Sunday, 22 January 2012

Wallis Simpson - a woman of seduction, scandal but ultimately, of style.

I recently saw an advert for the new film W./E. and was quite intrigued as the story of Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII has always interested me. 

Often decried as the woman that almost caused a constitutional crisis, who apparently picked up some 'persuasive' talents whilst in some rather dubious establishments in Shanghai and who met with Adolph Hitler in the advent of war, one thing is certain: Wallis Simpson was a very stylish woman.

Right and Left -
Dress by Schiaperelli, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, two people with whom Wallis Simpson was very much associated with.

Wallis Night
by Roland Mouret

She is still as relevant as a style icon as ever she was, even inspiring a new gold maxi dress from Roland Mouret, Wallis Night.  I imagine there will be lots of fashion magazine inches dedicated to the late Duchess of Windsor in the coming months, so expect sharp tailoring, bateau necklines and centre partings to be making more than a fleeting appearance.

Taken in the summer of 1936,
before the relationship was widely
known by the British public

As well as being tremendously elegant, Wallis was also smart, witty and outré, a little too much for the sensibilities of the day.  However, she immediately caught the attention of the then Prince Edward when they met in January 1931, who found her a refreshing change compared to his usual company.  Having had more than his fair share of dalliances with married women, an American socialite, who was already on her second husband, was no challenge.  It was not all Edward's doing though, in a letter to her Aunt after her initial meeting with the Prince, she wrote "I've had my mind made up to meet him ever since I've been here."  She also wrote of what a "treat" it had been to finally meet him.

Taken aboard the yacht Nahlin
in the summer of 1936
 Mrs Simpson was only granted a divorce from her second husband in October 1936, mere weeks before Edward abdicated officially on the 10th December.  The country, over whom Edward had ruled over for less than a year, had little time to react to the news.  There had been a 'gentlemen's agreement' stopping any British press from reporting the story (this wasn't the case in Europe where the relationship had been widely reported for years).  Parliament and the Church were worried about the influence someone foreign (with a questionable past) could have on someone so close to the crown (no one wanted another Rasputin, and anyway, Wallis wouldn't look good with that beard).  After the King gave his abdication speech, which was the first many knew of the seriousness of the relationship, the people of Great Britain seemed to be against Wallis (or 'That Woman' as she was sometimes called), especially as she was taking away a very popular King.

An intimate portrait taken by Cecil Beaton.

A favourite subject of Cecil Beaton, Wallis and Edward were photographed by him many times, with Beaton even taking the official photographs at their wedding at the Château de Candé in 1937.   

Wedding dress by Mainbocher in 'Wallis
Blue', photograph by Cecil Beaton

The designers of Wallis' trousseau read like a 'who's who' of 1930s fashion.  Mainbocher created her beautiful crêpe satin wedding dress in 'Wallis Blue'.  'Wallis Blue' was in fact Windsor Blue (fitting really, as she was the new Duchess of Windsor) and was the colour of ribbon worn by those bestowed with the Order of the Garter.  Schiaparelli (who was a favourite of Wallis' and whom she modelled for) provided  a black crêpe day dress replete with white turtles as well as an evening dress (again in 'Wallis Blue') with yellow butterflies.  The butterfly motif appeared to be a favourite of the newly married Duchess of Windsor as it was again seen on the lapels of a blue tweed jacket and a variation of the famous Dali lobster gown.  Molyneux, Chanel and Paquin also contributed to the bride's wedding wardrobe, with her matching Bridal hat (of blue straw and pale blue tulle) made by Reboux.  When Edward first saw Wallis in her wedding gown, he remarked "Oh, so this is the great dress? Well it's lovely, very pretty".
Wallis modelling the famous
Schiaparelli gown with a lobster
painted by Dali (1937)

Much of Wallis' personal wardrobe was designed by Mainbocher who was perhaps chosen over Schiaparelli as Wallis wanted something slightly more demure for her wedding, no lobsters this time!  
Customarily sporting a centre-parting in her raven hair, with the subtle make up of the day, it was her clothes that made an immediate statement as well as a vast selection of sumptuous jewels and accessories. 

In 1934, Edward lavished his 'friend' Wallis with £50,000 worth of jewels for Christmas before deciding it wasn't quite a generous enough gift and presented her with a further £60,000-worth within a few months.
Despite being refused the style 'Her Royal Highness', Wallis maintained a very regal air throughout all her social engagements.  The couple were known for throwing lavish parties at their home in France and continued to be the toast of European society.
After a self-imposed exile to France following the wedding, the couple planned to return to England after a couple of years.  They were resolutely told by the King (George VI, Edward's younger brother) that they were not welcome without an explicit invitation.  After a few years during World War II in the Bahamas, where Edward was Governor (to keep the Nazi-sympathetic pair out of Europe and a position of political influence) they returned to France where they spent the remainder of their lives.  Even though they only made infrequent visits back to England, the couple remained darlings of society for the next 35 years until Edward's death in 1972.

Whatever your opinion of her as a woman, it cannot be denied that she amassed a beautiful wardrobe and we are lucky that there are so many photographs of one of the most stylish women of the 1930s. steel boned corsets by What Katie Did

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