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Young Queen Victoria's Undergarments in the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection

Date: 14 February 2017

Author: Deirdre Murphy

By 14 February 1840 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had been married four days. Like any just-married couple, they faced boring practicalities: Albert's new bank account and writing to the relatives who could not make the wedding. However, Victoria was still daydreaming about their honeymoon – the 'very very happy three days we spent at Windsor'.

Their wedding night was a success – 'we did not sleep much', she admitted, and in the morning she relished seeing him 'in his shirt only, with his beautiful throat seen' for the first time. They linked arms as they savoured a romantic walk outside Windsor Castle, but soon they were surrounded by guests.

Faced with this audience, the pair resorted to private signals. He sat very close to her at dinner. She squeezed his hand during the formal dances. They were finally alone at midnight, but by the time she undressed, Albert was fast asleep on the sofa. She woke him up with a kiss. Next morning, he put her silk stockings on for her. She watched him shave. They shared a private breakfast then she sang to him.

However, by noon they were riding in carriages with their entourage and a meeting with the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, broke the spell. Albert had no money. Strict protocols forced uncomfortable talk about where Albert should stand during formal royal events. The reality of queenship was setting in.

Painting of a young Queen Victoria. She is pictured to one side, with her face towards the viewer. She is wearing a dress low on her shoulder and a large silver crown on her head

Image: Queen Victoria, by Thomas Sully 1838. Public domain.

The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection contains examples of Victoria's clothing from her early days as Queen to the last years of her life. A delicate embroidered silk jacket, a bright silk tartan shawl and deep black mourning clothes are among the collection. However, the most intriguing – and perhaps most famous – of the Queen's surviving clothes are her undergarments.

A comparison between royal underwear and ordinary 19th-century undergarments reveals striking differences. The Queen's petticoat is made of the finest cotton. The gathers are hand-stitched with incredible attention to detail. Nightgowns feature a carefully-embroidered crown. Stockings of the finest silk incorporate a delicate knitted crown at the ankle. These luxurious details were hidden from view, of course.

Queen Victoria's many surviving undergarments are a tricky subject for me. They are fascinating: a long royal tradition of giving private linen to trusted staff and friends has seen these intensely personal objects enter the public domain. Victoria's nightgowns, stockings, petticoats and – I think a bit unfairly – the drawers she wore later in life, have reached auction houses, newspapers, and TV audiences around the world.  

However, these are still objects for serious study. They are brilliant examples of British craftsmanship. They offer a window into her relationships. In some cases, you can trace their ownership back to the Queen through former household staff and their descendants. To me, the early examples hint of stolen romantic moments. Are any of our stockings the pair Albert put on for her after their wedding night? Was our 1840 petticoat the one she was wearing the next day when, between visitors, 'dearest Albert came in while I was dressing'?

The responsible historian in me knows it is unlikely, but the romantic in me likes to think so.

Deirdre Murphy
Senior Curator

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