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Pocket Profile – Queen Ena

It’s a mash-up Tuesday – half Designer Diary and half Pocket Profile, all courtesy of our contributor Iselen. Kick back and enjoy!

Queen Ena: the rebel.

Eugenia in her wedding dress, Wikimedia Commons

Are you “Team Empress Eugenie” or “Team Queen Victoria Eugenia”? We’ve been having a debate for years in Spain about who our first fashion icon is, concerning royals, and the discussion continues. It’s true that Empress Eugenie was Spanish and French haute couture wouldn’t be the same without her promotion and her collaboration with Charles Frederick Worth, but she had a limited influence in Spain through some postcards and official portraits. Queen Ena, on the contrary, landed in Madrid Royal Palace like a hurricane: she was young, trendy and lovely, she smoked cigarettes and played tennis, and kicked out the rigid Burgundy etiquette with her British charm. Spanish high society ladies, who were used to the old manners of the Regent Queen Maria Cristina of Austria, were stunned but they followed her example and she led them to the modern 20th century. I’m “Team Ena,” no doubt.

Victoria Eugenie Julia Ena of Battenberg married King Alfonso XIII of Spain on 31 May 1906 wearing a fancy dress in white satin, embroidered in silver, and embellished with orange blossom and lilies, a lace veil and a four metres train. Her 300 kilos, six layers wedding-cake was the first one we ever saw in Spain and she arrived late to the church, letting a very nervous groom wait for 35 minutes, two traditions she brought to my country. Ena was very young back then, her mother in law Queen Maria Cristina was the real ruler of the royal palace and the family, and she just went with the flow but was very interested in fashion at the same time, maybe an influence of her godmother Empress Eugenie, or maybe because rumour has it that her mother, Princess Beatrice, was stingy about money and the new queen couldn’t wait to buy all those things she always wanted. She introduced us to Worth: suddenly, French fashion wasn’t something the Spanish ladies found in magazines and postcards but at court events.

Charles Frederick Worth, the first haute couture designer, was a pioneer in lots of things: he signed his dresses like they were works of art, designed a new collection every season, opened an atelier in Paris where clients went to visit him, which was revolutionary back then, his own wife was the first model and the fashion catwalk was also one of his brilliant ideas. He was a perfectionist, obsessed with high quality fabrics and the attention to every detail. His corsets were comfortable, he created the bustle and got rid of the big crinoline and caused a scandal when he decided that morning dresses should show the ankles so ladies could walk easily. The House of Worth was operated by his sons Gaston and Jean and grandson Jacques when the Queen of Spain started to buy their creations, the most famous is the dress she shares with Queen Maud of Norway, although Ena kept the original flower on her chest.

Lot of things changed after the I World War but the most important one concerning this subject is that Queen Maria Cristina of Habsburg was obviously pro German and the defeat of Kaiser Wilhelm II led to the loss of her influence in the Spanish court, she lost part of her moral authority. Suddenly, Ena had more freedom to act and to choose and she used her new privilege to bring more foreign fashion to my country: Jeanne Paquin, Lucien Lelong who was married to princess Paley, and Madeleine Vionnet were her favourites and she looked really good wearing this new trend of loose-fitting clothing and straight lines, she was a beautiful, curvy woman, and the rigid corsets and excessive froufrou of the Belle Epoque fashion didn’t suit her well. Of course, we can’t forget the other queen of the 20s: Coco Chanel, Victoria Eugenia was in love with her knitted garments suitable to attend tennis matches, the Queen was a big fan and a player herself.

It was in 1924 when Victoria Eugenia met the man who was going to turn her into the real Spanish fashion icon: Cristóbal Balenciaga. He was born in Guetaria in 1895 and his mother was a dressmaker who managed to raise him despite his father, a fisherman, died young. Cristóbal was only 13 years old when he caught the eye of the Marquise of Casa Torres, who was Queen Fabiola of Belgium grandmother, by the way: he told him she’d pay for his education if he passed a test, showing him a very exclusive dress made by a French designer, and challenging him to copy it with a piece of fabric she gave him. The Marquise was shocked with the result and became his patron. Balenciaga opened his atelier in San Sebastián in 1919, where the royal family and aristocracy loved to spend their holidays, and welcomed Queen Ena every summer till the Civil War broke and he moved to Paris in 1937.

His style was completely new: dropping shoulders tops, nipped-in waists and rounded hips that contrasted with the straight lines from the 20s. But it was in the 50s when his star raised, contrary to other designers, Balenciaga not only sketched his dresses but actually sewed them: Coco Chanel admitted he was the only real couturier among them. He loved heavy fabrics embellished with embroidery works and sequins, he was very skilful creating volumes and shapes in an almost sculpted way, a perfectionist hiding buttons and seams and very influenced by Japanese culture. Cristóbal remained a very good friend of Queen Ena till the end of his career and designed the dress she wore to attend Juan Carlos and Sofia’s wedding in 1962. It was a stunning creation in a golden colour, unfortunately the pictures don’t show it clearly.

Queen Ena lived a very private life in Switzerland after her exile and we don’t have many pictures of her, she only attended family events. Her photoshoot for Life Magazine was an unexpected last gift.