How’s this for a recipe for bejeweled splendor? A young, beautiful Queen Consort, a cache of sparkling jewels, a custom-made couture wardrobe, and a six-month world tour—all the ingredients for timeless royal elegance came together as Queen Sirikit of Thailand (who celebrates her 90th birthday today!) traveled across the globe in style in 1960.
In June 1960, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand and his wife, Queen Sirikit, left Bangkok for a diplomatic world tour that would take them to a remarkable 15 countries over a six-month period. The 32-year-old monarch and his 27-year-old consort prepared for months for the long journey. For the King, this meant careful preparations regarding speeches and conferences with other world leaders, at a time when Thailand was controlled by a military general following a coup d’état, and when the world as a whole was embroiled in the tension of the Cold War. For Queen Sirikit, preparations for the trip included carefully planning and orchestrating her royal image, a traditional part of the “soft power” exercised by royal spouses. Her communication skills didn’t need any work—as the daughter of a former Thai ambassador to Britain, Sirikit was educated in the United Kingdom and spoke fluent English and French. (Understandably, she did express some nervous feelings about speaking in front of reporters and cameras during press conferences.)
Thrillingly, Sirikit’s preparations included the coordinating and planning of a massive royal wardrobe for the trip. Many of the clothes that Sirikit wore during her visits throughout the United States and Europe were made by the famed French fashion designer Pierre Balmain. The couturier himself traveled to Thailand and reportedly spent several weeks at the royal court planning and designing with Sirikit and her staff. Bolts of Thai silk were shipped from Bangkok to Paris to be transformed into clothing that married both traditional Thai styles and Western influences. The King reportedly granted Balmain access to the royal jewelry vaults during his time at court, allowing the designer to tailor some of his creations specifically to be worn with existing jewelry pieces from the royal family’s collection.With the help of a Balmain fit model who had measurements nearly identical to the Queen, the atelier was able to produce a wardrobe that featured approximately 150 pieces of clothing, ranging from day suits and evening gowns to furs, wraps, coats, hats, and even coordinating raincoats and umbrellas. With the tour spanning dates from June to November, clothing for various weather conditions and seasonal changes had to be incorporated. So did clothing meant for very specific moments during the tour, such as a papal audience at the Vatican. (A black dress with a coordinating black lace veil was produced. Balmain told the press that Queen Sirikit “looks divine in black.”) Eighty pairs of new shoes were reportedly made for the wardrobe, as well as gloves and handbags in the same types of leather, and hand-painted French silk fans with mother-of-pearl handles.
Jewelry was carefully chosen to coordinate with each ensemble, including gala pieces for formal evening events. The inventory of the Balmain wardrobe reportedly included “12 matching diamond bracelets, six for each arm”—though the Queen, in a minimalist touch, apparently never stacked more than five together on one wrist. A columnist for the New York Daily News wrote that the couple’s hand luggage included “Queen Sirikit’s jewels, including many buckles for the belts worn with native pleated costumes,” adding that “diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, amethysts, topazes, zircons, garnets, and opals” were among the gems set in Sirkit’s fabulous jewel collection. Pieces set with pearls, reportedly among Sirikit’s personal favorites, were in abundance. Several tiaras were also packed in the numerous trunks carrying her wardrobe—24 of them in total—including a modern diamond and ruby floral tiara, a classic diamond fringe that could be converted for wear as a tiara or necklace, and a traditional Thai diadem.Reporters across the United States were captivated by the jewelry worn with Sirikit’s traditional Thai evening gowns. One Hawaiian journalist noted that she wore “a lei of fragile medallions caught to her right shoulder with one huge pin and looped down to the left below her waist,” with “a gold metal girdle about her waist with [a] heavy medallion-like jewel in front holding a floor-length panel of accordian pleats and a similar panel forming a short train in back, and armlet above her right elbow with heavy encrusted gold and diamond designs. To all of this was added a matching heavy necklace and large intricate pendant.” All of this gold and diamond jewelry, he wrote, “belonged to the King’s grandmother.”
The royal couple departed from Bangkok on June 14, 1960, bound for their first stop in the United States: Honolulu. After touring the Hawaiian islands, their month-long journey across the United States took them next to California, where they visited Disneyland and toured movie studios in Los Angeles. The couple’s four young children met them in California, where they would stay on a Pomona ranch for the duration as their parents hopped from city to city during the tour. After a week in Southern California, the King and Queen boarded President Eisenhower’s plane, the Columbine II, stopping in Pittsburgh before heading on to Washington, D.C.Eisenhower greeted the couple at National Airport on their arrival, which took place on June 28. The King wore a white military uniform to greet his fellow head of state, while Queen Sirikit wore a pink suit. The King was full of praise for his trip so far, telling Eisenhower that the United States was “half [his] motherland.” It was true—Bhumibol Adulyadej was born in 1927 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father was at student in Harvard’s public health program. Mrs. Eisenhower didn’t join her husband at the arrival ceremony, as she was recovering from a recent bout of bronchitis, but she did rally to make an appearance at a state dinner at the White House later that evening. Sirikit wore a traditional Thai gown embroidered with gold metallic thread and gold filigree jewels for the dinner, while Mamie was daring in a strapless floral gown and long white gloves.
The King and Queen spent several days in Washington, where he addressed a joint session of Congress, among other engagements. After spending several days in the capital, the couple flew to Virginia to spend the Fourth of July holiday weekend at Colonial Williamsburg. They were present to see the newly-adopted 50-star American flag raised over the town for the first time on July 4, 1960. Sirikit chose a royal blue dress, accessorized with pearls and a dragonfly brooch, for the ceremony. Afterward, they flew to New York to embark on the next leg of their tour. There, there was a special treat waiting for the King, who was a talented and enthusiastic jazz musician. On July 5, Bhumibol Adulyadej packed up his saxophone and clarinet and headed to Benny Goodman’s Upper East Side apartment for an afternoon jam session with the King of Swing himself.
From New York, the royal couple headed to the King’s birth state of Massachusetts. They arrived in Boston on July 7, and their welcome party included the doctor and nurses who had delivered the baby prince three decades earlier. “I cannot express well the emotions I feel at coming back to the area where I was born,” the monarch stated in his official remarks. The King and Queen were also able to tour the hospital where he was born in 1927. “This is a dream fulfilled,” he told members of the public who joined him at a reception at the facility. The couple also attended a reception at a Boston hotel, where Sirikit wore jewels with diamond and ruby starburst designs.The American leg of the couple’s world tour continued with several more stops: a visit to see projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Atomic Energy Commission in Knoxville; a tour of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs; and a visit to Stanford University, part of their final stop in the San Francisco area. Queen Sirikit took some time for shopping in the city’s celebrated Chinatown district as the American visit neared its end. Reunited with their children, the couple’s official farewell to America took place at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino.
The royal couple had a break after their lengthy United States tour—but only a brief one. Five days later, on July 19, 1960, the King and Queen boarded a plane for London via Geneva, touching down at Gatwick Airport. There, they were met by a member of the royal family who had also become a close friend: Princess Alexandra. She had made the acquaintance of the couple in 1959, and their friendship would endure over the decades. The Thai royals were greeted in the traditional British manner: with rain. Sirikit got to use one of her custom-made Balmain raincoats, in a shade of pale gray that coordinated with her purple suit.
The royal trio were met at Victoria Station in London by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, who rode with them in carriages to Buckingham Palace. The Queen’s outfit was described as “moss green” by the press. She wore a matching hat decorated with pink and red roses, plus the Williamson Pink Diamond Brooch. Following their welcome at the palace, the Thai royal couple took a private tour of Westminster Abbey. That evening, everyone changed into their finest white-tie attire for a grand state banquet at Buckingham Palace. Pierre Balmain had reportedly designated “the most magnificent gown” from the tour wardrobe to be worn for this particular occasion.Unfortunately, we only have descriptions of the clothing worn to rely on, as photographs of the dinner were not made public. The Daily Telegraph described Sirikit as “a shimmering figure in a gold brocade skirt pleated in front and held by a gold belt with a jewelled buckle. The bodice was in the form of a gold mesh shawl, leaving one shoulder bare.” The Queen, in turn, wore “a sheath dress of ice-blue satin, embroidered in silver thread and diamonds, with a full over-skirt in layers of ice-blue tulle.” No descriptions of the jewels worn were provided.
The rest of the whirlwind three-day visit to London was packed with engagements. The couple visited the Guildhall, made a trip to Cambridge University, attended a dinner at Lancaster House (for which Sirikit wore a ballgown with her traditional Thai tiara and diamond fringe necklace) and hosted a return dinner at the Thai embassy in South Kensington (for which Sirikit wore a traditional Thai evening gown and jewels). Princess Alexandra accompanied them on a number of their outings, and she and Sirikit were able to squeeze in a shopping trip, too. On the final night of the visit, Princess Marina hosted a dance for the couple at Kensington Palace.
The couple had to delay their departure from the UK when their plane had engine trouble while flying to pick them up, but they were able to take a different flight to Geneva, which served as the couple’s home base during their European tour. Their four children were there for the duration, reportedly attending local schools. Bhumibol had spent much of his childhood in Lausanne, and the couple continued to spent significant time in Switzerland. By July 25, though, the royal couple was on the move again. They arrived in Bonn for for an eight-day visit to West Germany, hosted by President Heinrich Lübke. Sirikit wore sparkling flowers in her hair for a reception at the the Hotel Petersberg.After returning to Geneva, the couple relaxed for three weeks before resuming their whistlestop tour of Europe. Three days in Lisbon were followed by three more days of official visiting in Bern and Lausanne. From there, it was off to Copenhagen, where they were hosted by King Frederik IX and Queen Ingrid of Denmark for three days at the beginning of September. Next, King Olav V and the Norwegian royal family (including Crown Prince Harald and Princess Astrid) hosted the couple for three days in Oslo, and then King Gustaf VI Adolf and Queen Louise welcomed the couple to Sweden a few days later. In Rome, Queen Sirikit wore her traditional Thai tiara with sparkling diamonds and an embroidered gown for a reception at the Quirinal Palace. The visit, hosted by President Giovanni Gronchi, also included a tour of the Borghese Museum and a visit to the local Red Cross center. (Sirikit has been the honorary president of the Thai Red Cross since 1956.)
On October 1, the King and Queen made an important stop at the Vatican. The meeting was a conference between two heads of state and two religious leaders. Pope John XXIII welcomed the couple for a private audience before joining them for a more public appearance, where he spoke in French. A United Press International reporter quoted the Pope, who shared that he was “well aware of Thailand’s social and educational progress and of the ‘esteem and sympathy’ enjoyed by Roman Catholics in the Buddhist nation.” Queen Sirikit wore her black dress and veil, made by Balmain specifically for the audience, paired with diamonds and pearls, including her modern floral tiara.
From the Vatican, the couple headed back to Switzerland before embarking on the final leg of their European tour. Sirikit brought out her floral bandeau once again for a state dinner hosted in Brussels by King Baudouin of the Belgians. Next, the couple traveled to France, where they had a night at the opera in Paris with President de Gaulle and attended a reception at the Palace of Versailles. Naturally, Sirikit also managed to fit in a visit to Pierre Balmain’s studio to view his autumn collection during their time in France. After the French visit’s end, Grand Duchess Charlotte hosted the couple for three days in Luxembourg.
Queen Sirikit continued to sparkle as she and the King arrived in the Netherlands for a visit with Queen Juliana and Prince Bernhard. For a gala concert in The Hague on the second day of the visit, Queen Sirikit sparkled in her floral tiara and her impressive diamond fringe necklace, while Queen Juliana wore the Dutch royal family’s emeralds. The royal couple also attended events at Huis ten Bosch Palace and the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam during the visit.The final stop on the tour was Spain, where Franco hosted the couple for a five-day visit to Madrid and Barcelona. By November 8, 1960, the couple’s marathon trip through fifteen countries had finally come to an end. From there, they returned to Switzerland, where they spent the holiday skiing season with royal visitors including Princess Alexandra, and made a private visit to London. The Thai government had high hopes that the royal couple’s long voyage would lead to big increases in tourism to Bangkok. The trip certainly had a major impact on Queen Sirikit, who wrote a memoir, In Memory of my European Trip, detailing her experience.
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