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  • Mr Mortimer's Wife

A Short History of Tiaras

Updated: Aug 25, 2020

I’ve always been fascinated by tiaras. If I could, I would wear a different one for every day of the week. They are beautiful, elegant and striking pieces of jewellery, associated with glamour, wealth and status, and worn by many cultures throughout history. But where do these adornments come from, and why do we wear them?

Let's take a whistle stop tour through their history, and just as a side note, the focus of this piece is the UK as that is where I am from. Perhaps in future years I'll take a look at the history of headdresses across the world. We'll see!

An image from Roman Egypt of a woman, 'Isadora', wearing a gold hair ornament,

100-110 AD.

The history of the tiara stretches back to antiquity, to ancient Greece and Rome. The ancient Greeks wore diadems of gold, fashioned into wreaths; the Romans also favoured this style and other floral designs, and although their headdresses were not as delicate, they made up for it in decoration and embellishment. The Romans were pioneers in the use of precious stones, and as the Empire expanded, pearls, sapphires, diamonds, amethysts and emeralds became available to Roman jewellers, resulting in ever more intricate designs.

Etrusca tiara from Mr Mortimer's Wife, inspired by antiquity

In England, the practice of wearing crowns at weddings was in place by the end of the 15th century, but it was not until the late 18th century that the tiara underwent a dramatic resurgence in popularity. The 16th and 17th centuries saw a range of styles being favoured, from the French hood in the Tudor period, to intricate designs involving lace, feathers and pearls in the seventeenth century. As time went on, hairstyles grew, and grew, and grew, and in the eighteenth century the fashion for huge hair was all the rage, with styles being adorned with wax fruit, feathers, beads, flowers, ships, and even sometimes a coach and horses. Eccentricity was king, but in this period of poor hygiene lice were everywhere and these hairstyles were expensive and impossible to maintain. Inevitably, the tide began

to turn.

Coëffure à l’Indépendance ou le Triomphe de la liberté, c. 1778.

A style supposedly worn by Marie Antoinette to celebrate a French naval victory over the English

A ship headdress from Mr Mortimer's Wife, named Mayflower. Slightly easier to wear!

The rise of Neoclassicism led to design in all quarters, from art to architecture to fashion, being heavily influenced by ancient Greece and Rome. The natural styles favoured by those ancient societies, such as the laurel wreath and other floral styles, were revived during this period and remained popular until the early 20th century.

In France, the crowning of Napoleon Bonaparte as Emperor was to influence the course of fashion and style throughout the continent. Seeking to cement his imperial status and nobility, Napoleon established a new set of rules and etiquette, making the tiara a required accessory at court. There, the women resembled exotic birds, adorned with beautiful jewels and sparkling tiaras, worn low on the forehead (‘a la Josephine’). Some tiaras were set with antique cameos; another nod to the fashions of classical antiquity.

Empress Josephine with her tiara worn low on her forehead, 'a la Josephine'

The Amalfi tiara, inspired by the tiaras of the French Court

The wave of Neoclassicism arguably reached its peak around the Regency period, after the huge bewigged hairstyles of the Georgian period fell out of fashion, partly owing to an expensive tax on hair powder. Hairstyles were now more natural in appearance, pinned up and with delicate ringlets, a nod towards the classical and far more appropriate for the wearing of tiaras. Natural designs, incorporating flowers, coral, leaves and wheat stalks were favoured, and moulded into beautiful gold tiaras.

The Mary Rose tiara, from Mr Mortimer's Wife, inspired by Regency pieces

The Victorians often conveyed messages through the design of their headdresses. To wear a beautiful and decorative tiara was a private, unspoken way to convey powerful messages of love. Precious stones carried special meanings, and combined with the language of flowers, each ornamental piece could carry a potent message for an admirer or loved one. Rubies symbolise passion, and amethysts, devotion. Pearls are for love and emeralds signify hope. Turquoise means true love, and diamonds are forever. In the language of flowers, daisies symbolise innocence, ivy signifies marriage, and roses are, of course, for love and all its meanings. Therefore, for example, a tiara adorned with a magnificent diamond rose was a declaration to the world of eternal love.

The Miss Havisham tiara. Diamonds are forever!

In England, early in her reign, Queen Victoria chose to assert her sovereignty by wearing her magnificent collection of tiaras, and her styles were eagerly awaited at society functions. Sadly, after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, her wonderful tiaras were put aside in favour of a white widow’s cap.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on their return from the marriage service at St James's Palace, London, 10 February 1840. The Queen wore a wreath of orange blossoms, a symbol of fertility, instead of a tiara. (Engraved by S. Reynolds after F. Lock).

After the death of Prince Albert, the Queen retreated into a fog of mourning, and it fell to her son the Prince of Wales and his wife Alexandra to provide courtly entertainment. He was a perfectionist when it came to detail and manners and he insisted on the wearing of tiaras at court. By the time Edward VII came to the throne in 1901, industrial and colonial development had led to increased prosperity and a widening of high society. This, coupled with many American ladies of independent means entering the British peerage upon marriage, led to an increase in demand for tiaras, and thousands were made in London and Paris during this period.

Consuelo Vanderbilt, a member of the prominent American Vanderbilt family, who became the Duchess of Marlborough upon her marriage to the 9th Duke of Marlborough in 1895. (c. 1900-1905)

It was during the reigns of Edward VII, George V and George VI, that one of the most magical events of the royal calendar took place: Their Majesty’s Courts, at which the season’s debutantes would be presented to the King and Queen. The royal couple would stand resplendent in full court dress, to receive the endless stream of young ladies either entering society, or being presented at court following their marriage. All married ladies at court were obliged to wear a tiara, and unmarried debutantes wore three ostrich feathers in their hair.

During the Art Deco period more angular styles with stars, comets and diamond fringes came into fashion and designers were increasingly influenced by the Far East, in particular Japan and China. A new fashion for shorter hairstyles in the twenties and thirties influenced the design of tiaras, and as a result pieces from this period were worn predominantly in two styles, either low across the forehead, or in a halo, face-framing position.

The influence of ancient Egypt, too, can be seen in many designs from this period, reflecting the discoveries being made in this field.

A silver and diamante Mr Mortimer's Wife tiara, in the Art Deco style

The Beaton tiara, from Mr Mortimer's Wife, in the halo style

With the collapse of many financial institutions following 'Black Thursday' in 1929, many noble families were forced to sell the 'family tiara', as the cost of maintaining a rambling and rickety manor house or country pile became more of a challenge. Many tiaras were also broken up and remodelled in a more modern style, reusing the gems and in some cases swapping less valuable, but no less decorative stones - sapphires replaced with aquamarines, for example.

But as time marched on through the twentieth century, tiaras in general became outdated. Not only was the country feeling the pinch financially after two world wars, but fashions were changing, with minimal monochrome and plastic in the sixties, flower crowns in the seventies (which grew in size - as did everything! - in the eighties). The nineties offered little in the way of inspirational tiaras, with beaded 'spriggy' styles being worn by most brides and at the other end of the scale, experimental and ironic pieces being made by the great fashion houses, out of steel, coral, acrylic and wood.

In recent years, however, with the explosion of social media, communities have come together - the historical costuming community being one - leading to a resurgence in the popularity and appreciation of historical styles of clothing and accessories. It is much easier now, in an online world, to find like-minded individuals and the sort of products you are searching for, as supply will usually rise to match demand. The historical costuming community has grown on Instagram, with thousands of people all over the world now able to share their style and aesthetic at the click of a button. The wedding world, too, has rapidly grown to epic proportions, with couples looking for the latest trends and styles and creating mood boards to curate their perfect day. Celebrities and influencers have shared their weddings with the world, reaching millions of people, many of whom aspire to replicate those styles and ideas. It is not surprising that in this context, the beautiful tiara is emerging from the shadows and enjoying another spell in the spotlight.

Another Regency inspired tiara from Mr Mortimer's Wife, named Assembly, with coral coloured crystals and an artificial coral centrepiece. Coral jewellery was immensely popular in the early nineteenth century. For centuries, many people believed coral was a magical gem with all sorts of healing and protective properties. It became a very popular form of jewellery in Georgian times, and was especially worn by young women and children who were thought of as being particularly vulnerable to illnesses and therefore in need of the added protection. If the coral remained pale while being worn it supposedly flagged up the low immune system of the individual wearing it, whilst a bright, vibrant colour signified health and vitality.

There will always be a desire to crown the head, whether that is with a daisy chain on a lazy summer's afternoon, or with a diadem of sparkling diamonds. The popularity of tiaras may wax and wane over the centuries, but I think they will always be with us, as nothing can look as beautiful or feel as special as these dramatic jewels.

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