Wallis Simpson, who is buried on the grounds of the Duke and Duchess' future home of Frogmore Cottage, may have been the woman behind a British King's abdication, but it's her sense of style that she's often most remembered for.
In what must be one of most intriguingly messaged wedding looks of all time, Simpson wore a silk crepe dress designed for her by Mainbocher, an American couturier working in Paris at the time, for her wedding to Edward VIII in 1937.
The dress was dyed ‘Wallis Blue’, a pale duck egg shade which the designer coined especially to match his client’s eyes.
White was obviously not an option for the twice before married woman in her thirties, but in many ways that freed Simpson to choose something which could project a more personal message.
“Her wedding dress was very dramatic and really showed off her figure,” says Anne Sebba, author of Simpson’s biography 'That Woman’. “There’s no doubt that the Mainbocher was an unusual choice for the time. She was very aware of the impression which it would make; she wasn’t dressing for the party of the wedding, but for the image, for posterity.”
While the dress functioned as a sign of Simpson’s glamour and avant-garde sophistication, the hat she choose could be seen as a more emotional appeal to those poring over the wedding pictures.
“The Caroline Reboux hat she wore was extraordinary - it looked like a halo,” explains Sebba. “She wanted people to subconsciously think she was a saint for marrying this man.”
It wasn’t just with her wedding ensemble that Simpson employed fashion as her most powerful weapon.
Despite countless column inches around the world being dedicated to the romance between the Pennsylvania-born socialite and the British King, his subsequent abdication and their exile together in France, Simpson could never speak to the press herself, so clothes were designed to speak for her.
“Style was terribly important to her because it was the only way that she felt she could be noticed,” says Sebba. “If she couldn’t be Queen of the United Kingdom, then she wanted to mark out her territory as the Queen of Chic.”
In The Crown, Netflix’s recently released and gorgeously cinematic drama about the royal family, Simpson - played by Lia Williams - appears on the screen only for snatched moments but it’s enough time to underscore the stark contrast between her and her husband’s female relatives.
The show’s costume designer Michele Clapton has said that Simpson was one of the most fun characters to dress, thanks to her angular and film star-esque look.
Simpson developed her own fashion vocabulary, nodding to the trends of the time but crafting them to become her own; dresses and tailored suits which enhanced the gamine figure which she was always careful to preserve, elegant gloves - “whether that was because they were chic or as a way to hide her large hands we’ll never know” laughs Sebba - and elaborate statement jewellery.
“Pieces which demanded attention,” as Sebba puts it. She used to buy underwear from the lingerie business owned by Diana Vreeland, the inimitable woman who would go on to become a legendary American Vogue editor, and would order her wardrobe from the salons of Paris couture designers like Vionnet and Schiaparelli. The Vionnet atelier even agreed to remake some of the designs for Andrea Riseborough to wear when she played Wallis in W.E, the 2011 film directed by Madonna.
"I'm not a beautiful woman. I'm nothing to look at, so the only thing I can do is dress better than anyone else," Simpson once said, but her love of fashion was no artifice. “Even as a schoolgirl, Wallis had been interested in fashion. She would clip images from magazines and take them to the dressmaker to be made up, she wanted to look different, sometimes odd even,” says Sebba.
Although her (third) wedding dress has become iconic in its own way, Simpson expressed frustration that she hadn’t able to ponder over it more extensively.
“She complained that she hadn’t had been able to visit different designers and choose a dress because the paparazzi were following her everywhere so she had to depend on what was brought to her; her freedom of action was taken away from her,” says Sebba.
The Duchess of Windsor (Wallis was allowed to be a Duchess but there was no HRH styling for her) set a trend for panther jewellery, establishing a sizeable collection of pieces created by Jean Toussaint of Cartier. Imbued with connotations of power and courage, Wallis’s panthers became part of her fashion armour.
“When she and the Duke returned to England in June 1967 for the unveilling of a statue in commemoration of Queen Mary, it was a warm summer’s day, yet she wore a white fur stole over a panther diamond and cabochon sapphire brooch,” says Sebba. “It seemed to say ‘I’m on top of the world’. Beside her sister-in-law the Queen Mother who was in country florals, she looked elegant by comparison.”
In a 2010 sale at Sotheby’s, 20 items belonging to Wallis and Edward, including an onyx and diamond panther bracelet from 1952 and a flamingo brooch, set with diamonds, rubies, sapphires and emeralds, reached almost £8 million.
Even when Edward died in 1972, Wallis still made a point with her choice of outfit for his funeral. “Givenchy stayed up all night creating the coat which she wore,” Sebba explains. “Her chiffon widow’s veil was nothing like an English mourning hat. The veil hid her eyes and looks foreign, almost like a Spanish mantilla. She was very aware that she would have limited access to press so she had to use whatever means were available to her.”
On a purely aesthetic level, Simpson’s fashion legacy is impeccable; her sharp glamour continues to inspire designers or incite the remark ‘Oh, that’s very Wallis Simpson’. But whether her love of clothes aided in boosting her public image is not so clear cut. “I don’t think her love of fashion helped her, at the time people believed that she was an adventuring gold digger who used her talents - including her fashion sense - to ensnare the King,” observes Sebba.
A glamorous yet so purposefully alternative wedding dress will have helped cement that perception.
This article originally appeared in Telegraph.co.uk in November 2016