From the Sotheby's Catalogue 1997

I've been on a bit of a kick with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor's collection this year (Wallis Simpson and King Edward VIII). Earlier this year I bought a secondhand copy of the Sotheby's Catalogue from the sale of their possessions at auction in 1997, and which makes for fascinating browsing. This then lead to me purchasing a secondhand copy of an out of print book "The Windsor Style" by Suzy Menkes, as it was quoted so heavily in the text of the catalogue and it intrigued me with the peculiar tidbits of information that had been dropped... and all of this was as a precursor to a date I had written in my diary at the start of the year to attend a talk held by ADFAS (Australian Decorative and Fine Arts Society) given by Adrian Dickens of Circa AD Jewels on this topic last week.

Sotheby's catalogues from 1997

The Windsors were certainly the very definition of an Odd couple. Both were style icons, who have had an enduring influence on fashion (particularly the Duke, who innovated menswear to a look we currently recognise, popularising tartan trousers in the US, unusual fabric and outfit combinations of checks, plaids and tweeds, and the great coat and modern suit styles still worn by men working in professional jobs all over the world), and both devoted their lives to their appearance.

The Duke's wardrobe, photograph from the Sotheby's Catalogue 1997

In a way, they were the Pop culture icons of their time (although the twice divorced Duchess was not exactly popular with the general public), celebrated for their fashionable lives.

At their country house, the Duke in full Tartan suit, from "The Windsor Style"

They assembled an enormous collection of the finest quality jewellery, couture clothing and accessories, china, art, household linens, first edition leather bound books, furniture, bibelots and trinkets. Their lives were lived in as painfully stylish a way possible, all designed to give the impression of the royal King in exile, to reiterate a status that he no longer had. In some ways this was a millstone for the Duchess - certainly evidence suggests that she did not want to become his wife, preferring instead to be his mistress (which had a status of its own at that time amongst the aristocracy) - she listened to the abdication speech on the radio reportedly from under a blanket moaning in distress. She knew that her life's work would now be to make this sacrifice worth it to him, to ensure that the Duke still felt important, and to this end she pursued perfection in all physical facets of their lives to provide a polished image to the world and to give him the Kingly status he now lacked.

French antiques in Paris via "The Windsor Style"

They were pioneers of mixing High and Low in their lives, at a time when you didn't celebrate your abilities to do so. After their death and the dispersal of their collection, it was found that 70% of the "antique" furniture in their house in Paris was in fact reproduction, purchased from a French department store. The other 30% was real, but comprised mainly Chinese antiques and country antiques, which were inexpensive at the time, but gave an aura of authenticity to their other pieces. The small collection of very fine French furniture eventually was donated to the Louvre after the Duke's death. The replica furniture was offset by (real) Art and the ephemera taken from the Duke's short lived period as King of England, scattered around prominently. The leather bound books on the shelf, unread by them, were there for show too, and everything that could possibly be monogrammed and emblazoned with their insignia (a combination of WE for Wallis and Edward with a coronet above to denote royal status) was stamped in order to denote a royal status that Wallis was never given (she was never given the title Her Royal Highness, which rankled with the Duke, and which he felt a personal slight from his brother, the new King).

Table setting with monogrammed glasses, Royal Copenhagen assembled china service circa 1880, English silver flatware circa 1932 with monogram, and Porthault 1950's appliqued place mats and napkins via Sotheby's Catalogue 1997

The mix of high/ low continued in many facets of their lives - the Duchess was very fond of costume jewellery (as well as her very expensive Cartier pieces) and helped to popularise it during the 1950's. All of her costume Jewels were given specially made leather cases with the monogram on them too. When worn with her couture clothing, Roger Vivier shoes, and monogrammed crocodile handbags the overall effect was stylish perfection. Monograms were on her handkerchiefs (made from the finest linen) and even the bust of her hand embroidered silk and lace nightgowns. You could say the diminishing of their Royal status led to an obsession with achieving it. The Duke was known to tell people that he was one of only 3 actual blood Royals alive - that Queen Elizabeth II was only half Royal as her mother was aristocratic, but not Royal herself.

The Duke's bedroom with royal ephemera including the Order of the Garter and his royal insignia from his time as King via Sotheby's Catalogue 1997. Next to his bed he kept his childhood nursery toys, which would be packed when he travelled by his Valet.

They lived a vacuous life - they performed no charity work and made no donations, chaired no foundations, held no office or job (aside from a brief period as Governor General of the Bahamas - a role designed to get them out of the way and kept busy during WW2 when their fascist sympathies created enormous problems for the English. The Bahamas were then an unfashionable backwater far from the theatre of War). They didn't read, attend Opera or concerts or pursue any other cultural pursuits.

lined up and waiting...staff in full livery from "The Windsor Style"

Their household staff of 28 (18  indoors)  meant that they never lifted a finger in their homes, and those 28 staff were kept busy looking after the two of them by doing things such as ironing the Duchess' sheets twice a day (she could not abide wrinkled linen). "It was the only household where the water in the vases was always crystal clear" said the Baronness de Cabrol. To fill in the long days, the Windsor's lives were devoted to fittings for clothing, posing for carefully staged propaganda style photographs, going out or entertaining at home for dinner and dancing until very late at night, every night of the week, and going away on holidays or to their country house where the Duke enjoyed gardening, one of his few hobbies (Wallis did not like the country). They were both incredibly vain - Wallis could spend 9 hours choosing one hat "Her life's work was shopping" as The Duchess of Marlborough commented. Photographs were touched up in post production to erase wrinkles, and Wallis underwent a relatively unsuccessful early face lift and devoted hours to her hair and makeup routine each day.

airbrushing out the wrinkles including the "Frown that Cleaves her forehead ('as though she'd been hit by an axe' says Anne Slater)" her friend via "The Windsor Style"

So what is it about them that has meant that they are still talked about so many years later? In a way, they were the equivalent to today's reality TV stars. A dramatic family dispute and explosive scandal, and then the theatre of their life: vacuous, boring, lacking direction and industry and completely excessive - played out on a self publicised and perfectly managed stage set. The sale of their collection in 1997 has meant that they have achieved notoriety and fame through their legacy of the one thing that they devoted themselves to passionately: their appearances and their things.


The Windsor Style is definitely worth hunting down if you are interested in reading more about them - filled with all sorts of interesting tidbits on their life, their style, their influence on fashion and Interiors, and their collections. The talk I attended was an excellent overview of a strangely fascinating couple. Their contribution to society in a meaningful way never eventuated - they celebrated the surface, and perhaps, in always striving to be ahead of the times, they managed to be the icons and precursor to our modern scourge - the celebration of the individual, the celebration of style over substance.

27 comments:

  1. Oh I am definitely going to track this down. Fascinating! I've never bonded with the idea of Wallis or been terribly interested in her. You always recommend such wonderful books.

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    1. Stephen Andrew, you would LOVE this book. Buy it, you won't regret it. There are so many more fascinating bits of info - she was obsessional and incredibly fussy about how everything appeared both in her appearance, the Dukes and the house. There are even menus at the back of the book. Her running of her household was second to none. Track it down! I don't much care for her personal backstory or bios I've read, but this one is more about the style aspects and I am certain you'd find it fascinating x

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  2. Heidi,
    Thank you for that- fascinating indeed. I think your absolutely right when you say the are the reality tv stars of their day. What boring lives they must of had in many ways- I have never envied them but am fascinated by their lifestlye.
    Will track down the book, seems for some very interesting reading
    Marilyn xx

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    1. A life without purpose is not to be envied, that's for sure Marilyn. One woman (whose name I can't remember) said she'd never met a more bored man than the Duke. It's a very interesting book, and certainly worth tracking down. xx

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  3. Ah one of the top three most vilified women in British royal history thus far. It is amazing how much vitriol Wallis seems to evoke. But I suppose it was a sign of the times and it was easier to project it out of misogyny or politesse depending on your own social prejudice. I never understood the dislike of her many would immediately react to when she was mentioned - if anything I thought he was the one who got away with being dull albeit handsome. Camilla is lucky that she has a PR machine that has smoothed the way for her the past two decades. Poor Wallis really did have to marry him and I don't think she wanted to marry anyone again and must wanted to have fun. The Windsors aren't known for their intellectual curiosity and indeed their lives were exceedingly dull though foldedn and fluffed. I wonder what they called OCD in those days? Of course the neverending hatred by the Queen Mother if anything only kept their "myth" alive. I subscribe to the theory that a few have written about that she was indeed keen on him so the dislike was much more complex that just social protocol. I read about them a bit when I was in my 20's and in fact they were the couple that made me realize that a outwardly perfect life may not always be so especially when there was Camilla who looked scruffy ( back in the 90's) and was the polar opposite of Diana and yet she looked so content despite the terrible headlines. What real use is the British royal family if not to parallel our family dramas and real life fables?

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    1. True enough - they need to entertain us or what is the point? I think the dislike of her was driven by the outrage many felt that their golden boy prince/ King was giving up such a glittering destiny for a rather plain looking (if not downright ugly) and older twice married woman. It was a slap in the face perhaps. He really couldn't live without her, and seems to have been weirdly psychologically dependant on her, but he was looking to get out of being King. He wanted the popularity and adulation, but not the weight of office. I think it ended up being a life sentence for her. The whole story is sad, and as for dysfunction, well the Royals certainly take the cake! Yes, reality stars of their time that's for sure.

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  4. I must find this book it would be a fascinating style read! So true that this couple and their vacuous ways were a precursor to our reality tv "stars" with all of their silliness. I haven't read much about this couple but I do remember a couple of paragraphs in Clarissa Dickson Wright's memoir about some of the more intimate physical details of their life, the kind of thing I wish I hadn't read because the image won't leave my mind ewww. But she brought it up as explanation for the Duke's dependence on her. She didn't think much of them, perhaps typical of a British person of her generation.
    Love that table set for dinner though, excessive monogramming aside it is pretty!
    Thanks for this post Heidi, off to search for that book. XOX

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    1. Wallis pretty much devoted herself to style - everything was so considered and full of effort to look effortless and at ease ironically. I've read a couple of bios over the years about her, and I have to say I've read some of those things you mention and they were certainly... interesting! But this book is nothing about their relationship/ weird marriage and more about the style aspects. Very enjoyable read and I'm sure you'd love it. She loved a table setting though - the array of china and glassware, silver and table linens is so interesting to peruse in the catalogue. xx

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  5. They were such an interesting duo: quite terrible in many ways and amazing in others. But they did have terrific style!

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    1. for people so vapid, they certainly are interesting! And agree with you about their style - quite timeless in all areas

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  6. "Wallis stories" abound - it was said that MI5 (or MI6?) investigated her colorful and licentious past in Hong Kong, where she supposedly learned whatever it was to have kept the Duke enthralled. Also rumoured that she tried to seduce Garter King of Arms to come up with armorial bearings for her family. I have heard that the present Queen previewed the film The King's Speech and was heard to utter a very subdued "mmm" at the party scene where the future Queen Mum walked in on Wallis being catty about her.

    You're right, if there's one thing that justifies the existence of the royal family, it's their soap opera lives. I do think it would be helpful it cost less, though.

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    1. I've read a couple of bios over the years, and often wondered if some of the stories were in fact the vicious innuendo to discredit her. But there are strong theories that she was a hermaphrodite, and he was certainly odd, and had a terrible childhood at the hands of his abusive nanny. One book I recently read thought he was likely on the autism spectrum, although I think given his background it could easily be explained away by that.
      Had not heard that about the Queen Mum watching the movie! They used to call her cookie apparently...

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    2. Re: watching the movie: I believe it was the present queen, not her mother..

      Meanwhile I'm saving my pennies for a set of Porthault placemats.

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    3. Ah - of course. She did pass away quite a while ago...
      Don't blame you re the Porthault. I do have a bit of a thing for their table linen. Or the sheets. I'm not picky.

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  7. Very informative post Heidi. I have just bought a copy of The Windsor Style off eBay and looking forward to reading it - if I get the chance to read a book anytime soon, that is. In a moment of complete madness I decided to sign up for a six month course for work (20 hours per week) in addition to the 25 hours a week I already work!! As the course is entirely online, I am going to try and bash out the first two segments over the long-weekend!! Heaven help me :) Hope everyone is well there and your two youngest had happy May birthdays. Just love anything Porthault. Jo xx

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    1. I'm sure you'll enjoy the book Jo. Although wow - you sound like you're going to be busy with the course!! Good that it's online though, so you don't at least have to drag yourself into a classroom somewhere... Well May was busy, and they both had wonderful birthdays and I am breathing a sigh of relief the festivities are over again for another year! xx

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  8. Dear Heidi
    Such an interesting and well-considered post. Very much on your wave-length about the Windsors. They had many failings and clearly deserved each other (much as she might have preferred to escape exile bound to him) - but the most unforgivable for me was their Fascism and friendship with Hitler. As you way, the reason they were banished to a backwater during WWII. It's believed Hitler had plans to set him up as puppet king when he conquered England - some consider Edward would have been amenable.
    Quandmeme - the Style aspects of their story are interesting.
    Had a lovely time at a performance of Giselle at the Garnier Opera House last night! Next week my favourite opera, La Traviata. Best wishes, Pammie

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    1. I hear that you bumped into Romy on the weekend P! So funny!! Your trip sounds lovely, and I'm so glad you're having a great time.
      Yes, they weren't the nicest couple - very self centred, and obviously without a PR team to advise them to do something positive (like charity work) for a bit of alternate PR to the negative ones they only managed to muster for themselves. xx

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    2. Perhaps many of the bigger charities wouldn't have much wanted their support anyway because of their links with Hitler and Fascism. Kind of like having a reference from Hitler. You're dogged by the company you keep. Though I think nowadays maybe WWII is so far back in time that not many gens X and Y (and certainly not the millennials) feel the horror of it, or of the holocaust, as much as boomers like me). My Dad was a soldier in that war - and my Mum an army nurse - and I read so much about it and have seen so many docos and films - and have very dear Jewish friends. Don't think charity work would even have figured on the Windsors' horizon as even a glimmer of a possibility. She lived for fashion and pleasure and I guess felt she had to keep him happy after all he'd given up. Nothing wrong with enjoying fashion and seeking pleasure except if they're one's only pre-occupations in life. It's what much of French life is/was about anyway.
      Yes, amazing bumping into Romy and co by chance. We met up for lunch yesterday at Ralph's. Had planned on their lovely courtyard but the rain (and hail) bucketed down most of the time. But was great to cee her again - she looked fabulous too. Looking forward to meeting up in Bris. PS Think you'd have loved the Frey exhibition. Pammie xx

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  9. Terrific post Heidi. I too find this couple mildly fascinating.
    I have noticed an outbreak of monograming on American blogs and websites. Its it just Americans who seem to be obsessed with monogramed table and bed linen, stationery etc? I've not noticed it on UK blogs - correct me if I am wrong. We need a psychologist to decode just what this says about modern ideas of belonging and status. Judith

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    1. I think monogramming is around elsewhere, but it's definitely popular in the South in the US in a big way. And I think thanks to the internet it's spread elsewhere, so it's become popular here too. They seem to monogram everything that isn't nailed down in the South! Not sure what it means psychologically, but it's certainly interesting to contemplate the possibilities...! x

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  10. Hello Heidi,

    Thoroughly enjoyed this post. You managed to capture the essence of this stylish couple as living a life that was, sadly, vacuous due to their lack of philanthropic pursuits. Can you imagine what they could have achieved were they to put as much effort championing a good cause as they did towards sculpting their stylishly aesthetic lifestyle?

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    1. It is amazing to think that they really didn't leave any sort of legacy at all, except for that as a vacuous couple devoted to each other and themselves. These days the PR teams would be advising them on all sorts of things that they should be doing to rehabilitate themselves. But it's obvious that left to their own devices none of that natural inclination was evident! x

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  11. I will try and track down the BOOK!!!!!!!!

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  12. I just know you'll love it Contessa! x

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  13. my favourite book! Thanks so much for putting me onto it love this post!!!

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