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Here In Africa: Wedding Presents

...All in all, despite the large number of slightly negative comments at the time, my feeling was that the dress was a triumph, a graceful and imaginative design for a young woman the public were more used to seeing in riding breeches and hard hat. I thought it was lovely...

Barbara Durlacher recalls the day she queued to see Princess Anne's wedding dress.

With Prince William and Catherine’s wedding and the interest in everything royal, I thought I might take this opportunity of writing about the time I went to St James’ Palace in London (that unimpressive medieval building, opposite Clarence House) to see Princess Anne’s wedding presents and dress.

As I recall, it was an extremely dark and cold winter’s day in January and the queue to see the wedding dress and presents stretched nearly a mile down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace. For those of us who waited so patiently, it was a real marathon. As we neared the entrance to St James’ we saw that two guardsmen from the Household Brigade were on duty at the entrance dressed in their immaculate winter uniforms of grey greatcoat, bandoliers, black bearskins, impressively shiny shoes and carrying intimidating service rifles on their shoulders with bayonets fixed.

It took us nearly two and a half hours to reach the entrance and we were thankful to enter the gloomy old building away from the near freezing conditions and into the warmth and colour of the palace. En masse, we trooped up the grand red and gold staircase and into the first great reception room to see the presents laid out in all their extraordinary variety and – in some cases splendour, on a series of tables around the rooms.

First though, we were drawn to the large glass case inside which was Princess Anne’s wedding dress. It was displayed in all its grace on models of the bride and groom. Mark Phillips’ outfit for the day, the full-dress scarlet and blue uniform of the Queen’s Dragoon Guards stood to attention alongside Anne’s dress which was in a lovely white satin, cut in a Tudor-style, with lines of tiny seed pearls running from the shoulder-line to the high neckline. Unusual “Camelot” sleeves formed arum-shapes at the end of the sleeves and fell away gracefully from the gathered wrist-length white silk lining, an unusual fashion feature but one which did not seem to catch on with the general public after the wedding. However, what impressed me most was how tiny she was when she married.

Not only in height, but her overall figure was extremely small and in those days she couldn’t have had a waist much larger than about 15 inches. Studying the model, one marvelled that this tiny woman could be the strong and agile silver-medal winning horsewoman who regularly took part in gruelling point-to-point and dressage contests which demand strength and riding skills of the very highest order.

All in all, despite the large number of slightly negative comments at the time, my feeling was that the dress was a triumph, a graceful and imaginative design for a young woman the public were more used to seeing in riding breeches and hard hat. I thought it was lovely.

As for the presents, they represented an extraordinary collection which ranged from the strange to the exotic; the downright ordinary to the most glamorous. On one table, a note indicated that a single wrapped toffee was a gift from primary school children in an infant school in the Midlands. This tiny gift had been packed with their infantile attempts at drawing a princess with a crown on her head and was touching and sweet; there was a paperback book entitled “How to Deal with Honeymoon Cystitis” which seemed to indicate that Anne would suffer from that most uncomfortable after-effect of an amorous honeymoon.

Nearby, another table carried an eye-popping display of fine china – a 105 piece gold-plated and eagle decorated dinner service from the President of the United States; while another table was covered in a sumptuous gift from the Sultan of Brunei, for which sadly my recollection of that day in 1973 fails to supply the details; except I think a quantity of large green emeralds were involved in some way –a splendiferous tiara, a later memory seems to hint.

One of the princess’s younger brothers, it might have been Edward, gave her a coir front-door mat which read “Welcome”; one of the large City companies gifted an IBM electric typewriter – practical and boring, while another of the royals, maybe the Queen Mum or even the Duke of Edinburgh - had struck a novel note with an enamelled and jewelled bell-pull.
Difficult to know what to give the girl who has everything isn’t it, and how wonderful it must be to know that whichever house you live in, there will always be servants to respond to your summons whenever you pull that bell. And so the list went on; two large rooms filled with gifts from the imaginative to the downright mundane. In due course each one of those more than two thousand presents would be acknowledged and the donor thanked for their generosity.

Later, having studied the contents of those two rooms filled with a lavish display of consumerism of one kind and another and happily satiated with all we had seen, we curious visitors departed to brave the cold outside once more, some heading for the nearest bus stop while others opted for a “warm” in the pub round the corner!


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