Lucy Worsley with George III's waistcoat. (BBC Silver River)
Clothes for a ‘mad’ king, George III
Among the most poignant surviving garments in Historic Royal Palaces’ bizarre and brilliant Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection are some of the clothes made for George III (1738–1820) to wear during his episode of so-called ‘madness’.
Today, some people believe that it was bipolar disorder; others that it was the painful physical illness porphyria. Either way, there were long periods when the king was unable to look after himself. He was fed from a jug with a spout, and helped into his clothes by his valet.
The ‘mad’ king’s shirts have extra-wide shoulders so that servants could lift them over his head, and the waistcoat that I’m pictured with above has sleeves enlarged so that his arms could be poked in more easily. The waistcoat also bears orange-coloured stains of food, drink or dribble. When this particular item was sent by a palace servant to the souvenir-hunter who asked for it, it was accompanied by apologies. It was the only item available, the servant said – the rest of the king’s clothes were just too soiled.
George’s periods of absence from politics, through illness, caused dismay and confusion, especially when his son the Prince Regent tried to make political capital out of them. But the sheer length of his reign brought stability, and there’s no doubt that George III was a conscientious and well-intentioned king.
Pants belonging to a queen who ate “a little too much”
Queen Victoria (1819–1901) was a wand of a girl when she came to the throne at 18, with a waist measuring 22 inches. Yet she always struggled with her appetite and, as the capacious drawers pictured below show, this was to catch up with her in later life.
“She is incredibly precocious for her age and very comical,” said her grandmother. “I have never seen a more alert and forthcoming child.” However Victoria was also described as a “little princess [who] eats a little too much and almost always a little too fast”.
In 1861 came the great catastrophe of her life, the death of her husband, Albert. With this, Victoria lost the only person who’d been able to call her ‘Victoria’ instead of ‘Your Majesty’, and – crucially – the only person who could tell her ‘no’.
During the following decades, Victoria became what we would today
call clinically depressed. She lost interest in life, became reclusive, and comforted herself with food. She
was either indulged by her doctors (frightened of her, like everyone else) or else bullied by the politicians who wanted her to get on with being queen again.
As a widow, Victoria refused to wear any colour other than black for her bodices and skirts. These were offset only by a white widow’s cap, and white underwear threaded with black ribbons. A pair of her drawers, kept at Kensington Palace, has a waist measurement even more impressive than George IV’s, considering their relative height: 50 inches!
Queen Victoria's chemise and split drawers, which measured an ''impressive'' 50 inches. (Historic Royal Palaces)
The enormous breeches of George IV
Henry VIII was, notoriously, 54 inches around the waist later on in life, and George IV (1762–1830) equalled his record. George IV’s greatest problem seems to have been mental: he lacked the toughness to stand up to a life lived in public. He wasn’t untalented – he had terrific visual flair, and his wife said he would have made a great hairdresser. It was just a shame he had to be king.
As well as over-eating, George IV became an alcoholic, and an addict of opium in the form of laudanum. The Duke of Wellington described a tremendous meal eaten later on in the king’s life: “What do you think of his breakfast yesterday? A Pidgeon and Beef Steak Pye of which he ate two Pigeons and three Beefsteaks, Three parts of a bottle of Mozelle, a Glass of Dry Champagne, two Glasses of Port [and] a Glass of Brandy.”
The failure of George’s breeches to fasten formed a key part of his image in the cutting caricatures produced by Cruikshank and others, which caused lasting damage to his reputation. George tried to reduce his stomach with what was called his ‘belt’, a kind of simple corset. A paper pattern for the original still survives at the Museum of London, and from it, a replica has been made for Brighton’s Royal Pavilion.
When George was due to be painted by Sir David Wilkie, the portraitist was kept waiting for some hours while the king’s servants trussed him into his undergarments. When the king finally appeared, Wilkie said he looked like “a great sausage stuffed into the covering”.
George IV’s declining health made him increasingly reclusive. On the one hand, his failure to act on the terrible social problems caused by the industrial revolution brought him vilification. On the other, his relative invisibility meant that no one actually took the trouble to bring him down: unlike the French monarchy, the British one survived intact.
The future Edward VIII’s flashy safari suit
George V, a monarch devoted to decorum and duty, was a stickler for correct dress. From early on, the flair for fashion exhibited by his eldest son, the future Edward VIII (1894–1972), caused trouble between them, and it presaged disaster of a far more serious sort.
George V disliked Edward’s turned-up trousers, and his loud, hounds-tooth tweeds. He thought it regrettable that Edward would come to tea in his riding clothes, and fail to wear gloves at a ball. The safari suit is a typical outfit of Edward’s. Self-designed, it has adjustable arms and legs that could be altered for whichever leisure pursuit he wished to follow on any particular day of a holiday in exotic Africa.
Edward’s youthful, bareheaded style found him fame and popularity with young people all over the world. But there was something solid in George V’s misgivings. Edward’s flashy, informal clothes hinted that he wasn’t looking forward to wearing a crown, and in 1936, he finally refused to do so when he abdicated from the throne.
Left image: The future Edward VIII's safari suit, with arms and legs that could be altered for different leisure pursuits. (BBC Silver River) Right image: Edward sporting a casual tweed suit, which was guaranteed to raise his father's ire, c1920. (Mary Evans)
William III’s vest and socks
With his small stature and twisted spine, William III and II (1650–1702) wasn’t a king in the charismatic, physically impressive mould of Henry VIII. He rebuilt the countryside palace at Hampton Court partly because of his asthma: he needed fresh air because he couldn’t breathe in the damp, smoky, urban palace of Whitehall. This is all evident from his underwear, which looks like it was intended for a 12-year-old. These are tiny clothes for a tiny king, including green royal socks with clocks topped by a little crown.
William had deposed his father-in-law, James II and VII, to become joint ruler with his wife (and James’s daughter) Mary II. And in fact he was the ideal king to make a complicated, ambivalent and lashed-up succession work. William compensated for his physical weakness through political nous and the pragmatism that he’d developed during earlier years as a leader of the various, and sometimes unruly, states of the Netherlands.
With his hooked nose and opaque personality, William’s new British subjects found him distinctly unregal: hard to read, as well as physically puny. But today his achievements in seizing a throne with little bloodshed and achieving stability make him appear an exceptionally able king.
Lucy Worsley is a writer, presenter and chief curator of the Historic Royal Palaces.