Last night, over a post-supper Earl Grey, the grave voice of BBC Radio 4 announced that Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the last of the Mitford sisters had passed away. I was filled with profound sadness. I knew the Mitford sisters. That is, I knew of them.
If you are not familiar with the Mitfords, I encourage you to find out more about them. They are a fascinating collective; six sisters who, in the course of their lives would become involved with some of the most influential figures of the last century. The sisters were often described thus: novelist Nancy, farmer Pamela, Diana the beauty, communist Jessica, Nazi sympathiser Unity and Duchess Deborah. Their lives are documented from the hundreds of letters the sisters wrote to each other.
The youngest Mitford sister, Deborah married the Lord Andrew Cavendish, the future Duke of Devonshire. (Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes played ancestors of the family in the film The Duchess). Deborah is credited with transforming the family seat, Chatsworth, into one of the most popular visitor’s destinations in England.
I have visited Chatsworth, and it was from Deborah’s book All in One Basket that I learned my tiara etiquette. She recalled attending a dance given by The Queen at Windsor Castle where she came down to dinner wearing the Devonshire tiara (see picture below), to find she was the only person wearing one. Embarrassed for being overdressed, she sat through the meal wishing she was anywhere else. When the dancing began, she took it off, put it under a chair and enjoyed herself enormously. She said,
‘I suppose Windsor Castle is the only house where you could be sure of finding the blessed thing still there at bedtime.’
Why wear a tiara
‘They are the nighttime equivalent of an Ascot hat. They are the finishing flourish to the best evening dress; the opposite of dressing down.’ So Deborah described what tiaras are for.
Traditionally, tiaras were worn only by married women. This was because they were heirlooms, and belonged to the men from great families and were worn by the wives. Today, tiaras continue to be a popular feature of the bridal trousseau. Indeed, for a bride blessed with a slightly large head, a tiara would look more becoming than a full veil.
Wearing a tiara automatically improves one’s bearing. One cannot slouch when wearing it. In spite of the combs and pins, there is a possibility of it slipping. I should know, I once wore one to a fancy dress party. They make the wearer sit and stand straighter, thereby making them look more distinguished and instantly taller.
How to wear a tiara
Queens and empresses wear one at state occasions. Holly Golightly wore one as if it were part of her being. Always put your tiara on fully coiffed hair. The stones atop your head won’t shine and glitter as well when placed on unstyled hair.
Wear your tiara 2.5-5 cm (1-2 inches in old money) from your hairline. If worn too far to the front, one risks looking somewhat like a Neanderthal. If worn too far back, it will not be seen in photographs.
Should you get a chance, do pay a visit to the jewellery gallery of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, where you will find tiaras that provide a delightful insight into the history of their owners. My favourite is the Manchester tiara, made for Consuelo, Duchess of Manchester. She was an American socialite who married into one to the great English families in the late 1800’s. The credit line of the tiara display reads, ‘Accepted by HM Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax, 2007’. Like I said, absolutely delightful!
All the best,
To Duchess Deborah and the Mitford sisters.