By Patrick Michael Hughes
December 11 is the 74th anniversary of the abdication speech of King Edward VIII of the United Kingdom, the British Dominions and the Emperor of India.
One hot summer day many years ago in my grandmother’s cottage, I asked her what she remembered about the abdication speech made by the King. She paused, stared out of the kitchen window at the tropical foliage and an enormous pomegranate tree, and simply stated: ‘they used to mean so very much to us.’ A silent jejune air lingered.
The British Empire was put on notice at the end of WWI. The zeal of empire building during the 19th and early 20th centuries did not carry forth to the generations after the Victorians. Critical biographer A.N. Wilson writes:[i] “1936, a year marked by phenomenal lack of sunshine, was when the roads divided. The divarication left the old Victorian world behind.”
The public impact of the royal person during the 1920s and ‘30s was parallel to that of a modern day celebrity. Edward VIII as the Prince of Wales was a matinee idol cast in a global newsreel. His lifestyle and glittering circle of friends were the inspiration for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2002 Costume Institute exhibition, Blithe Sprit: The Windsor Set.
The Prince of Wales’ sartorial selections were widely copied. He promoted British textiles, such as bright tweeds and colorful Shetland wool fair-isle knits. Fashion behaved like a language: his name was attached to tie knots, plaids and midnight blue eveningwear. This fashion text represented an authoritative voice of a fashionable form in menswear.
Edward VIII gave up his throne to marry the twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson (1896-1986). Her relationship with the King would earn her the distinction of being Time Magazine’s first Woman of the Year in December 1936. The king’s abdication speech broadcast to the Empire contained an indelible turn of phrase “I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as king as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.”
Fashion history’s account would remember the nimble, polo-playing, sybaritic Prince of Wales, King, and later Duke of Windsor sympathetically. This would not be true to the sum of the historical portrait. Assessments such as Nazi sympathizer and a man who brought down the standards of duty and monarchy would ultimately be his legacy. He was doomed to play a purposeless role in exile as an ultimate social invitee and jet setter.
In this moment from 74 years ago the monarchy was faced with what would be the penultimate crisis of the Empire, and it emerged intact. The colonies carried on; my grandmother made white cambric coronation dresses for her daughters and a white sailor suit for her son. She embroidered each of them with a row of Union Jacks around the yoke and the edge of the collar; they were worn to Coronation Day Exercises in honor of George VI, a day filled with patriotic songs and speeches. This was the only primary colonial account I had of that historical moment in a place once called British Guiana.
[i] Wilson, A.N. After the Victorians: The Decline of Britain in the World. Arrow, 2006.