Antonia Keaney is author of A Passion for Fashion—300 Years of Style at Blenheim Palace (Unicorn 2019), from which the quotations in this article are drawn.
Blenheim Palace is famous for many things, and one of its leading claims to fame is that it happens to be the birth- place of a certain Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill—twice prime minister of Great Britain, accomplished writer, artist, and skilled bricklayer.
One may be surprised at hearing Winston Churchill referred to as a style icon, in much the same way that one might express surprise at his being described as “wonderfully pretty” (Lord Randolph’s description of his prematurely born son in a letter to his mother-in-law), but icons tend to develop rather than to be born, and that is certainly true of Winston Churchill.
His parents, Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill and American socialite Jennie Jerome, met at Cowes week in August 1873. Theirs was a whirlwind romance, and Randolph was so besotted that he proposed to Jennie after their second meeting. Randolph’s parents the Seventh Duke and Duchess of Marlborough were not quite so enamoured of the whole idea and initially refused to give their blessing. This was but a minor hitch as far as Randolph was concerned. Eventually the desired blessing was obtained, and the happy couple were married in April 1874, less than a year after they had first met.
Randolph and Jennie’s style credentials were second to none. Jennie was always at the leading edge of fashion and a fearless horsewoman at a time when women wore uncomfortable, tightly corseted, two-piece outfits in which to ride side-saddle. Randolph, a budding politician and part of the Prince of Wales’s set—right up until he tried to blackmail HRH to prevent a Spencer-Churchill family scandal—was always immaculately turned out and sported a luxuriant set of moustaches. To turn up at one’s club with a clean-shaven upper lip would be tantamount to appearing without one’s trousers!
Randolph and Jennie were frequent visitors to Blenheim Palace—it was after all Randolph’s ancestral home—and it was on one of these visits late in 1874 that the impatient future prime minister put in a reportedly premature appearance. The young couple were due at Blenheim for a St. Andrew’s Day Ball. Transport being what it was at that time, their stay would be for several nights. The festivities took place in the magnificent Long Library, and, whilst guests were enjoying themselves, Jennie unexpectedly went into labour.
Legend has it that the household was unprepared for this event. Consequently, Jennie was made comfortable in a small side room close to the Long Library. The room had originally been used to accommodate the rather bulldog-faced Dean Brazillai Jones, Chaplain to the First Duke of Marlborough and, reputedly, card player extraordinaire. The doors to the room still bear the words “Dean Jones’ Rooms” in gold lettering, and, despite Winston’s claims to the contrary, the room is still haunted—but that really is another story.
Jennie’s labour progressed and after many hours reached its natural conclusion: Winston was born on 30 November 1874, during the reign of Queen Victoria. The infant began life dressed in baby linen borrowed from either the wife of the Woodstock solicitor— if Randolph is to be believed—or from his Aunt Lilian —according to the observations of her sister Norah, who was also a guest at Blenheim at that time. Whichever it was, it was most fortuitous that there were baby clothes to hand. Visitors to the palace today can enter the room in which Winston was born and then see on display in a corridor just outside the Birth Room a striking portrait of a rosycheeked, Victorian child. With auburn ringlets, velvet dress, and lacy collar, the child could easily be mistaken for a girl. In fact it is the four-year-old Winston.
As a Victorian child, the tradition in Winston’s family—as in many other Victorian families— was not to breech the boys or to cut their hair for the first time until they were five years old. Young Winston was no exception to this. When he reached his fifth birthday, his flowing gowns and dresses were replaced by breeches and jackets. His beautiful auburn curls were cut but, luckily for us, preserved by his doting parents (or his beloved Nanny Everest) and now hang framed in the room of his birth.
When Churchill was born, there was no distinction between favoured colours for boys and girls. So it was quite unexceptional for boys to be dressed completely in pink. Gender distinction did not really start to make an appearance until the early twentieth century, and at that time pink was the preferred colour for a boy and blue for a girl.
One of the earliest references to this gender distinction appeared months before the end of the First World War. In June 1918, an edition of the trade magazine Earnshaw’s Infants Department stated: “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys and blue for the girls…pink being a more decided and stronger colour is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty is prettier for the girl.” The true objective, I fear, would have been to encourage gullible new parents to rush out to buy the appropriate colour-coordinated wardrobe for their infant, rather than just handing down clothes and using whatever fitted.
The pink-boy/blue-girl preference persisted until the 1940s when it was reversed, and boys began to be dressed in blue and girls in pink. Today the gender association has been diluted somewhat, although there is perhaps more choice for girls. Nevertheless, whilst baby girls are now dressed in a wide range of colours, it is relatively unusual to see a baby boy dressed in pink.
If you were to look through the many trunks stored away on the private side of Blenheim Palace, the wing which is still inhabited by the present Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, you would come across numerous dresses, smocks, and nightgowns—all of them in white, and fashioned from cotton or linen. This was the staple of any Victorian infant’s wardrobe.
Day to day, Baby Winston would have been dressed in clothes made from these utilitarian and practical fabrics. These were garments that could be boiled and bleached to get them clean. The styles made nappy changing simpler and could easily accommodate growing limbs without constantly having to have new clothes made.
Fast forward several years: Winston was sent off to school (with varying degrees of success) and was obliged to wear various uniforms. It could be argued that this set a trend, given his years in the army and in government. He was yet, however, to establish his own style.
During the school holidays, Winston was a frequent visitor to Blenheim Palace, where he was left under the supervision of his adored nanny Mrs. Everest while his parents would be absent, busying themselves with the political arena in which Lord Randolph appeared to have a glittering future. Sometimes Winston may have been under the supervision of his slightly less adored and far stricter grandmother, whom he knew as Duchess Fanny. Nevertheless, the Duchess loved and cared for her grandson and arranged for him to learn to ride in the Park. He would have been dressed appropriately right down to his little leather riding boots. His pony Rob Roy was furnished with a rather splendid saddle that resembled nothing so much as a leather armchair, which virtually guaranteed against the possibility of his taking a tumble during those early rides in the Park at Blenheim.
August 1908 proved to be momentous for Churchill. By that time he had long since finished school and passed out of Sandhurst. He had escaped from the clutches of the Boers and man aged to make a living for himself by writing, before eventually taking his seat as a Member of Parliament for Oldham. At almost thirty-four years of age, Churchill’s thoughts eventually turned to romance, and he decided that he wished to propose to Clementine Hozier. This was not his first attempt at a proposal of marriage, but his two earlier attempts had met with no success.
Churchill’s attempt with Clementine proved third time lucky. Winston persuaded Clementine to visit Blenheim Palace for a few days in August 1908— and who could resist a proposal of marriage in such splendid surroundings? Certainly not Miss Hozier; although it has to be said that if it were not for Winston’s quick-thinking cousin Sunny, the Ninth Duke of Marlborough, Winston might have slept on undisturbed whilst Clementine’s patience wore thin as she awaited him in the Great Hall dressed for their appointed pre-breakfast stroll to the Rose Garden.
On 12 September 1908, Winston and Clementine were married at St Margaret’s, Westminster. They certainly did not believe in long engagements. It was a splendid day. The bride was radiant, but sadly Winston’s wedding apparel fell rather short of the mark. The trade publication The Tailor & Cutter made no bones about it, and, having criticised the style and cut of his coat, stated that Winston looked like a “glorified coachman.” Despite his aristocratic background, Winston’s choice of clothing was described as one of the “greatest failures as a wedding garment… ever seen” and the writer went on to implore his readers “NOT to adopt this style!”
History does not record whether or not the groom donned a going-away outfit, but it can only be hoped that by the time the newlyweds’ train arrived at the now-defunct Woodstock railway station, Winston had had the good taste to change into something more appropriate to begin his honeymoon at Blenheim Palace.
The Churchills moved in exalted circles and numbered the Duke of Westminster amongst their close friends. Winston and Clementine enjoyed the bachelor Duke’s hospitality at his numerous houses, and it was through him that an unlikely friendship developed between Winston and Coco Chanel. The pair had various other acquaintances in common, not least Etienne Balsan, the Frenchman with whom Coco Chanel had once had a long relationship. He happened to be the brother of Consuelo Vanderbilt’s second husband Jacques. Consuelo, of course, an American heiress and former Duchess of Marlborough, was once married to Winston’s cousin the ninth Duke.
Coco Chanel and Winston became close friends. She was the Duke of Westminster’s acknowledged mistress, as anyone walking through the borough which bears his name can still see today by glancing at the monogrammed lampposts. Sadly, despite being a trailblazer in the world of fashion and the inventor of the Little Black Dress, Coco Chanel failed miserably to influence Winston’s sense of style. This can be seen in the photograph of the two of them together in 1929 at Eaton Hall, the Duke of Westminster’s country estate in Cheshire.
Arguably, the only item that Winston contributed to the world of fashion was the one-piece Siren Suit. This was a garment based on the overalls which he donned to build walls at Chartwell, his house in Kent, and happily worn by him into old age. Fashioned from many different fabrics—velvet, herringbone, tweed—Winston’s “rompers” were the precursor of the ubiquitous and ever popular Onesie.
In the late 1940s, Blenheim Palace historian and author David Green (1910–1985) was commissioned by Country Life to write a definitive history of the Palace. Green describes in his diaries his first meeting with Churchill. He was keen to ask Blenheim’s most famous son if, in fact, he would not be better placed to tackle this monumental task.
Following the ceremony in early August 1947 at which Churchill had been made a freeman of Woodstock, Green and his wife Joyce were invited to join the Tenth Duke and Duchess and their family for tea at the Palace. Green was determined to take this opportunity to ask Churchill if he wished to write the Palace’s history in his stead.
Understandably, Green was rather in awe of meeting the man who only a few years earlier had steered the country through its darkest hour, and he was not really sure what to expect. When reading through Green’s diaries, one is struck firstly by his anxiety: “I am more than a little scared about tomorrow, but [God willing] we will take it in our stride….” After the event, Green could barely suppress his excitement: “We really did go. We really did have tea at Blenheim Palace. We really were introduced to Winston Churchill….Joyce sat next to Mrs WC, didn’t realise it at first and when she did, was too overcome to eat….”
At this point, it would be remiss to ignore exactly how far Churchill had come in terms of style. Far from having scorn poured upon his choice of attire, as had happened thirty-nine years earlier on the occasion of his wedding, Churchill by now held the secure status of national icon and so could—literally—get away with wearing almost anything without attracting negative criticism.
Again one must rely upon the detailed observations of Green, who described his eager anticipation of Churchill’s entrance all those years ago. He wrote that he and Joyce saw signs of Churchill’s presence long before they actually saw the great man in person: “we saw first a ten gallon Stetson on the table (with an inscribed gold band) and smelt cigar smoke.…I tried on the hat—about right for me (for size) though of course no normal ordinary being would ever dare go about in such a thing.”
But of course this particular Style Icon could get away with wearing whatever he chose because, here, it was very much a case of, to paraphrase Churchill, “some hat…some head!”
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