Every generation has their fashion icons, those people considered too beautiful to be real, the ones everyone else looks to for the season’s trends.
Princess Alexandra of Denmark–later Queen of England–was one such person. And she’s remarkable not only for her position and her contributions to fashion, but also because she was disabled.
Normally, that latter bit would be my focus, but for today I’m going to concentrate on her fashion and how it influenced women throughout the western world.
Alix, as she was known to friends and family, was born in 1844 in Copenhagen. She had a relatively modest upbringing, similar to other upper-middle-class girls of the period despite the fact that her father was a prince and her mother a princess. Prince Christian’s main source of income was his army commission, and they lived rent-free in the Yellow Palace (Gule Palace) in Copenhagen. The rent-free part was probably pretty important to her parents, as they had a total of 6 children. Alix was the 2nd oldest, and the oldest girl. The children had nannies and lived in a wealthy neighborhood, but also had chores, shared bedrooms, made their own clothes, and were educated at home to save money.
At this point, I’m going to skip over a bunch of complicated political jargon and simplify European tensions to a sentence: Due to complex inheritance laws, Alix’s parents were eventually named successors to the Danish thrown and borders were redrawn in 1852 with the London Protocol (link to the Wiki if you want more info).
This would later have a huge impact on her life. When Alix was only 12, Queen Victoria began searching for a bride for her son and heir, Albert Edward. After several failed attempts, she finally enlisted her daughter, Vicky, to help find a match. Vicky was already known for making one good royal match for a sibling, and was keen to make another. After combing through records and sending out dozens of letters, she finally settled on Alix as the best candidate. There was just one catch: Thanks to the London Protocol, for an English heir to marry a Dutch princess would throw the balance of power in Europe off. Most of the British Royal Family’s relatives were German, and the Germans and the Dutch weren’t really getting along at that point. Still, Bertie took one look at her picture and wanted to marry her. Even Queen Victoria, famously unimpressed by anything, was intrigued. At first she though the photo she received had been altered, but Vicky assured her it showed her “real beauty.” Part of her charm was probably the fact that the same portrait had been sent to Russia’s Alexander III for consideration as HIS bride. This is why we can’t have nice things, people.
By now it was September 1861. In September of that year, Vicky arranged a secret meeting for her brother and Alix. He was completely taken with her, but between September and December of that year, Bertie started an affair with an Irish actress, who blabbed and caused a huge scandal for the royal family, and Prince Albert died of typhus sending Victoria into her now-famous lifelong period of mourning. Reportedly, Albert died with a broken heart over his son’s philandering, and Victoria blamed her son and the “Clifton Affair” for her husband’s death for the rest of her days.
When Alix and Victoria finally met nearly a year later, Alix deferred to the older woman’s mourning and arrived in simple adornment and a plain black dress. Victoria was so moved that she made the engagement official and it was announced in September of 1862. The couple wed in March 1863.
Made to be Seen
Unlike the more refined, reserved courts of their parents, Alix and Bertie loved to entertain and their home–Sandringham and Marlborough–became the centers of the social scene for the “idle rich” in high society. Bertie, never all that bright when it came to behaving himself, spent lavishly on jewels for his new bride. He bought expensive gifts for his friends and through huge parties. Alix donated excessively to charity. With Victoria favoring seclusion after the death of her husband, Alix and Bertie drew the public’s eye and held it–she was the Princess Diana of her day, and set the tone for all the royals who followed in her wake, emphasizing charity, social support, and spending time with normal citizens.
Draped in jewels and the finest silks, Alix was an icon in her day, popularizing the wearing of chokers that held tight for fifty years. According to rumor, Alix took to wearing the thick collars and high-necked dresses following a childhood surgery that left a scar on her neck (what the surgery was for is unknown), or possibly to hide a goiter (swollen tyroid gland).
Unlike earlier monarchs, Alix was very aware of how she appeared in a crowd. She understood that a modern monarch, one who appears in public often and makes speeches, must be seen at a distance. To aide in this, she took cues from the theater, and would wear heavy makeup in bright reds and pinks so she would be visible to even those at the back of the crowd, making her features more noticeable. This led to the gradual acceptance of cosmetics in every day society, whereas previously only actresses and sex workers were permitted to wear it. A lady of good breeding would never dare–but Alix did, and it’s thanks to her that cosmetic sales went from behind the counter in the 1870s-1880s to their own department in the 1890s and onward.
For the same reason, she also preferred smaller hats of a style typically associated with riding or hunting rather than the big wide-brimmed monstrosities that were popular at the time. So when you see tiny trilbies in historical photos, is Alix you can thank.
One slightly unusual thing that Alix influenced was the way women walked. Following the birth of her 6th child she fell deathly ill, some say with rheumatic fever, others with polio. The end result was a permanently stiff leg and a limp that stayed with her for the remainder of her life. Women began walking with an “Alexandra Limp” in the 1880s, one example of how people will always go for a fad, no matter how ridiculous it is (remember those rubber bands everyone was wearing a few years ago?)
Her tight corsets, elaborate bustles and trains, and elegant jewelry set the tone for an entire generation of women. When she finally passed away in 1925, it wasn’t just her fashion she was remembered for. It was her kindness and her charm, and her willingness to help anyone who wrote to her. What made her beloved as a monarch was what made people want so fervently to model her that they even copied her limp.
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