‘Like the pattern of a sofa,’ the Prime Minister said to the young Queen when she asked him how he liked her dress. These jokes did not stop Queen Victoria from seeking Lord Melbourne’s approval of what she wore during their daily meetings. The cherry-coloured silk one with old lace was ‘very pretty’; the black lace over pink watered silk also pretty; the blue and white striped gown ‘like a sailor’s shift’. Queen Victoria had a good feeling about Lord Melbourne from the beginning. He arrived at Kensington Palace first thing on the morning of her accession to rehearse the declaration he had written for her to read to the Privy Council later that day. In her journal, she recorded their easy conversation, noting ‘each time I see him I have more confidence in him.’ Soon their long discussions moved freely from politics to court gossip to her little dog Islay to fashion.
Big black dresses are what first come to mind when most people think of Queen Victoria’s appearance. When Prince Albert died suddenly in 1861 she adopted a persona of grieving widow that defined her public image. But her early wardrobe was immense and varied. Expensive lace, ribbons from Paris, jewel-toned satins, colourful stripes and tartans and textiles glistening with silver and gold caused observers to note her magnificence when she stepped out in public. As a curator, I find it frustrating to think that most of Queen Victoria’s clothes were destroyed. So few of her early garments survive that we must rely on portraits and documents to get any sense of how she dressed. My research has offered surprising insights into her personal relationships. The Queen and Lord Melbourne got enormous enjoyment out of one another’s company. They sniggered about other people’s clothes and worried about their own. ‘Is it a bad colour?’ he asked about his new green coat. These informalities show how much the Queen trusted her first Prime Minister. Clothes had always fascinated her but a lack of self-confidence caused her to look to Lord Melbourne for assurance. Prince Albert took on this role when they married in 1840. When he died twenty-one years later, she confessed she had never put on a bonnet without his approval.