On March 17th, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will start their two-day visit to Paris. In honour of the occasion, we at the Royal Watcher have been flashing back to previous royal visits to Paris. Today, for our final flashback, we will feature King George VI and Queen Elizabeth‘s infamous State Visit to Paris in July 1938. Originally scheduled for June, it was postponed to July after the Queen’s mother, the Countess of Strathmore, died five days before the start of the visit. The four day visit was extremely significant in the hostile environment of the late 30s. War with Nazi Germany was looming, the Royal visit to the French Capital needed to reinforce and solidify the friendship and Entente Cordiale between the two countries before WWII. This was also their first visit abroad after their accession to the Throne in December 1936.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth left from London from Victoria station, traveling to Dover by train, crossing the channel by boat, and taking the train to Paris. Upon arrival, the royal couple were greeted by President and Madame Lebrun at the train, and then traveled to the Quai d’Orsay Palais in a magnificent procession through Paris. In the evening, the King and Queen attended a glittering State Banquet given by President and Madame Lebrun at the Elysee Palace.
On Day 2, July 20th, the King and Queen went on a boat ride on the Seine to reception at the Hotel de Ville, where they signed a parchment record of their visit. Later, they attended a Garden Party at the Château de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne. In the evening, they attended a return dinner at the Opera Garnier.
On Day 3, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth viewed a military exhibition, and then had lunch at the magnificent Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles. They also viewed a special concert at the Chapel of the Palace. In the evening, the King and Queen attended a banquet in their honour at the French Foreign Office.
On the last day of the State Visit, the King and Queen unveiled a memorial to the Australian Imperial Forces who had died in France during World War I at Villers-Bretonneux. They both laid flowers on the memorial. Because of the Countess of Strathmore’s death, the British Royal Court plunged into mourning, and the several colorful gowns in the “romantic, swaying style,” inspired by Winterhalter portraits of Empress Eugenie of France and Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wearing crinolines, made by Norman Hartnell would have been inappropriate. However, since this visit was of paramount importance, it wouldn’t have done for the Queen to wear mourning black. Instead, Queen Elizabeth and Norman Hartnell decided that she would wear an alternative mourning colour, white, and the the iconic ‘White Wardrobe’ was created in the three weeks before the start of the visit.
On Day 1, the Queen left London wearing black with pearls, changing into a “two-piece dress and coat edged with silver fox”, with a three-strand pearl necklace for the arrival in Paris. In the evening, she wore a glittering evening gown with the base of her Crown, diamond necklaces, and Queen Victoria’s Fringe Brooch with the dark red sash of the French Legion d’Honneur. However, Queen Elizabeth “noticed the President looking askance at her: she was wearing the Legion d’Honneur, which he had just conferred on her, on the wrong shoulder. She hurriedly changed it.”
On Day 2, she wore a white dress and jacket with pearls for the boat ride and reception, changing into a stunning lace dress for the garden party, complete with pearls, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Brooch, and a parasol. Queen Elizabeth later wore this dress for a series of Cecil Beaton portraits taken in the gardens of Buckingham Palace. In the evening, she wore a “spreading gown of oyster-coloured satin, the skirt draped in festoons held by clusters of cream velvet camellias,” with the Oriental Circlet Tiara, diamond necklaces and earrings, and the Duchess of Teck’s Flower Brooch. She wore the gown again for a portrait later that year.
On Day 3, Queen Elizabeth wore a “floor-length spreading dress of white organdie, embroidered all over with open-work broderie anglaise. Her white leghorn hat was trimmed with ribbons of black velvet,” with the Hanoverian Pearl Necklace and Queen Victoria’s 11 Pearl Brooch. For the banquet at the French Foreign Office that evening, she wore a gown with Queen Mary’s Fringe Tiara.
On the last Day, the Queen wore a white coat with a fur hem and pearls. There was also another gown created for the visit, of which I have been unable to find the event. It was also worn in the Cecil Beaton portraits.
In 2005, the 1938 State Visit to Paris and Queen Elizabeth’s ‘White Wardrobe’ were the centerpiece of a special exhibition at the 2005 Summer Opening of Buckingham Palace. The seven dresses included highlighted the main theme of Hartnell’s design, the revival of the crinoline, which formed the basis of Queen Elizabeth’s style throughout her long life.
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