and sculpture from the years of their courtship (1836-1839) and marriage (1840) until Albert’s untimely death of typhoid (1861).

Gold, enamel, and tooth brooch belonging to Queen Victoria (1847, probably commissioned by Prince Albert)

Many trinkets exchanged between the royal couple were sentimental in nature, marking special occasions in the royal household, such as this gold and enamel brooch, seen for the first time ever. This unusual and tiny brooch in the form of a thistle has, as its flower, the first milk tooth lost by the firstborn of their nine children, Princess Victoria (1840-1901). An inscription on the reverse states the tooth was pulled by Prince Albert at Ardverikie (Loch Laggan), on September 13, 1847. (To see more of Victoria’s jewelry made with teeth, click here.)

Princess Victoria was the subject of many art commissions; her parents were overjoyed at her birth because she almost wasn’t born. When the Queen was four months pregnant, she had been the target of a failed assassination attempt. Edward Oxford fired two shots at her as she and Prince Albert rode up Constitution Hill in a carriage in June of 1840. Fortunately, neither the queen, prince, or the unborn Princess Royal was harmed.

An attempt is made to assassinate Queen Victoria by Edward Oxford, June 10. 1840, as the Queen rides up Constitution Hill with Prince Albert. Oxford was arrested for high treason, tried, and acquitted by reason of insanity.

Prince Albert was a man of many talents. He designed many of Queen Victoria’s jewels, including this 1842 brooch featuring a miniature of Princess Victoria as a bejewelled angel.

Queen Victoria's enamel, gold, and jewel brooch, 1842, with a miniature of Princess Victoria as an angel, Prince Albert, designer; William Essex, after William Ross, miniaturist

The queen appreciated Albert’s talent in jewelry design. She wrote:

“Albert has such taste & arranges everything for me about my jewels.”

In addition to designing the queen’s personal jewelry, Prince Albert designed many pieces of her state jewelry. He designed most of her tiaras, including the Oriental Circlet, also a part of this year’s special exhibition.

Queen Victoria's State Jewelry: "The Oriental Circlet," 1853. Diamonds, rubies, gold. The inspiration for the design of this tiara, which includes ‘Moghul’ arches framing lotus flowers, came from Prince Albert who had been greatly impressed by the Indian jewels presented to the Queen by the East India Company.

Readers, you might also enjoy: “Queen Victoria in the Blue Room with a Bust.”

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Mary Todd Lincoln in mourning clothes, 1863. Even during the period in 1862 and 1863 when Mrs. Lincoln was in mourning for her son Willie and wore only black, she managed to go further into debt for new clothes. By 1864, she told Elizabeth Keckley: "The President glances at my rich dresses and is happy to believe that the few hundred dollars that I obtain from him supply all my wants. I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity... If he is elected, I can keep him in ignorance of my affairs, but if he is defeated, then the bills will be sent."3 Only on January 1, 1865 did she completely shed her mourning attire.

Mary Todd Lincoln in mourning clothes, 1863. Even during the period in 1862 and 1863 when Mrs. Lincoln was in mourning for her son Willie and wore only black, she managed to go further into debt for new clothes. By 1864, she told Elizabeth Keckley: "The President glances at my rich dresses and is happy to believe that the few hundred dollars that I obtain from him supply all my wants. I must dress in costly materials. The people scrutinize every article that I wear with critical curiosity... If he is elected, I can keep him in ignorance of my affairs, but if he is defeated, then the bills will be sent." Only on January 1, 1865 did she completely shed her mourning attire.

After her son Willie’s death at age eleven on February 20, 1862,  Mary Todd Lincoln went into deep mourning. She traded in her sparkling jewels, frilly white and colorful gowns, and flowered bonnets made fashionable by her icon the French Empress Eugénie (click to read earlier post) for widow’s weeds of dull black crepe. Her stylish White House parties were put to the side. Gaiety gave way to sadness. Mary had lost her favorite son, the perfect one, the one she considered most like her husband.

After Willie died, Mary’s youngest son, eight-year-old Tad, still tossed with the same typhoid fever that killed his brother. He lay critically ill nearby, but Mary, incapacitated by grief, would not and did not rush to his side to nurse him. Meanwhile, Willie’s embalmed body was laid out in the Green Room of the White House and his coffin was open. Mary mustered enough energy to place a sprig of laurel on Willie’s chest before retreating to her bedroom and shutting the door. She took to her bed, weeping and sobbing  in such uncontrolled spasms that she became quite ill.

She did not come out of her bedroom to attend Willie’s funeral and never again entered the Green Room or the second floor guest room where Willie died. She rid the house of all of Willie’s toys and clothes and forbade his and Tad’s best friends, the Taft boys, from ever returning to the White House to play.

During Mary’s tormented period, Abraham, also heartbroken at his son’s death, sent for help. Two of Mary’s  friends, a nurse, and Mary’s sister Elizabeth heeded the calling. One of the friends was the esteemed Washington seamstress Elizabeth Keckley. In memoirs she wrote with a ghostwriter six years later, she recalled a day when President Lincoln led his distraught wife (whom he called “Mother”) to the window, pointed to the lunatic asylum at a distance from the White House, and said,

 “Mother, do you see that large white building on the hill yonder? Try and control your grief or it will drive you mad and we may have to send you there.”

The recently widowed Queen Victoria wearing mourning clothes at Balmoral, Scotland, 1863. She is riding "Fyvie" and is accompanied by her faithful servant John Brown. Her husband, Prince Albert died in December of 1861 of typhoid fever or perhaps cancer of the stomach. For forty more years, the rest of Victoria's life, she wore black widow's weeds. Suspicion was aroused by Victoria's partiality to John Brown as a servant; most of the members of the Royal Household referred to him as "the Queen's stallion" and defamatory pamphlets referred to her a "Mrs. Brown." A 1997 film with Judy Dench titled "Mrs. Brown" was about the possible love affair.

The recently widowed Queen Victoria wearing mourning clothes at Balmoral, Scotland, 1863. She is riding "Fyvie" and is accompanied by her faithful servant John Brown. Her husband, Prince Albert, died in December of 1861 of typhoid fever or perhaps cancer of the stomach. For forty more years, the rest of Victoria's life, she wore black widow's weeds. Suspicion was aroused by Victoria's partiality to John Brown as a servant; most of the members of the Royal Household referred to him as "the Queen's stallion" and defamatory pamphlets referred to her as "Mrs. Brown." A 1997 film with Judy Dench titled "Mrs. Brown" was about their rumored love affair.

It was three weeks before Mary could even be persuaded to get up out of  bed and put on her mourning clothes. Queen Victoria (1819-1901) now became the First Lady’s fashion model. Victoria’s husband Prince Albert had died unexpectedly just three months earlier and Victoria had plunged herself and her entire staff into the deep black dress of mourning. Following Victoria’s lead and further compounding her debt to clothing merchants (click to read an earlier post), Mary Lincoln ordered an entire new wardrobe of dull black crepe dresses, bonnets, and weeping veils.

For more than a year, six months longer than was called for in the mourning manuals of the day, Mary wore first-degree mourning. Her black crepe straw bonnet was so heavily veiled that she could not turn her head, which gave her an odd appearance as she was always facing forward. She became a very public mourner. She wanted to draw attention to her grief as if she was the only one who had lost a child at a time when Civil War soldiers were dying in record numbers from Mississippi to Maryland on the nation’s bloody battlefields.  During her mourning, she cancelled the Saturday afternoon Marine Band Concerts held on the White House lawn, explaining that, “When we are in sorrow, quiet is necessary.”  She bought black jet jewelry to accent her sooty “widow’s weeds” and used writing paper with the thickest margins of black.

Finally, in 1863, Mary ordered another new wardrobe, running up yet more bills, and moved into the stage known as half-mourning, exchanging her lusterless black for fabric in lavender, gray, and somber purples with a little touch of white at the wrist. (1)

 

Click here to access my related post, “The Madness of Mary Lincoln.” Also, for more posts on the Lincolns, view the drop down menu, “Categories,” in the left column, find at the top, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and click.

(1) Baker, Jean H. Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1987)

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