Thursday, 1 March 2012

New books: To dress a queen

What Queen Margrethe II of Denmark wears is a something of a paradox. On the one hand she is known to repeat the same outfit with short intervals (a blue hat and coat made for her 70th birthday were for instance used for a royal christening and a royal wedding only two weeks apart, while a green dress was worn for two of her jubilee parties last month), which may give the impression that she does not give much thought to what she wears. On the other hand she is also known to turn up at major events in dresses which could almost be described as costumes, which gives the impression that she is very conscious of what she wears and how it is all part of the magnificent performance that is the monarchy of Margrethe II.
The answers to such riddles are to be found in the new book Dronningens kjoler, published by Gyldendal in January, which has been put together for Queen Margrethe’s fortieth jubilee as monarch by Katia Johansen, since 1980 curator of textiles at the Royal Collections, in close cooperation with the Queen herself. Johansen explains that she, in her work, has often longed for contemporary sources to how the Danish monarchs dressed and this book is her way of making sure that her successors in a distant future will not have to guess why Margrethe II dressed as she did. The main audience of the book is thus not present readers, but the future.
In an introductory interview the Queen talks about such topics as her “philosophy of dressing”, what clothes mean to her and her own involvement in the design of her dresses. The crucial question is perhaps if the way she dresses is part of some sort of personal and professional scenography. To this Queen Margrethe answers, somewhat ungrammatically: “It is well possible that I see myself at some particularly great events, that it would look good with such a dress. I probably do that more as I have eventually become older and more shameless!”
Most of the book is chronologically divided into three parts – Princess, Heiress to the Throne and Queen – followed by gala dresses and dressing up and a short epilogue on the clothes’ preservation. Each of the chronological chapters begin with a summary of major fashion trends of the various decades, and one cannot help notice that this becomes less and less relevant as the years progress.
While the Margrethe of the sixties and seventies wore clothes which fit well in with the fashion of the day, Queen Margrethe of today is far from trendy. However, this does far from mean that Queen Margrethe now does not dress the part. Rather one becomes aware of how the Queen’s style has become ever more individualistic with the passing of time.
The book is lavishly illustrated and throughout the Queen herself comments on the clothes – and sometimes of other things, such as the poor entertainment and food offered by the President of Greece during his recent state visit to Denmark – and Johansen fills in what the curator has to add. All sorts of clothes are included, from simple summer dresses to grand dresses for major state events.
I suspect that I am not alone in finding the latter more interesting than the former, as it is when dressed up to the nines that the Queen and the amateur scenographer merge into a higher unit. The prime example of this is perhaps the dress first worn by Queen Margrethe for the 400th anniversary of Rosenborg Palace in 2006, which was in itself almost a renaissance costume (the fabric was originally a sari found among Queen Ingrid’s belongings after her death, the Queen explains).
The book is also an introduction to the designers who have made the Queen’s dresses, among whom the late Jørgen Bender stands out (Queen Margrethe herself is sometimes involved in the design). It is only rarely that the Queen does not remember an outfit; mostly she will explain how and why it came about and relate some memories attached to it. Sometimes the fate of the dress is also recorded – some end up in the Royal Collections, some are still in use, some are dramatically altered, some are in storage, some have been given away and some have been thrown away when worn out. Others may be expected to reappear, such as the rather dramatic dress and coat worn for Prince Joachim’s first wedding and for Thomas Kluge’s imposing portrait, which the Queen hints will become her “uniform” for the New Year receptions from next year on.
What I would perhaps have wanted something more about is accessories and the Queen’s thoughts about this. It is for instance quite obvious that Queen Margrethe, like her mother, is very conscious about her choice of jewellery. Of course it was no coincidence that she on 15 January this year wore a small horseshoe-shaped ruby brooch; indeed she wore that brooch when she was proclaimed Queen on 15 January 1972 and had chosen it then as it was given to her by her father on 5 June 1953, the day she became Heiress to the Throne.
The author occasionally says something about the jewels (those interested in the history of royal jewels will also be able to find some interesting pieces of information, such as a very interesting provenance which family tradition ascribes to her turquoise tiara), but there is little about the “philosophy” of their wearing.
One must also regret that the book tends to make a mess of names and dates. The name of the Crown Prince of Norway is spelt in three different ways, mostly incorrect; the name of the current King of Sweden is sometimes spelt Carl Gustaf, sometimes Carl Gustav, while his mother is erroneously called “Sibylle” and so on, while the dates and years for several events mentioned are unfortunately wrong, which is regrettable considering the author’s express wish that this book should be a historical record for posterity.
It seems a safe guess to say that, when long gone, Margrethe II will stand out as one of the most interesting characters in the long line of Danish monarchs. The Royal Collections curators of the 25th century will surely be immensely grateful to their predecessor Katia Johansen for having sat down with Queen Margrethe to record her words on how she dressed and why. Furthermore, Dronningens kjoler will, together with Thyge Christian Fønss’s recent book on the portraits of the Queen, serve as indispensible contemporary guides to the image of Margrethe II and its perception.


  1. hi
    a nice blog
    keep posting
    i'll read it everyday
    thank you and hope you also come to visit my blog

  2. Very well put. I just bought the book myself and loving it. It shows very clearly that one doesn't have to lean on well know fashion-names like Chanel, Prada og Valentino in order to appear regal.


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