Before there was Lady Diana, Duchess Kate, and even Elizabeth II, Alexandra of Denmark was considered the fashion icon of the Commonwealth of England. The Queen of England from 1901 to 1910, she was the visual opposite from her mother-in-law Victoria, who favored darkly colored clothing in the English tradition of mourning. Alexandra is remembered in fashion history for her dusty-colored high neck and tightly corseted gowns with sparkling jewelry. However, with all of her beauty and influence, Queen Alexandra used her appearance as a way to hide a secret: her physical disabilities.
Born into a royal Danish family, Queen Alexandra became an English princess after her marriage to Edward VII in 1863. She became Queen in 1901 after the death of her mother-in-law, Queen Victoria. King Edward and Queen Alexandra’s entry into the English throne brought in the Edwardian era, an opulent time in English cultural, technological, and social history that coincided during a time of peace.
This change also corresponded with women’s fashion. In England, women began to wear health corsets that bent the body into an S-shape that pushed a woman’s breasts forward and her bottom back. The ideal body type favored tall young women at the peak of their health.
Queen Alexandra was seen as an influencer within English fashion for her tight corseted, S-bend silhouettes and ornate evening gowns. Dr. Kate Strasdin in her academic article, Fashioning Alexandra: A Royal Approach to Style 1863–1910 (2013) states that Queen Alexandra was aware of the public attention toward her clothing and used fashion to emote an image of femininity and well being. Strasdin (2013) states in her article that the Queen’s fashion choices were based around elegance. A clothing item could not be too on-trend, but not dowdy or fussy. Her influence helped popularize formal wear by wearing ornate, high-necked gowns that came to be known as “Queen Alexandra dresses” (“Fashion: The queenly figure,” 1939). Much of Queen Alexandra’s evening wear was designed by the House of Redfern, a British fashion house that found success throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Within English society, Queen Alexandra fit the mold: she was wealthy, titled, and was dressed by a haute courtier.
According to Strasdin (2013), Queen Alexandra was rumored to have had a tuberculous infection due to a small scar on her neck. This rumor occurred shortly before her marriage to then-Prince Edward, and if proven true, it would have stopped the courtship due to worries of inherited diseases. This fear developed into a habit of her wearing high neck gowns, ribbons, and dog collars in order to hide her neck (Strasdin, 2013). Although this was an attempt to hide an imperfection, these neck coverings became a trend in evening wear in British fashion.
In 1867, the Queen contracted rheumatic fever which impaired her hearing and gave her a knee injury that resulted into a walking limp. According to Strasdin (2013), Queen Alexandra dressed in ornamental evening gowns in order to steer attention away from her bad hearing. She also altered her evening gowns to reduce a visible curve in her spine. Strasdin offers an example housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which displays a curved center back at the bodice that hid her body’s arching shape. Although Queen Alexandra found methods to hide her disabilities, she continued to walk with a limp. This is said to have caused a trend among fashionable women, who copied the Queen’s stroll.
Although Queen Alexandra went to great lengths to hide her body, there is now a burgeoning presence in the fashion industry that advocates for visibility of disabled persons. One example can be seen through the work of American fashion model Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy. Mercado has appeared in major advertisements for brands like Diesel and singer Beyoncé’s merchandise advertisements for her famous “Formation” tour. Mercado is signed to IMG and has become a figure in fashion in both her modeling and Instagram photographs.
The stigma against physical disabilities in the fashion industry has been dubbed by fashion critic Vanessa Friedman as the industry’s “newest frontier.” As more figures like fashion model Jillian Mercado grow in popularity and adapted clothing lines become more available, the preference for ableist bodies may shift towards a focus on one’s aesthetic or personal style. To learn more about fighting the stigma of ableism in fashion, visit MIT’s Open Style Lab.
Fashion: The queenly figure. (1939, May 01). Vogue, 93, 72-72, 73.
Strasdin, K. (2013). Fashioning Alexandra: A Royal Approach to Style 1863-1910. Costume-The Journal Of The Costume Society, 47(2), 180-197.