The End of an Era?
by Victoria “Tori” Martínez
I’m afraid this has been coming for some time now, at least in my opinion. The wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton last month only confirmed my fears.
The era of ubiquitous royal tiaras appears to be nearing its end in Britain.
When Catherine Middleton, now HRH The Duchess of Cambridge, first appeared in the Cartier Halo tiara (also known as the Scroll tiara), which was lent to her by the Queen, the first thoughts that crossed my mind were how lovely it looked on her and what an appropriate choice it was. As a middle-class woman marrying the second-in-line to the throne during a major global economic recession, anything grander would have seemed unsuitable, not to mention tactless.
My second thoughts were about just how much the role of the tiara has changed in Britain since the Victorian Era, particularly in the last 50 years.
Consider this: although royal brides from Queen Victoria to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon generally did not wear tiaras during their weddings, they could at least expect to receive quite a few of them as wedding gifts, and they most certainly wore them at every possible opportunity.
Princess Marina of Greece broke the Victorian tradition of wearing no bridal tiara when she married Prince George, Duke of Kent, in 1934. Instead of the usual flowers, she fixed her veil to her head with a beautiful fringe tiara given to her by the City of London. The move was quite appropriate, as under the reign of King George V and Queen Mary, tiaras were de rigueur for any royal or high social event. It’s well-known that Queen Mary wore a tiara even when she dined alone with the king.
When Queen Elizabeth II was Heiress Presumptive to her father’s throne, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth gave their daughter her first tiara, the Scroll tiara we now know as the Halo tiara. The king had originally given this tiara to the queen in 1936 when they were Duke and Duchess of York, just before the Abdication Crisis that made them king and queen. Although the Duchess of York had worn it before she became queen, the rich bounty of the royal vaults gave her an incredible selection of magnificent tiaras and other jewels, making the Halo seem a bit un-queenly.
For this reason, it was the perfect tiara for the 18-year-old Heiress Presumptive, although it seems she never wore this tiara in public, probably since her collection rapidly grew thanks to birthdays and the beautiful tiaras she received as wedding gifts. Among the wedding gifts were the tiara given to Queen Mary when she was a bride by the Girls of Great Britain and Ireland, which Elizabeth called “Granny’s Tiara,” and a Cartier bandeau tiara of English rose and foliage design from the Nizam of Hyderabad. On her wedding day, Princess Elizabeth borrowed The King George III Fringe tiara from her mother.
After she became Queen, Elizabeth proved to be an excellent model for the many beautiful royal tiaras in her personal and the State collections. Some of the best pictures of the Queen, in my opinion, are those taken of her as a young woman looking every inch a queen in her beautiful 1950s and early 1960s gowns and furs, literally sparkling in jewels and tiaras that were only matched by her radiant smile and glowing skin.
Princess Margaret was also quite stunning in a tiara in those days. The Queen often lent her the Halo tiara, which looked quite elegant on the doll-like princess. For her wedding, however, Margaret went all out with the magnificent Poltimore tiara, bought especially for her at auction. Despite having no royal connections, the tiara was a towering beauty that could be disassembled and worn in a variety of other ways.
As the Queen’s only daughter, Princess Anne, came of age, she was frequently photographed wearing the Halo tiara for portraits and State occasions. Clearly, this tiara had become something of a starter tiara for young royal ladies. When Princess Anne married, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and borrowed the Fringe tiara from her grandmother.
Like the Queen, Princesses Margaret and Anne eventually acquired further tiaras of their own. In addition to the Poltimore tiara, Princess Margaret was given Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother’s Papyrus tiara and the Persian turquoise tiara. Princess Anne was given Princess Andrew of Greece’s Meander tiara by the Queen in 1972, as well as a diamond festoon tiara presented to her in 1973 by the World Wide Shipping Group.
Other royal ladies, including the Duchesses of Kent and Gloucester, Princess Alexandra of Kent and Princess Michael of Kent, also inherited or acquired an array of tiaras, and the fashion for wearing and receiving tiaras seemed firmly set in royal style well into the 80s. Princess Michael of Kent, in particular, seemed born to wear beautiful tiaras.
When Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, the new Princess of Wales received the Cambridge Lover’s Knot tiara as a wedding gift from the Queen and frequently borrowed the Spencer tiara she had worn as a bride. This may seem a paltry collection for a Princess of Wales, but considering that she could have expected to inherit much of the Queen’s personal tiaras one day, never mind wear the Crown jewels, it is not all that surprising.
Sarah Ferguson, on the other hand, could not expect such a large inheritance as Duchess of York. Had she remained married to the Duke of York, she might have eventually inherited a few more from the Queen after her eventual death, but the bulk would have gone to Diana if she herself had become queen. Nevertheless, her bridal tiara (not a family heirloom, but a purchase from Garrard) was a wedding gift from the Queen and Prince Philip. To my knowledge, it remains her only one.
No doubt the divorces of Diana and Charles and Fergie and Andrew caused the Queen to become even more circumspect in her sharing and gifting of tiaras. Now, the royal vaults are more tightly sealed than ever, and new royal brides and royal ladies are considered lucky to receive a tiara as a gift, or even as a loaner, from the Queen.
When Sophie Rhys-Jones married Prince Edward and became Countess of Wessex, her bridal tiara was a wedding gift from the Queen that was possibly made from a necklace that formerly belonged to Queen Victoria. Since her marriage, the Countess has borrowed several smaller tiaras from the Queen for State occasions, but they usually pale in comparison to the tiaras worn by Continental royal women.
Autumn Kelly, the bride of the Queen’s eldest grandson, Peter Phillips (and the first of her grandchildren to marry), had to make due with a loaner at her wedding: the diamond festoon tiara given to her new mother-in-law, Princess Anne, by the World Wide Shipping Group. In any case, the down-to-earth Autumn doesn’t seem like much of a tiara-wearer.
It seems likely that if a tiara had appeared on the head of Camilla Parker-Bowles when she married Prince Charles there would have been uproar from certain quarters. Still, Camilla has managed to borrow at least two of the late Queen Mother’s tiaras, including the Boucheron and Delhi Durbar tiaras (the latter was originally owned by Queen Mary, who probably rolled over in her grave the first time Camilla wore it).
In my opinion, the Duchess of Cornwall does little justice to these large and magnificent tiaras, which doesn’t bode well for her future career in tiara-wearing. Not that any of the tiaras she may one day wear as queen (or, if you like, “princess consort”) will weigh anything but heavy on her head given the past. This, naturally, is only my personal opinion; but what is perhaps more based in fact is that the Prince of Wales has expressed somewhat less of an interest in the outward displays of pomp and pageantry than his predecessors. When (if?) he eventually becomes king, it’s possible that he will follow the more modern mood of informality, including using fewer of the more magnificent pieces of royal jewels to decorate his wife.
The new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge seem even less inclined to cover themselves in ermine and diamonds, much in keeping with their own generation’s style. Instead of tiaras and furs, the Sloane Ranger set seems much more interested in expensive – and frequently bizarre – hats and the latest modern haute couture. If they continue in this way, their eventual royal court will probably be about as low-key as their wedding was. Not poor, to be sure, but not dripping in passé heirloom diamond tiaras.
As an ardent admirer of fine jewels – especially tiaras – this future is a bit sad for me. I, like many others, revel in seeing magnificent old tiaras elegantly worn on beautifully-coiffed heads. The idea of seeing these images only in books one day makes me a bit wistful. On the other hand, it also means progress to a more modern monarchy that lives somewhat less grandly and has less need for parading around in fine tiaras or keeping them locked away in vaults out of the public eye.
It also means that more of these historic tiaras may be making their way out of the vaults and into museums to be seen up close and personal after years of gathering dust or giving their wearers right royal headaches. In fact, if the generous act of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in asking for charitable donations rather than gifts as wedding presents (at least from those outside close friends and family) is any indicator, perhaps one day many of the magnificent royal tiaras – including those that haven’t been seen for many years – may be put on display to raise money for charity.
In this way, the end of one era could become the beginning of another.
Victoria “Tori” Martínez
Author of “An Unusual Journey Through Royal History,” available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.