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Crimson and ermine – the dress code for a Coronation

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The costume collection at Ulster Folk Museum includes a diverse range of dress and accessories, from the simplest of homemade and recycled garments for everyday wear, to the highly fashionable. Each object with a story to tell. This blog looks at a robe and accessories worn at a very significant event in modern history.

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II took place on 2nd June 1953 at Westminster Abbey in London. She acceded to the throne at the age of 25 upon the death of her father, George VI, on 6th February 1952. The date of the coronation was announced almost a year in advance, with preparations in the Abbey taking five months to complete.

On 2nd June 1953 the proceedings, with the exception of the actual anointing and communion, were televised by the BBC to a UK audience estimated at around 20 million people. Around 11 million people tuned into their radios to follow the event. In total, including members of the clergy, politicians, dignitaries, members of the nobility, and international guests, some 8,000 people attended the event in Westminster Abbey.

Amongst those to witness the Coronation in the abbey was Baron MacDermott. John Clarke MacDermott (1896 -1979) was a Northern Irish politician and lawyer who was Lord Chief Justice of NI from 1951 to 1971. Born in Belfast in 1896 and educated at Campbell College and Queen’s University Belfast, he was made a King’s Council in 1936. In 1938 he was elected to the House of Commons as an Ulster Unionist member, resigning his seat in 1944 on appointment as a High Court Judge. In 1947 he was made a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, becoming a life peer as Baron MacDermott, of Belmont in the city of Belfast. Baron MacDermott attended the Coronation with his wife Louise Palmer MacDermott.

In 1996 the Ulster Folk museum received a donation of a small collection of costume from the MacDermott family, including a robe and accessories worn by Louise McDermott at the Coronation in 1953, and the coronet worn by her husband. Needless to say that for such an important state occasion as a Coronation, every aspect of dress and etiquette was strictly proscribed. Regulations for the wearing of dress were issued by the Earl Marshall’s Office in London, December 1952.

Image: Illustration of design by Norman Hartnell.  London Gazette, December 29th 1952
Illustration of design by Norman Hartnell. London Gazette, December 29th 1952

“At the request of the Earl Marshall’s Office, a design has been prepared for an alternative dress which may be worn at the Coronation by Vicountesses and baronesses who are not in possession of robes of State together with kirtles and Coronation dress. The picture, above, shows the sketch for this dress, prepared by Norman Hartnell of London. It is published in last night’s “London Gazette” with the following description - “A robe of crimson velvet, trimmed with miniver pure, two inches in width, similar in style to a Kirtle, but without sleeves and with the addition of a cape also of miniver pure and shaped like a cape collar, finishing in two points in front at the waist. The cape is to have rows or bars of ermine tails or the like as follows: - A Baroness – two rows of ermine tails; a Viscountess – two rows and a half of ermine tails. The robe fits the waist and is open above and below the waist to show the dress which should be of white or cream coloured material with brocading or embroidery of gold or silver and have no colour. The hemline of the robe has two deep scallops which form a train 18 inches in length on the ground” The following advice for other female guests “ladies attending the Coronation may wear evening dresses or afternoon dresses with a light veil falling from the back of the head. Tiaras may be worn, but not hats”

The word ‘Kirtle’ describes a garment that dates back to the middle Ages, a loose-fitting coat- like item worn over a smock or dress. From the 1700s onwards it generally became more fitted, with some shaping at the waist. The term ‘alternative’ dress refers to the updated guidelines published in 1924 for ‘Alternative Court Dress’ to be worn at State Occasions, a slight relaxation of the previous strictures on Court Dress for both men and women. Miniver pure is the white fur from the winter coat of the ermine (stoat).

Image: Velvet robe, worn by Baroness MacDermott (Louise Palmer MacDermott). HOYFM.381.1996A
Velvet robe, worn by Baroness MacDermott (Louise Palmer MacDermott). HOYFM.381.1996A

As can be seen from the robe worn by Baroness MacDermott, the effect is both striking and elegant. This particular robe was worn with a full length dress of white satin, and a Juliet cap. The finishing touches were, a matching velvet bag, white gloves, and an elegant necklace and small tiara.

Image: Velvet cap HOYFM.381.1996B
Velvet cap HOYFM.381.1996B

The Juliet cap is of crimson velvet, trimmed with narrow gold braid and bordered with white fur. The crown features some gold work fronds and pearl droplets. The small bag to match features an expanding metal top with cap lid.

The coronation ceremony lasted for around three hours with guest in their respective places from some time beforehand. Anecdotal evidence from some guests suggest that such bags held, among other things, supplies of barley sugar sweets to maintain energy levels!

Image: Velvet bag, with metal closure and cap HOYFM.318.1996C
Velvet bag, with metal closure and cap HOYFM.318.1996C

Baron MacDermott wore a full robe of crimson velvet, fur trimmed, with a matching coronet. This ceremonial dress is worn today by members of the House of Lords, on formal occasions.

Image: Velvet coronet, fur trimmed. HOYFM.381.1996D
Velvet coronet, fur trimmed. HOYFM.381.1996D

The robe and accessories, designed by Norman Hartnell, were made by the company of Ede and Ravenscroft in Chancery Lane, London. One of the oldest, and most respected tailoring firms in the world, the company was founded in 1689 and remains today the principal supplier of tailoring to the church, state, legal profession and academia. The museum’s collection of dress includes some examples of clerical and academic dress also made by Ede and Ravenscroft.

The company is today, one of only a few to hold all three Royal Warrants, as robe makers and tailors to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, The Duke of Edinburgh and his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.

The designer Norman Bishop Hartnell, (1901-1971), later Sir Norman Hartnell, was born in London and opened his own fashion business there in Mayfair in 1923. His particular skills in designing evening wear and embroidered wedding dress soon attracted a wealthy clientele, including members of the Royal family. In 1935 he received the first of his royal commissions, the start of a connection that would last for almost 40 years.

In 1947 he designed the wedding dress for Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Philip. In 1952 Queen Elizabeth II asked Hartnell to design her Coronation dress and those for her Maids of Honour and attendants. Hartnell received the Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1940 and Royal Warrant as Dressmaker to Queen Elizabeth in 1957.

On 9th September 2015 Queen Elizabeth II became the longest-reigning British monarch, surpassing the 64 year reign of her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria. The MacDermott coronation robe and accessories at the Ulster Folk Museum represent significant aspects of social history, and of design and tailoring skills in the mid-1900s. Other items donated to the museum by the family include dresses and a magnificent Carrickmacross lace collar.