A Dress That Would Never Be Forgotten
Updated: Aug 1, 2020
By Jennifer Robson
I happen to love all things British. Two years ago, my daughter and I went to London and visited Kensington Palace and the exhibit Diana: Her Fashion Story, which marked the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. It ran for two years and my daughter and I were so happy to be able to get a glimpse into the life of a princess, a woman, and mother whose life was cut short too soon. The garments were carefully curated to tell the story of her life as a princess. The most memorable dress to me was the Victor Edelstein black off the shoulder dress that she wore while dancing with John Travolta at The White House in 1985. It was iconic and seeing it brought me back to that time when I was 11 years old and watched the world’s most famous princess dance with Danny Zuko.
Somehow, despite my love of Great Britain and all things royal, I missed the book, The Gown, by Jennifer Robson, which was published in late 2018. I recently signed myself up with Book Matchmaker at our local library and our librarian couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it.
The Gown is historical fiction and reads so easily. It is the story behind the creation of Princess Elizabeth’s iconic wedding dress that she wore when she married Philipp Mountbatten on November 20, 1947, at Westminster Abbey.
1947 England was still very much ravaged by World War II. Hitler had destroyed much of London and it was one of the coldest and nastiest winters on record. There was a coal and fuel shortage and people still had to use their rations cards to get food. It was a time of sadness and a time of rebuilding. The wedding would be the happiest occasion for the country, and the rest of the world to look forward to. While 2,000 people attended the event, 200 million people listened to it worldwide on the radio. It was an event that brought people out of their sadness to new beginnings and happier days.
The creation of Princess Elizabeth’s gown was an event in itself. The design of the dress was top secret, no one could know until the big reveal on the actual wedding day. The gown was created by Norman Hartnell, the courtier to the crown. It was made of ivory silk, encrusted with 10,000 seed pearls, and embroidered with star lilies and orange blossoms. The bridal train was 15 feet in length. Princess Elizabeth had to use clothing rations to secure the fabric for the dress, but luckily the government allowed her 200 extra ration coupons. It was inspired by Botticelli’s painting “Primavera,” full of flowers that are reminiscent of the painting. According to the Royal Collection Trust, the gown and its reminder of spring was meant to symbolize “rebirth and growth” after the war that had destroyed Great Britain and much of Europe. It took 350 women and almost two months to bring Hartnell’s design to life.
The book is told from three points of view in two different periods of time. Ann Hughes, an embroiderer at Hartnell. Her roommate, Miriam Dassin, is also an embroiderer who has moved from Paris after losing her entire family to the Holocaust, and Heather is Ann’s granddaughter who is living in 2016 and trying to uncover her grandmother’s secrets. It isn’t until Heather receives a box of beautiful embroidery from her grandmother, that she realizes that her grandmother had an entire life in England that Heather knew very little about before she emigrating to Canada in early 1948.
The women who worked on “the gown” had such a feeling of purpose that they were part of something so instrumental and historical. It was as if after so much sadness and melancholy they were embarking on an adventure – a top-secret one at that. They worked long hours creating meticulous stitching and the end product was not just a dress but rather a work of art.
I think you will really enjoy this beautiful story of survival, dreams, heartbreak, resilience, and friendship. I have attached a picture of the actual gown worn by Princess Elizabeth so that you can see the detail that went into this spectacular creation.
By Jennifer Robson
December 31, 2018
By Harper Collins