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Tunbridge Wells and the Queen’s dress

Outside Kent and England, Tunbridge Wells is best known for being the place where the popular game of Subbuteo was created in 1946 by ornithologist Peter Adolph. Nevertheless, in recent weeks it has managed to make the headlines because of a “royal vintage fashion” piece of news, the best way to end this year and get people going to a 2019 grand national bets with broad international media coverage.

But let’s get to the news, then. Many of us keep some old clothes in the attic or in the garage, but very few of us have the privilege of owning, among them, a dress fit for a queen. The curators of an exhibition on the clothes of the royal family at the Fashion Museum in Bath published an appeal last year for the recovery of the missing clothes made for Queen Alexandra, wife of the King of England Edward VII.

The appeal was answered by a woman who brought a box she was holding in her attic, containing an evening dress with a black and golden plaque sewn to her waist. Her name is Francesca Counsell Risius, and she inherited the black silk and velvet dress from her great-aunt, Mrs Counsell, who bought it in the 1950s to represent the best item of her clothing store in the small town of Royal Tunbridge Wells.

Although it had always been treated as a valuable possession, it was once worn by one of the shop’s assistants, Gilly Holiday, for a report in a local newspaper. Mrs Counsell Risius told the story of the dress since it came into her possession: “My great aunt gave me the dress in the late Sixties and I’ve kept it in a box ever since. I’ve carefully tried it on a couple of times, so has my daughter and occasionally we’ve taken it out of its tissue paper to show interested friends and family. I can’t wait to see it on display alongside other pieces from Queen Alexandra’s wardrobe”.

The dress, embellished with beads and sequins, was made by the London tailor Barolet of Knightsbridge in 1908-10, when the Queen was about 65 years old. Authenticity was verified by Dr. Kate Strasdin, costume historian and one of the most experienced experts on Queen Alexandra, who also confirmed that the Queen was a client of Barolet at the time the dress was made.

Queen Alexandra, Queen Victoria’s daughter-in-law, set the trend for high collars, and was famous for her elegant day dresses. “Placing orders with smaller, less well-known dressmakers such as Barolet, as opposed to always favouring big couture houses like Worth, shows a measure of Alexandra’s determination to dress apart from her peers and indicates a degree of sartorial independence“.

After her death in 1925, many of her clothes were dispersed, and the place where they are now remains a mystery. Among the most important discoveries, in addition to that by Mrs Counsell Risius, there is also a Scottish silk dress from 1870 found in a vintage shop in the ’60s.

Queen Alexandra of Denmark married Edward VII in 1863, and from 1901 was Empress of the United Kingdom and the Indies, before becoming Queen Mother when her husband died in 1910. Together with Elisabeth of Austria, of her same age, she is considered one of the most beautiful royal women of the 19th century.

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