On Monday 21 June, a public thanksgiving marked 60 years of Queen Victoria's rule. And, for the first time since the death of the Prince Consort in 1861, at the state banquet that evening, the queen set aside her widow's weeds and wore "a dress of which the whole front was embroidered in gold, which had been especially worked in India."
Ten days later, the Duchess and Duke of Devonshire gave a ball at Devonshire House on Piccadilly, overlooking Green Park. The 700 invited guests were requested to wear "allegorical or historical costume before 1815".
Rarely had the London social world been so stirred as by this fancy-dress ball. According to Lady Randolph Churchill's reminiscences
For weeks, not to say months before hand it seemed the principal topic of conversation. The absorbing question was which characters our friends and ourselves were going to represent. Everyone of note and interest was there, representing the intellect, beauty and fashion of the day.
She finally decided to be the Empress Theodora. Her sister went to the ball as Brünnhilde and her future sister-in-law, Princess Henry of Pless, came as the Queen of Sheba "surrounded by a retinue in Oriental garb, some of whom so far sacrificed their appearance as to darken their faces", as The Times reported with the slightest hint of disapproval. Darkie Oriental she might be but they loved her Sheba costume:
...of gold and purple gauze, the short-waisted bodice encrusted with immense turquoises set round with diamonds and other precious stones; the skirt and draperies of gold gauze embroidered to correspond, and the long gold girdle encrusted and fringed with jewels. Bird of paradise and crown. Four servants held her train.
The host, the Duke of Devonshire, appeared as the Emperor Charles V in a costume copied from Titian's famous portrait, rich in black silks and furs, and wearing the Order of the Golden Fleece (borrowed from the Prince of Wales). But all eyes, to be honest, were on his wife who had dressed as Queen Zenobia (above left, for it is she). The Times waxed lyrical:
The skirt of gold tissue was embroidered all over in a star-like design in emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, and other jewels outlined with gold, the corners where it opened in front being elaborately wrought in the same jewels and gold to represent peacocks outspread tails. This opened to show an underdress of cream crepe de chine, delicately embroidered in silver, gold, and pearls and sprinkled all over with diamonds. The train, which was attached to the shoulders by two slender points and was fastened at the waist with a large diamond ornament, was a green velvet of a lovely shade, and was superbly embroidered in Oriental designs introducing the lotus flower in rubies, sapphires, amethysts, emeralds, and diamonds, with four borderings on contrasting grounds, separated with gold cord. The trains was lined with turquoise satin. The bodice was composed of gold tissue to match the skirt, and the front was of crepe de chine hidden with a stomacher of real diamonds, rubies and emeralds.
Those were not her only jewels; of course not.
A gold crown incrusted with emeralds, diamonds, and rubies, with a diamond drop at each curved end and two upstanding white ostrich feathers in the middle, and round the front festoons of pearls with a large pearshaped pearl in the centre falling on the forehead.
Wow. Just Wow!
On the other hand, it does rather smack of waiting for a date with the guillotine.
Speaking of "Madame Guillotine", the costume was designed by Maison Worth, the first ever couturier of Paris.
An Englishman in Paris
Ironically, the founding father of haute couture in Paris was the Englishman Charles Frederick Worth, who opened his shop on the Rue de la Paix in 1858. Lincolnshire born, Worth had worked as a clerk for two London textile merchants, gaining a thorough knowledge of fabrics and learning the business of supplying dressmakers. Unusually ambitious, he visited the National Gallery to study historic portraits. Elements of the sitters' dresses in these paintings would later provide inspiration for Worth's own designs for both fashionable ensembles and masquerade costumes.
Worth moved to Paris in 1845, aged 19, and succeeded so well that his maison couture (fashion house) dominated Parisian fashion during the second half of the nineteenth century. Before he established his business, clothing design and creation was handled by largely anonymous seamstresses.
Worth was the first to sign his name on the garments he created, in effect the world's first designer labels. His customers could now attach a name and a face to his designs once they recognized that they were from the House of Worth. It was his genius to use 'live mannequins', our models of today (selected in Worth’s case not for their beauty but for their resemblances to his best customers) to show off the clothes -- so that his clients would see how the garments look when worn. The House of Worth was also the first to present seasonal collections, four each year, and thus invented fashion shows, as we still know them.
High-society women flocked to his plush, very private salon; a letter of introduction was usually required. Charles Dickens, in 1863, reported back in astonishment to his compatriots across the Channel that a bearded man with his “solid fingers” was allowed to take “the exact dimensions of the highest titled women in Paris — robe them, unrobe them, and make them turn backward and forward.”
Twice the price for Americans
Worth's rise as a designer coincided with the establishment of the Second Empire in France. The restoration of a royal house in 1852, with Napoleon III as the new emperor, once again made Paris an imperial capital and the setting for numerous state occasions. The demand for luxury goods, including textiles and fashionable dress, reached levels that had not been seen since before the French Revolution. When Napoleon III married Empress Eugénie, her tastes set the style at court. Worth was appointed court couturier and held a royal warrant. Maison Worth not only clothed empresses but also czarinas, queens and princesses, Rothschilds and Vanderbilts. With Empress Eugénie as his ultimate mannequin, Worth and his novelties — hoopskirts, bustles, leg-o’-mutton sleeves — penetrated deep into the New World. Americans, arriving by private steamship, were routinely charged higher prices.
Worth's gowns are notable for their lavish fabrics and trimmings, such as fringe, lace, braid, and tassels made of pearls. His designs included an ankle-length walking skirt, shockingly short for its time, and the princess gown, a waist-less dress that hung simple and straight in the front while draping in full pleats in the back. While Worth still created one-of-a-kind pieces for his most important clients, he is especially known for preparing a variety of designs that were shown on live models at his fashion house. Clients made their selections and had garments tailor-made in his workshop.
Although Worth was not the only designer to organize his business in this way, his aggressive self-promotion earned him the title of the 'Father of haute couture'. By the 1870s, Worth's name frequently appeared in ordinary fashion magazines, spreading his fame to women beyond courtly circles.
Not bad for an Anglais in Paris.
Worth A Double Duchess
Born in Germany, née Countess Louisa Frederica Augusta von Alten, the future Duchess of Devonshire reigned as a young beauty at the court of the King of Hanover. In 1852 she married Viscount Mandeville, eldest son of the 6th Duke of Manchester. He succeeded his father as 7th Duke in 1855, and Louisa became Duchess of Manchester. They had five children but it was not a happy marriage and his profligacy ruined the family fortune. When the Duke finally died at Naples in 1890, the sixty-year-old Dowager Duchess, after a decent interval, married Spencer Compton Cavendish with whom she had carried on a love affair for over 30 years.
Just months before, Cavendish had succeeded as the 8th Duke of Devonshire, so she thereby became Duchess of Devonshire -- and thus acquired the nickname, 'the Double Duchess'.
The Duke, by all accounts was only interested in politics and horse racing (in no particular order). He had been an MP since he was 24, held various cabinet posts, and led the Liberal Party from 1875-1886. More Caesar than Caesar, he was asked by the Queen to form a government three times -- and each time he declined to become Prime Minister, choosing to stand aside for another; surely a political record.
Gossip preserves but a single indiscretion, and that was his affair of many years with Catherine 'Skittles' Walters, one of the last of the great courtesans of Victorian London. It was more than a brief fling. Over 200 of his love letters to Skittles are preserved in the Chatsworth archives and she is known to have followed him to New York during the American Civil War.
Cavendish courted her, it seems, for more than sex alone. She was a fine horsewoman, too, known for wearing a riding habit "that fitted like a glove, and a bit of cherry ribbon round her neck". A fellow hunter recalled that, as she galloped past, "She made a remark ... to the effect that she felt convinced that when she reached home a certain portion of her anatomy would probably be of much the same hue as the tie she wore round her neck."
Scandalous! But, in middle age, this superstar of the Victorian demi-monde presided over a popular political salon, so perhaps she and Cavendish shared that interest in earlier days as well.
On the other hand, the Double Duchess had plenty of arrows in her quiver, too.
There had been no Duchess of Devonshire at the family seat of Chatsworth House (left) for eighty years and she brought the place to life again, the rooms always filled with the smartest people. She loved gambling, keeping stacks of cards and betting chips piled on tables incongruously set next to lecterns displaying Bibles. Her political dinners were historic events. She was the very pattern of a political hostess, having a genius for entertaining, which reached its zenith when Edward VII came to the throne (another of Skittles' lovers when still Prince of Wales) . There are photographs of the King on his annual visits to Chatsworth, getting stouter and stouter with every passing year.
So, when the Duchess of Devonshire decided to hold a fancy-dress ball to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, instead of trying to compete, other London hostesses rolled over and invested all their efforts into ensuring that they were on the guest list.
It was the grandest and the most sensational ball since the Prince of Wales’s own masquerade ball at Marlborough House in 1874; then, the prince's guests had been dressed in the costume of one of a number of distinct pictorial quadrilles -- a Venetian quadrille, a Vandyck quadrille, a quadrille costumed as characters from a pack of cards....
The Duchess' brilliant innovation was to honour the reign of Queen Victoria by dividing the guests into five different Courts, each Court led by an historical female monarch attended by her 'princes' and 'courtiers'.
There was the Austrian Court of Maria Theresa (Lady Londonderry), Empress Catherine’s Court (Lady Raincliffe), the French Court of Marie Antoinette (Lady Warwick, with her head still stuck on), an Elizabethan Court (Lady Tweedmouth, surrounded by eight gigantic guardsmen), and the Court of Queen Guinevere (Lady Ormonde, attended by the inevitable Knights of the Round Table. Men do like to dress up in armour). Mixed themes gave still more scope for disguise: the Oriental group with its many female queens -- including the Double Duchess as Zenobia who entered perched atop a palanquin borne by her slaves, the Queen of Sheba with her dusky retinue, and Cleopatra, who was reputed to have worn the most expensive gown at the ball;* and an Italian Renaissance Procession, with a decidedly literary slant but making room for a Doge and a Dogaressa , but no Medici.
About 11pm the National Anthem announced the arrival of the Royal party, who were dressed, like the rest of the company, in character. They took their seats on the dais, and immediately the "processions" began, each Court advancing in order, bowing, and passing on.Or possibly the oriental characters salaamed instead.
Not surprisingly, the guests experienced the evening more as fancy dress than as ball. The programme of fifteen dances "was not undertaken with much enthusiasm except by the very young and energetic, for many of the guests were not suitably dressed, especially those in armour and those with long heavy trains."
They were also too busy gazing at each other or struggling to play up to their assumed parts.
A charming Hebe, with an enormous eagle perched on her shoulder and a gold cup in her hand, made a perfect picture, but alas! in one attitude only, which she vainly tried to preserve throughout the entire evening; while the late Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Coburg as the Duke of Normandy ... in casque and chain armour, kept his visor down until heat and hunger forced him to sacrifice his martial appearance.
I like to think that the Double Duchess felt some affinity with the character of Zenobia, but alas! (if I may copy Lady Randolph Churchill's style) there is nothing in her life story to suggest the slightest rebellious urge.
Perhaps she was influenced in her choice of character by the appearance a year earlier of the 'Kelmscott Chaucer', possibly the most beautiful book ever produced. Had she read the Monk's Tale, she would have met Zenobia:
Zenobia, of all Palmyra queen
(As write old Persians of her nobleness).
So mighty was in warfare, and so keen,
That no man her surpassed in hardiness,
Nor yet in lineage, nor in gentleness.The folio-size Canterbury Tales was published by William Morris at his Kelmscott Press and its splendour can hardly be matched among the books of the time: its many large border decorations, frame decorations, large initial word decorations, and ornamental initial letter decorations were designed by Morris. And it contains 87 wood cut illustrations by the celebrated Victorian painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones, but alas! (it is habit forming), no picture of Zenobia. So that's not a likely source for the Duchess' inspiration.
That leaves Edward Poynter's Neo-classical Zenobia Captive (left) as a possible fount.
Much admired in its time, most critics rhapsodised when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878:
The handsome, swarthy face of the princess is clouded with an expression of mingled pride and distress, and it is probable that she even now prepared to deck the triumph of her conqueror's entry into Rome - for loaded with jewels, upon her head a splendid diadem, rich in diamonds and precious stones, we readily picture the unfortunate queen when borne down with her golden chains she was led captive through the imperial city. (The Athenaeum, 4th May 1878)One can well imagine the Double Duchess relating to this very grand and sumptuous work. What's not to like? It would strike just the right chord in what was to be the most magnificent and incomparable fancy dress ball.
In fact, one of the few dissenting voices ('An Occasional Correspondent' for The Argus of Melbourne, Vic) put his finger on a contradiction in the painting that might have made it still more attractive to the Duchess:
The head and bust are magnificently modelled, the drawing is classic in its purity, and the finish in the turquoise pendants to the diadem of beaten and embossed gold, the auriferous fetters, the snake shaped armlets, is positively wonderful. But it is not ' Zenobia Captive'.Why not?
Aurelian's vanquished prisoner was all womanly; but she would have been much less than a woman had she tramped through the dust of the Via Triumphalis, in the wake of the conqueror's car and exposed to the hooting of the rabble, with feelings of anything save rage and shame and despair.Whether empresses or charladies, whatever women do, they are still women.
The generous Aurelian pardoned his former enemy, and presented her with an elegant villa at Tivoli. The Eastern queen became a Roman matron. Thus Mr Poynter has only to take the chains off the lady's wrists, and 'Zenobia Captive' would do very well for a grande dame de par le monde fully prepared to entertain the ladies of the consular families at a 5 o'clock tea at Tivoli.
How perfect for the Double Duchess. Tea, anyone?
I am grateful to Paula Howarth in Rome for having drawn my attention to the Duchess of Devonshire as Zenobia and for sending me a copy of the photograph reproduced above left.
Eye-witness reports from Lady Randolph Churchill's Reminiscences (London 1908) quoted in Marion F. O'Connor, "Theatre of the Empire" in (J. E. Howard & M.F. O'Connor, eds.) Shakespeare Reproduced , London, which also tells a good deal about the ball. I have also used G. King's Twilight of Splendor: The court of Queen Victoria during her Diamond Jubilee, London, 2007.
The ball, guest list, and many costumes were described in The Times; found on-line at The Duchess of Devonshire's Ball.
* Cleopatra was Mrs Arthur Paget, later Lady Paget, an American heiress possessed of the fantastic sum of ten million dollars. For the ball, she “commissioned one of the most spectacular and certainly the most expensive costume from Worth of Paris at a reputed cost of over $6,000. The train is of black crêpe de chine, embroidered with gold scarabs. The bodice, encrusted with gold and diamonds, is held up on the shoulders with straps of large emeralds and diamonds. The square headdress is made of cloth of gold with striped black and gold sphinx-like side pieces studded with diamonds, and incrusted with diamonds”. See her all dressed up at Aftermathnews.com . The cost of her gown may be compared to the average family income in the USA at that time, $650.00 per year . The same website also has a photograph of The Prince of Wales, dressed down (so to speak), as Grand Master of the Knights Hospitallers of Malta.
Above left. Duchess of Devonshire dressed as Zenobia, 1897. Credit: Photobucket.com
Above right. Duchess of Devonshire's Zenobia gown, which is today kept at Chatsworth House. Credit: artnet.com's review of "The Devonshire Inheritance: Five Centuries of Collecting at Chatsworth", Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture, New York.
Second left: Duchess of Devonshire on an outing. Credit: ChestofBooks.com
Third left: the State Dining Room Chatsworth. Credit: artnet.com
Lower left: Zenobia Captive by Edward Poynter ( 1836-1919). Credit: The Leicester Galleries. Did the Duchess of Devonshire ever see the painting? I do not know. The work is even today in private hands but alas! I have been unable to track its provenance before the Leicester Galleries sold it in 1993.