The traditions of tiaras

Certainly the grandest and most enviable of the many types of jewellery, the tiara comes with a lot of baggage. The biggest piece is likely to be a man, as the first time a woman will wear a tiara is on her wedding day-a convention that stems from the origins of these magnificent jewels in antique pagan past. Subliminally, they represent the loss of innocence to love and the bride’s transition from her own family to her husband’s.

This ancient tradition directs that the bride shall wear her family tiara on her wedding day and thereafter one or other from her husband’s family collection. This was the protocol observed by Lady Diana Spencer when she married The Prince of Wales in 1981, but it’s far from the only constraint imposed on those lucky enough to wear a tiara today.

Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the rank of the guest, but the importance of the reception that signals the appearance of tiaras. In the past, these included balls and dinners in family houses, but, today, such occasions are likely to be official banquets, receptions or dances. Tiaras are for every class of married woman and, at the same occasion, they are correct form for empresses and commoners alike. If jewellery is the highest form of dress, then the tiara, worn high and mighty, is the grandest, the most imaginative, even the most eccentric of jewels. Today ‘white tie’ defines the sort of entertainment where they are still worn, but few take up these increasingly rare opportunities.

In the past, there was no need to emphasise this rigid etiquette to prospective guests-they simply knew when tiaras were mandatory and when they weren’t. However, this kind of self-assurance was undermined by the levelling of society following the First World War. Thereafter, potential embarrassment was avoided by a short phrase, printed at the bottom left of the best gilt-edged invitations: ‘Tiaras will be worn.’

In the democratic society of today, everyone who wants to be queen, even for a day, sees the tiara as the best expression of her childhood dreams. At the very least, the tiara transforms every girl into a princess on her wedding day. Sadly, for most women, that, on the tiara front, is likely
to be that. In fact, these days, tiaras are almost never worn except at weddings.

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The official exceptions to this general rule are the State Opening of Parliament, the state banquets The Queen hosts for foreign dignitaries and the annual Lord Mayor’s Banquet at Mansion House. As soon as the invitations for any of these fall through the letterbox, there is a scrabble to beg, to borrow but almost never to buy a tiara. Consequently, the rusty hinges of safe-deposit doors creak open, and from the velvety darkness, these Cinderellas of the jewellery world shimmer and shine their way into the light of day.

Then, the family jeweller cleans and buffs gem-set wreaths and diadems, and appointments are made with mummy’s favourite successor to Mister Teasy-Weasy, who, the mantra ran, was ‘the only man alive who really knows how to set a tiara’. Once upon a time, the coiffeur would make a home visit, but needs must, and now these magnificent jewels are sometimes secretly shuffled to the salon, safe in the anonymity of a plastic carrier bag. There, everything short of tin tacks-including pins, bandeaus and a thick candyfloss of hair lacquer-is used to prevent the family jewels ending up in the soup.

The owner, now bedizened, homeward skulks, sometimes on the bus or Tube, tiara safely out of sight under the full veil of a voluminous headscarf. Lady Alexandra Metcalfe and her friends made the journey in reverse when they walked through the streets of London from famous balls in the early hours of the morning, tiaras ablaze across their brows. We live in a different world, and jaunts of this sort, safe between the World Wars, are not advisable today. Apparently, a tiara, like Champagne, makes the world a different place.

With it in place, even the wearer’s posture changes, and she enters the room stiff and straight as an ironing board. From the moment of that dramatic entrance, there is little eye-to-eye contact as all gaze upwards to the blaze of diamonds and precious stones proudly perched on the crown of her head. If a tiara is a truly magnificent ‘fender’, then normal conversation with the proud wearer is virtually impossible.

They say that pride comes before a fall, and the hazards of wearing a tiara are not confined to protocol. Theresa, wife of the 6th Marquess of Londonderry, dropped her tiara of diamonds and pearls into the lavatory pan at the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902. The 6th Duke of Portland hurt his bottom by sitting on his wife’s spiky diamond diadem as she was dressing for dinner. However, the funniest story of all runs as follows. Two high-ranking women had fostered a long and mutual loathing, but, related by marriage, were obliged to kiss in public. On one of these occasions, their tiaras locked together, and they had to be removed from the ballroom of Buckingham Palace locked in conflict, like a pair of rutting stags.

* This article was published in the Royal Wedding collectors’ issue of Country Life magazine, out April 20