History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

20 May 2007

The State Dinner

CSpan is not a place I usually go to do research. However, I was glued to the TV the night of the State Dinner in honor of Queen Elizabeth II. A number of elements fascinated me. The guest list: why did the President invite the jockey and not the owners of Derby winner Street Sense? Why were so many TV reporters on the guest list and none from the print media?

The gowns: everyone looked fabulous. Who knew Secretary of State Rice would look so good in red? it was a daring choice especially since most of the other ladies opted for more sedate dark blue and cream colors that echoed the gowns wore by the First Lady and the Queen.

While fascinated by all those details, the real reason I watched was to find out which tiara the Queen would choose to wear.

I voted for the Regal Circlet of George IV. He designed it and although every queen since has shown it off, George IV is the only king who wore it -- at his coronation over a large plumed hat. (Aha, now that sounds like the Prinny of the Regency, doesn't it?). To the right is a picture of the current queen wearing it in a preliminary oil sketch for a 1989 portrait by Richard Stone.

Or perhaps she would choose the imposing Koh-i-Noor circlet which Queen Elizabeth, queen consort of King George VI, is wearing in the photo to the right. The Koh-i-Noor came to Queen Victoria when it was surrendered to her by Maharaja Duleep Singh in 1849. in 1852, Prince Albert supervised the cutting of the diamond to increase its brilliance. It was reduced in size 42% to its current weight of 105.6 carats. Victoria wore the stone as a brooch and it could also be mounted in a tiara where it was set with 2000 other diamonds. It was later placed in the tiara in the photo at left and first worn thus by Queen Alexandria, wife of Edward VII.

Queen Elizabeth wore neither of these to the State Dinner. According to the press release she wore the Queen Mary tiara as shown below. The only picture I have of the Queen Mary Tiara shows the top-most element as drop pearls, standing upright. It is identical to the one shown below in every other aspect. It is entirely possible that at some point the pearls were replaced with diamonds.

My study of tiaras centers around the most impressive book I own. Geoffrey C. Munn has written what I consider to be the definitive book on the subject: TIARAS, A HISTORY OF SPLENDOUR. The book weighs over five pounds and has more than 400 pages filled with photos, exploring the history and ownership of tiaras, from ancient to modern times with an entire chapter on the tiaras and circlets of the British Aristocracy. Because they were generally worn for well- photographed events the book is a veritable provenance of important tiaras, covering generations of ownership in paintings, drawings and, later, in photographs.

If I was disappointed that the Queen did not choose one of my favorite tiaras, I was delighted to see the necklace I had first saw in the photo of the Queen Mum with Prince Charles, above. The necklace comprises three strands -- 105 -- diamonds. It is called The Festoon and was made for the then Queen by her husband, George VI, from a collection of diamonds he inherited with the throne. That necklace has always fascinated me -- the audacity of it, the extravagance. When would Queen Elizabeth wear something like that -- such an eye-popping testimony to conspicuous consumption. Why to a State Dinner of course.

Anyone else fascinated by jewels? Do you have any books to recommend?


Blogger Gillian Layne said...

I have to be honest, what is catching my eye is the fact that her gloves are on while she's raising her glass.

Did they stay on during the meal? Did all the other ladies wear gloves, and did they keep them on as well?

Boy, I wish I had seen that dinner as well. :)

7:21 AM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

Fascinating post, Mary. I've got to get the Tiara reference book.

And, yes, I agree with Beth. I noticed the queen's gloves, for some reason and wondered more about the etiquette of eating with them on vs off. She looks a little overdressed and dated and I keep thinking Princess Diana would not have worn it all at once. Am I right?

10:02 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

She looks a little overdressed and dated

I'd say that's the point of her, as Helen Mirren almost made me believe -- and enjoy believing and sympathizing with.

And also to love the short story by Alan Bennett, called "The Uncommon Reader" that someday will come out as a wildly overpriced little book. It's a fantasy about the queen becoming a passionate reader, and I found it touching and funny and sweet and irresistable when I read it in the London Review of Books a month or so ago. Here's a blog entry about it.

hmmm... I guess the jewels left me cold.

12:11 PM  
Blogger Mary Blayney said...

Pam -- I KNEW that would be your reaction. But I bet you would love the book -- it really is about people (women!) as much as it is about the tiaras -- each one is a story -- harking back to my favorite saying that "every persons life is a novel"

As for the gloves I am sure she put them on again after the dinner. In all my "wife of" military years, I never once saw anyone eat wearing gloves -- not that anyone has worn them (except the Queen) for the last twenty years.

Beth, I did not see any other guest wearing gloves though we did not see them actually eating dinner.

Kathrynn, I think you are completely right about Diana -- she wore her collection with much more discretion but she had youth and beauty on her side and no gemstone can trump that.

Think for a minute about how much jewelry you wear. I will wear earrings, a simple necklace, a dress watch and rings all at the same time -- it's just that none of them are worth much more than the queen's handkerchief!

3:25 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm SURE the queen did things properly. She would have removed her gloves once seated for dinner, eaten, then put them back on before rising from table.

4:05 PM  
Blogger Keira Soleore said...

Mary: I always thought of jewelry as "EH!" But your post has made me rethink that position. It's "eh" for me, but fascinating to notice what other people are wearing, particularly when they're old ornamental pieces. So, thank you for making me notice the difference.

Kathrynn said, "She looks a little overdressed and dated..."

QEII is very much the pattern card of propriety. In fact, that's all there's left to her: to preserve an aura of tradition.

Kalen: QEII is wearing bracelets and such, clearly that were meant to be worn and visible over the gloves. Taking those long gloves on and off and dealing with bracelets couldn't be an easy or a quick task. How would she've managed it neatly without help?


12:14 AM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

I think QEII cares little for current (as in 21st, or perhaps even 20th century) fashion. She is iconographic for The Monarchy we simultaneously admire and deride for its stubborn resistance to change.

What fascinates me most about the jewels are the "ghosts" -- those who wore them before to state and other formal occasions and the other "ghosts" they dined and chatted with.

If those jewels could talk, what stories they might tell!

3:19 PM  
Blogger Diane Gaston said...

I have seen Mary's tiara book and it is definitely everything she says it is. Gorgeous photos of fabulous jewels.

I love jewelry and have been known on occassion to watch the "jewelry" channel on cable for extended periods of time. And going to the Gem and Jewelry show that comes to town twice a year is fabulous. I did quickly learn that if a piece of jewelry was displayed under glass, it meant I couldn't afford it!

5:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I daresay Diana didn't have it all to wear at the same time, unless the Queen lent it to her.

The Queen is now 80 or 81, but she was once a very pretty girl, as you can tell from this wartime photograph:


And all dressed up and wearing jewellery wherever possible she looked gorgeous, as you can see from this photograph when she had just become queen.



4:36 AM  

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