Wednesday 24 April 2019

Wallis Simpson and the 'something blue' wedding dress that cemented her style status as the 'Queen of Chic'

Edward, Duke of Windsor, and formerly Edward VIII of England, and his wife Wallis Simpson, are seen, 03 June 1937, during their wedding, at Chateau de Candé, Monts, France. Edward VIII of England, eldest son of George V and Mary of Teck, abdicated because of his love affair with American-born divorcee Wallis Simpson. After his abdication, he became Duke of Windsor and married Mrs. Simpson, who had changed her name by deed poll to Wallis Warfield, in a private ceremony on 3 June 1937. (Photo credit should read OFF/AFP/Getty Images)
Edward, Duke of Windsor, and formerly Edward VIII of England, and his wife Wallis Simpson, are seen, 03 June 1937, during their wedding, at Chateau de Candé, Monts, France. Edward VIII of England, eldest son of George V and Mary of Teck, abdicated because of his love affair with American-born divorcee Wallis Simpson. After his abdication, he became Duke of Windsor and married Mrs. Simpson, who had changed her name by deed poll to Wallis Warfield, in a private ceremony on 3 June 1937. (Photo credit should read OFF/AFP/Getty Images)

Bethan Holt

Well before Meghan Markle's name was whispered in the ear of a young Prince Harry, another stylish 34-year-old American divorcée was making headlines for all the right - and wrong - reasons.

Wallis Simpson, who is buried on the grounds of the Duke and Duchess' future home of Frogmore Cottage, may have been the woman behind a British King's abdication, but it's her sense of style that she's often most remembered for.

3rd June 1937: A portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on their wedding day at the Chateau de Conde in France. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
3rd June 1937: A portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on their wedding day at the Chateau de Conde in France. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

In what must be one of most intriguingly messaged wedding looks of all time, Simpson wore a silk crepe dress designed for her by Mainbocher, an American couturier working in Paris at the time, for her wedding to Edward VIII in 1937.

The dress was dyed ‘Wallis Blue’, a pale duck egg shade which the designer coined especially to match his client’s eyes.

White was obviously not an option for the twice before married woman in her thirties, but in many ways that freed Simpson to choose something which could project a more personal message.

“Her wedding dress was very dramatic and really showed off her figure,” says Anne Sebba, author of Simpson’s biography 'That Woman’. “There’s no doubt that the Mainbocher was an unusual choice for the time. She was very aware of the impression which it would make; she wasn’t dressing for the party of the wedding, but for the image, for posterity.”

13th September 1939: Duke (1894 - 1972) and Duchess (1896 - 1986) of Windsor at their temporary home near Ashdown Forest, Sussex after their return from France at the start of WW II. The first time they have been in England since the Duke's abdication. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
13th September 1939: Duke (1894 - 1972) and Duchess (1896 - 1986) of Windsor at their temporary home near Ashdown Forest, Sussex after their return from France at the start of WW II. The first time they have been in England since the Duke's abdication. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

While the dress functioned as a sign of Simpson’s glamour and avant-garde sophistication, the hat she choose could be seen as a more emotional appeal to those poring over the wedding pictures.

“The Caroline Reboux hat she wore was extraordinary - it looked like a halo,” explains Sebba. “She wanted people to subconsciously think she was a saint for marrying this man.”

It wasn’t just with her wedding ensemble that Simpson employed fashion as her most powerful weapon.

Despite countless column inches around the world being dedicated to the romance between the Pennsylvania-born socialite and the British King, his subsequent abdication and their exile together in France, Simpson could never speak to the press herself, so clothes were designed to speak for her.

Wallis Simpson, the Duchess Of Windsor (1896 - 1986) with actors Madeleine Carroll (left) and Sterling Hayden (right) in the Bahamas, during the filming of 'Bahama Passage', 1st July 1941. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Wallis Simpson, the Duchess Of Windsor (1896 - 1986) with actors Madeleine Carroll (left) and Sterling Hayden (right) in the Bahamas, during the filming of 'Bahama Passage', 1st July 1941. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Style was terribly important to her because it was the only way that she felt she could be noticed,” says Sebba. “If she couldn’t be Queen of the United Kingdom, then she wanted to mark out her territory as the Queen of Chic.”

In The Crown, Netflix’s recently released and gorgeously cinematic drama about the royal family, Simpson - played by Lia Williams - appears on the screen only for snatched moments but it’s enough time to underscore the stark contrast between her and her husband’s female relatives.

The show’s costume designer Michele Clapton has said that Simpson was one of the most fun characters to dress, thanks to her angular and film star-esque look.

Simpson developed her own fashion vocabulary, nodding to the trends of the time but crafting them to become her own; dresses and tailored suits which enhanced the gamine figure which she was always careful to preserve, elegant gloves - “whether that was because they were chic or as a way to hide her large hands we’ll never know” laughs Sebba - and elaborate statement jewellery.

“Pieces which demanded attention,” as Sebba puts it. She used to buy underwear from the lingerie business owned by Diana Vreeland, the inimitable woman who would go on to become a legendary American Vogue editor, and would order her wardrobe from the salons of Paris couture designers like Vionnet and Schiaparelli. The Vionnet atelier even agreed to remake some of the designs for Andrea Riseborough to wear when she played Wallis in W.E, the 2011 film directed by Madonna.

"I'm not a beautiful woman. I'm nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else," Simpson once said, but her love of fashion was no artifice. “Even as a schoolgirl, Wallis had been interested in fashion. She would clip images from magazines and take them to the dressmaker to be made up, she wanted to look different, sometimes odd even,” says Sebba.

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 23: A Cartier gold and diamond necessaire du soir engraved 'Wallis from Edward 1947' and estimated at £50,000 - £70,000 is displayed at Sotheby's on September 23, 2010 in London, England. The Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor collection will be auctioned in London on November 30, 2010. The collection, originally auctioned in 1983, comprises 20 pieces owned by Wallis Simpson, The Duchess of Windsor. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 23: A Cartier gold and diamond necessaire du soir engraved 'Wallis from Edward 1947' and estimated at £50,000 - £70,000 is displayed at Sotheby's on September 23, 2010 in London, England. The Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor collection will be auctioned in London on November 30, 2010. The collection, originally auctioned in 1983, comprises 20 pieces owned by Wallis Simpson, The Duchess of Windsor. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
American socialite Wallis Simpson (nee Bessie Wallis Warfield) (1896 - 1986) a week before King Edward VIII abdicated. She became Duchess of Windsor in June 1937 after her marriage to Edward VIII, Duke of Windsor. (Photo by Fayer/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 23: A Cartier gold and diamond necessaire du soir engraved 'Wallis from Edward 1947' and estimated at £50,000 - £70,000 is displayed at Sotheby's on September 23, 2010 in London, England. The Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor collection will be auctioned in London on November 30, 2010. The collection, originally auctioned in 1983, comprises 20 pieces owned by Wallis Simpson, The Duchess of Windsor. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Edouard, duc de Windsor (G), et son épouse Wallis Simpson, duchesse de Windsor, s'entretiennent avec l'ambassadeur des Etats-Unis en France William C. Bullitt (D) lors du vingtième anniversaire de l'American Legion à Paris le 18 mars 1939. Edward, Duke of Windsor (L), and his wife Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, talk with US Ambassador in France William C. Bullitt (R) in Paris on March 18, 1939 during the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the American Legion. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

Although her (third) wedding dress has become iconic in its own way, Simpson expressed frustration that she hadn’t able to ponder over it more extensively.

“She complained that she hadn’t had been able to visit different designers and choose a dress because the paparazzi were following her everywhere so she had to depend on what was brought to her; her freedom of action was taken away from her,” says Sebba.

The Duchess of Windsor (Wallis was allowed to be a Duchess but there was no HRH styling for her) set a trend for panther jewellery, establishing a sizeable collection of pieces created by Jean Toussaint of Cartier. Imbued with connotations of power and courage, Wallis’s panthers became part of her fashion armour.

“When she and the Duke returned to England in June 1967 for the unveilling of a statue in commemoration of Queen Mary, it was a warm summer’s day, yet she wore a white fur stole over a panther diamond and cabochon sapphire brooch,”  says Sebba. “It seemed to say ‘I’m on top of the world’. Beside her sister-in-law the Queen Mother who was in country florals, she looked elegant by comparison.”

In a 2010 sale at Sotheby’s, 20 items belonging to Wallis and Edward, including an onyx and diamond panther bracelet from 1952 and a flamingo brooch, set with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, reached almost £8 million.

Even when Edward died in 1972, Wallis still made a point with her choice of outfit for his funeral. “Givenchy stayed up all night creating the coat which she wore,” Sebba explains. “Her chiffon widow’s veil was nothing like an English mourning hat. The veil hid her eyes and looks foreign, almost like a Spanish mantilla. She was very aware that she would have limited access to press so she had to use whatever means were available to her.”

On a purely aesthetic level, Simpson’s fashion legacy is impeccable; her sharp glamour continues to inspire designers or incite the remark ‘Oh, that’s very Wallis Simpson’. But whether her love of clothes aided in boosting her public image is not so clear cut. “I don’t think her love of fashion helped her, at the time people believed that she was an adventuring gold digger who used her talents - including her fashion sense - to ensnare the King,” observes Sebba.

A  glamorous yet so purposefully alternative wedding dress will have helped cement that perception.

This article originally appeared in Telegraph.co.uk in November 2016

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