15 March 2017

State Visit Jewels: British Royal Visit to Paris (1938)

Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will make a two-day visit to Paris on Friday and Saturday, adding their names to a long list of British royals who have made official visits to France's capital city. Today and tomorrow, we'll be looking back at the clothes and jewels worn during a few memorable state and official visits to Paris. We're kicking things off with one of the most iconic French visits of them all: the state visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Paris and Versailles in 1938.

Central Press/Getty Images

The state visit was originally scheduled to take place in June 1938, a little over a year after the coronation. Preparations were well underway when Elizabeth's mother, the Countess of Strathmore (pictured above in 1931), died in London. With only five days until Bertie and Elizabeth were due to leave for Paris, a diplomatic scramble ensued. Finally, it was decided to postpone the visit for three weeks rather than cancel it entirely.

Wikimedia Commons

After her mother's funeral, Elizabeth turned her attention back to the clothing that she'd been preparing for France. Norman Hartnell had been working with the King and Queen on the inspiration for her Parisian wardrobe. The Shawcross biography of Elizabeth notes that Bertie had suggested echoing the past: "Hartnell recalled that the King showed him at Buckingham Palace portraits by Winterhalter of the Empresses Eugenie of France [pictured above] and Elisabeth of Austria, wearing crinolines." Hartnell had subsequently made several colorful gowns in "this romantic, swaying style."

Sasha/Getty Images

But the sudden death of Lady Strathmore meant that Elizabeth needed to wear mourning clothes during the state visit. She and Hartnell (pictured above at work in 1932) brainstormed for possible solutions and hit upon a particularly elegant answer. Shawcross explains that Hartnell "pointed out that there was an alternative [to wearing black]: white was also a colour of royal mourning -- after all Queen Victoria had insisted on a white funeral." Elizabeth agreed with the proposal, and with only two weeks to spare before the visit began, Hartnell and his army of seamstresses remade all of the dresses for the visit in white fabrics.

With everything in working order -- and the King recovered from a sudden bout of the stomach flu -- the royal visit began on July 19, 1938. Elizabeth left England wearing black with white jewels, a common combination for modern royal mourning. The Associated Press reported that "a hundred heavy trunks" were packed to accompany the royal couple on their trip. They crossed the channel by boat, and then traveled to Paris by train.

On the train journey to Paris, Elizabeth changed into the first outfit from her Hartnell "White Wardrobe." Shawcross describes the ensemble as "a two-piece dress and coat edged with silver fox."

Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Another view of the first Hartnell outfit, with its distinctive fur cuffs, can be seen above. Elizabeth stands beside President Lebrun of France outside the Elysee Palace.

On the evening of the first day of the visit, Elizabeth brought out dazzling royal jewels for a state banquet at the Elysee Palace. Perhaps to emphasize the importance of the visit, she wore her coronation crown (with the arches removed). The Guardian described the diadem as "an open diamond tiara of Maltese crosses and fleur-de-lys, with the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the centre." Her other jewels included Queen Victoria's Fringe Brooch and the gem-encrusted Garter, worn over the left sleeve of her Hartnell gown.

One more view of the state banquet jewels, a still-capture from a British Pathe newsreel. The sash that Elizabeth wears is the dark red sash of the French Legion d'Honneur. You'll note that Elizabeth arrived at the banquet wearing it incorrectly, placing it over her left shoulder (as one wears the Order of the Garter sash). Shawcross notes that, during the banquet, "the Queen noticed the President looking askance at her: she was wearing the Legion d'Honneur, which he had just conferred on her, on the wrong shoulder. She hurriedly changed it."

Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Day two of the visit, July 20, included a boat ride along the Seine with President and Madame Lebrun. A garden party at at the Ch√Ęteau de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne followed and gave Elizabeth another chance to shine in a Hartnell dress.


Above, Caroline de Guitaut of the Royal Collection displays the garden party gown, complete with parasol, at the 2005 Buckingham Palace summer exhibition.

Elizabeth wore pearl earrings and three strands of pearls with the gown. On her left shoulder, she pinned one of her favorite brooches: Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee Brooch, a diamond and pearl jewel made by Garrard in 1897. She also appears to have affixed another brooch to her hat.


That evening, Bertie and Elizabeth attended a return dinner at the Opera Garnier. The 2005 Buckingham Palace summer exhibition featured their clothing and jewels from the evening. Shawcross described this elaborate Hartnell creation as "a spreading gown of oyster-coloured satin, the skirt draped in festoons held by clusters of cream velvet camellias." She accessorized with the Oriental Circlet and lots of diamonds, including her own coronation necklace and Queen Victoria's coronation necklace and earrings. The sash of the Legion d'Honneur was secured with the Duchess of Teck's Flower Brooch, and she wore the jeweled Garter on her left arm.

Lady Diana Cooper, daughter of the 8th Duke of Rutland and wife of the British ambassador to France, recorded her thoughts on the splendid opera gala: "At the opera we leant over the balustrade to see the Royal couple, shining with stars and diadem and the Legion d'Honneur proudly worn, walk up the marble stairs."

The third day of the state visit, July 21, took place largely in Versailles. After a military exhibition, the couple were treated to lunch in the Hall of Mirrors. Elizabeth wore, according to Shawcross, "another floor-length spreading dress of white organdie, embroidered all over with open-work broderie anglaise. Her white leghorn hat was trimmed with ribbons of black velvet." She wore two strands of pearls, plus pearl earrings. I believe that the brooch pinned at the neckline of her dress is Queen Victoria's round pearl-studded brooch with pearl pendants.

After lunch, a special concert presentation was given. Footage from this event allows us to view the clasp of Elizabeth's pearl necklace, which appears to be the Hanoverian Pearl Necklace. Shawcross notes that a timing mishap made this part of the visit foreboding rather than elegant: "Unfortunately, the fly-past by the French air force was delayed until the afternoon and took place during a concert in the chapel of the Palace. Suddenly the music was interrupted by the roars of wave after wave of military planes passing overhead. Rather than reassuring, the display was macabre and unsettling -- certainly that was how the experience remained in the memories of the King and Queen."

On returning to Paris that evening, a final gala dinner was given for Bertie and Elizabeth. The Guardian reported that "on this last night of their visit M. Bonnet, the Foreign Minister, gave a banquet in their honour at the French Foreign Office, followed by a large reception and an entertainment which included a scene from Moliere's 'Ecole des Femmes.'" Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find footage or images of the event or details about Elizabeth's clothing or jewels.

Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before leaving France on July 22, Bertie and Elizabeth traveled to Villers-Bretonneux for the unveiling of a memorial to the Australian Imperial Forces who had died in France during World War I, especially those who had been buried in unmarked graves.

Elizabeth wore one of Queen Victoria's bow brooches pinned to her white outfit. After the king laid a wreath at the memorial, Shawcross notes that "the Queen spontaneously approached the memorial and laid on it a bunch of red poppies from the surrounding fields which had been given to her that morning by a schoolboy." You can see the small bouquet in her left hand in the moving image above. The gesture was reminiscent of her wedding day, when she unexpectedly left her bridal bouquet atop the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.

Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Another image from the memorial unveiling gives us an excellent view of the clasp of Elizabeth's pearls, as well as her pearl earrings. This detail suggests that the two-stranded pearl necklace with the diamond clasp is the Hanoverian Pearl Necklace.


The royal couple returned to England that afternoon. The visit was hailed as a great success, especially for Norman Hartnell. Shawcross explains that all of his effort in making the White Wardrobe "was worth all the trouble. The new dresses were exquisite and their effect was mesmerizing. As a result, Hartnell became official Court dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth, designing all her important outfits for the next four decades." The 2005 summer exhibition to Buckingham Palace (an image from which is displayed above) was devoted to this state visit and, in particular, Hartnell's White Wardrobe.