Musings on the pretty, pretty princess, and my five favourite princesses

I’ve been thinking lately about how much our first introduction to something shapes our attitudes towards and perceptions of it.  Case in point: the term ‘Pretty Pretty Princesses’ which is the theme for this fortnight’s HSF challenge.

Lauren at Wearing History just posted about her historical costuming likes and dislikes (remember my post from three years ago about my historical costuming likes and dislikes (no?  What!  You mean you don’t have every.single.one of my posts memorised?  What is wrong with you!), which, incidentally was inspired by a WH post), and her #1 dislike is being called a ‘Pretty Pretty Princess’.  She  describes the historical costuming community as being two camps: Historical Accuracy and Pretty Pretty Princesses.  My response to this was: “Wait, what?”

My first introduction to the term ‘Pretty Pretty Princesses’ was through Kendra of Demode posting about the Eugenie Project – a highly research and historically accurate based attempt to recreate Winterhalter’s painting of the Empress Eugenie with her ladies in waiting. It never occurred to me that it was shorthand for costume froth.

I’ve always liked dressing up, but I’ve never been hugely princess obsessed (I may have exaggerated wanting to be a princess at 7 rather a bit in my Pretty Pretty Princesses description for literary impact).  Remember the week Princess Di died?  For me, that was the week Mother Theresa died.  Later  I was the annoying snot who insisted on telling my friends with Prince William posters how awful being a princess would be in great detail, illustrated with horrifying examples from my Infamous Queens paper doll collection (dear Mum & Dad who let me have a paper doll of a queen who was notable for chopping off her rivals hands and feet and pickling them, thank you. I think.).

What I do like about princesses is the scope for research in the life of a princess.  Let’s face it, history hasn’t been great about documenting women, and the ones who were documented were more often than not royalty.  We can usually extrapolate a fair amount about the life of an ordinary woman of any era, but to really connect, it helps to put a face and a personality to an era.  The more details you have about one life, the more you can feel you know them as a person.

Princesses also evoke, for me, a bit of pathos: in a big way most historical princesses had the worst hand in life.  To the men of their time they were merely pawns, their worth boiled down to their family links and their ability to have children.  A common woman had a much better chance of spending her life with someone she liked.  Princesses may have had the least choices in some ways, but they also had more opportunity than most women to influence the world, both in personal and incidental ways.  Personally, they might be able to found charities, help the poor, possibly even change policies.  Incidentally, just their marriage and the new things they brought from their birth country to their marriage might change fashions, customs and history.   All of this makes them fascinating subjects for research, and while I am not precisely a historical accuracy fiend, I’m definitely not a ‘just about the looks’ girl.  I guess the most accurate description of me would be to say I am a historical understanding fiend, focused on research, and thus, I like princesses.

I use the term ‘Pretty Pretty Princesses’ in a rather tongue in cheek fashion.  Someone asked in the HSF group if “the point of this challenge is to go for luxe fabrics and princessy fabrics” and my response was “Not necessarily – the point of all of these challenges is to inspire research, and creativity. I’d be thrilled if you researched one of the poorer princesses, and were inspired by her wardrobe.”  And that’s really it.  A ‘Pretty Pretty Princess’ isn’t the one in the frilliest frock, or the one who was necessarily ‘pretty’.  She’s the one with an interesting story, the one with the pretty personality.

With that said, here is a quick tour of my five favourite princesses (/queen, empress, arch-duchess, or a de-facto queen):

1) Queen Emma of Hawaii

Emma is closest and dearest to me because she’s part of my heritage.  Emma grew up in mid-19th century Hawaii, another Hawaiian noblewoman torn between old Hawaii and the new Missionaries.  Her divide was literal: Emma was of both Hawaiian and English descent, which became an issue when she married King Liholiho.  Emma was beloved as a Queen: devoted to the people, and noted for her charitable work: she founded a hospital (still in existance), and a number of schools and churches.

Sadly Emma lost her young son and Liholiho within a year of each other, and the death of the king also left Hawaii in crisis, as he had not appointed a successor.  With no heir, an election was held to choose a new ruler: Emma ran against Kalākaua (he that built ‘Iolani Palace), and while she won the popular vote by a landslide, the Legislative Assembly got to cast the actual vote, and they elected her rival.  Kalākaua was great fun, but evidence suggests Emma was the stronger person, and the stronger leader.  She had wanted to return power to the native Hawaiians, and limit the influence of the Americans in the islands.  I often wonder what would have happened to Hawaii had she been elected.  Would she have been wise and strong enough to have kept the islands independent, or would her attempts to return Hawaiian lands and rights to the natives of Hawaii only have precipitated an earlier coup?

Dowager Queen Emma with the christening cup sent to her son by his godmother, Queen Victoria of England

Dowager Queen Emma with the christening cup sent to her son by his godmother, Queen Victoria of England

2) Princess Alice (Princess Andrew of Greece)

I won’t write a lot about her because I already have.  She had spunk and personality, she overcame enormous obstacles (she was deaf and suffered from mental illnesses) in life, and she was willing to risk her own life to help others.  Fun to hang out with + eminently admirable = my kind of woman.

Princess Alice of Battenberg shortly after her marriage to Prince Andrew of Greece, 1906

Princess Alice of Battenberg shortly after her marriage to Prince Andrew of Greece, 1906

3) Queen Marie of Romania

While she did things which I don’t condone, I still admire Marie on a number of levels.  First, though her marriage was terribly unhappy, she didn’t let this interfere with her feelings for her adopted-country-by-marriage, Romania.  She was far more of a Romanian and far more of an advocate for the people of Romania than her Romanian husband.  I admire the way she looked at being a princess as a job, and while she didn’t pick her status, or her husband, she was going to do her job, and her job was to represent her country, and do her best for them.  Between World War I & II she fostered traditional Romanian arts, during during WWII, like Princess Alice, she risked herself to help others, and proved herself a clever strategist and leader.  Finally, at the end of her life, she became a Baha’i, which obviously endears her to me.

Marie and her children Marie (Mignon) and Nicholas in traditional Romanian attire, c. 1908

Marie and her children Marie (Mignon) and Nicholas in traditional Romanian attire, c. 1908

4)  Princess  Izabela Dorota Czartoryska

This Polish Princess created one of the most liberal and intellectual courts in 18th century Europe, which is pretty awesome in itself, but she really has my heart for founding a museum.  It was a very 18th century royal museum: private and rather silly, but it still helped to foster the idea of preserving culture, and expanding understanding.

Alexander Roslin (1718—1793)   Title English- Portrait of Izabela Czartoryska (1746-1835) Date1774

Alexander Roslin (1718—1793) Title English- Portrait of Izabela Czartoryska (1746-1835) Date 1774

5) Princess Maria Josepha of Saxony, Daupine of France

My admiration for Maria Josepha began with this story.  I can’t imagine how tricky her life must have been: married at 15 to a husband still openly grieving for his first wife, with a mother-in-law predisposed in every way to hate her (the replacement for your beloved daughter-in-law is chosen by your husband’s mistress, and she’s the granddaughter of your worst enemy?), and a court just salivating at the thought of discord and scandal?  And yet, through tact, kindness, and wisdom she managed to woo her husband, become friends with her mother -in-law, while staying friends with the mistress-in-law, winning over her father-in-law and resolving a feud between him and her husband.  Plus she providing a much-needed, if all-too-slight, example of restraint at a court overrun with decadence, all without making any enemies.  Her own daughter-in-law, who she did not live to meet, faced a similarly fraught situation when she married Marie Josepha’s son, but alas, Marie Antoinette lacked her mother-in-law’s talents.  Would history had been any different had she had them?

Follower of Michel van Loo, Painting of Marie Leszczyńska, Queen of France and her daughter in law Maria Josepha of Saxony, Dauphine of France, c. 1765

Follower of Michel van Loo, Painting of Marie Leszczyńska, Queen of France and her daughter in law Maria Josepha of Saxony, Dauphine of France, c. 1765


  1. Remember the week Princess Di died? For me, that was the week Mother Theresa died.

    Good for you! I like women who don’t follow the herd–that’s part of why I’m a costumer, I suppose.

    • I’ve never been good at following the herd. I have to admit that part of the reason Mother Theresa’s death made more of an impact on me is that my little sister was obsessed with her 😉

  2. Lauren says

    Thanks for posting your thoughts on this!
    I guess j should have explained myself more. Most folks I know who call some costumes “pretty pretty princess” are into pink, tiaras, and champagne. And that’s totally fine! I get that most gals lie that, and wearing their big frothy dresses while doing so. I think of it as kind of an I diligence of the ultra feminine. But I’ve always felt like an odd duck because I’ve always been kind of the dorky tomboy who likes dressing up in pretty dresses ;). When i was in school, high school and college, and the ultra girly girls had “princess” keychain a, sweat shirts, license plate frames… You name it. Which was always annoying to me. I think because of that, I’ve come to associate princess with that sort of thing. And my perception of the two camps of costuming may be only my perception of the events and folks I know. And trust me, I know many a pretty princess, and love them greatly 😉

    Real life princesses are way different in my mind than “pretty pretty princess” dress up time. Those women had incredible hardships, big courage, and were real fighters a lot of the time. I have never wanted to be famous because I thought it would be so annoying to be in tabloids, be hunted down and stalked and photographed. I can’t imagine being famous AND royalty. Which is what was so tragic about Princess Di.

    Btw, I totally spaced on your Pretty Princess challenge. I have been so absent from online the last few months that I forgot there was that challenge. A please trust me that my post about that had nothing at all to do with your challenge, it was completely out of my mind. And I forgot you did your likes and dislikes, so I’m looking forward to going back and retreading that!

    • Well, pink is one of my favourite colours (if it’s dusky enough, or coral-y enough), and I do like tiaras (when they look like these ones), but I’m definitely not a champagne girl. Unless rhubarb and ginger cordial counts?… 😉

      I totally get you though – that’s why I started talking about how our introduction to something shapes our perception of it. I was introduced to ‘pretty, pretty, princesses’ through quite researched historical costuming, by someone who I respected and admired, and who used it with a wink. You were introduced through the diamante key chains and the pink lounge pants (what are those even called?) with ‘Princess’ written across the bum in curly script. So we ended up with quite different views of it.

      I have to admit that for a split second when I read your post I though “wow, that was pointed!” immediately followed by, “nah, this is Lauren, she’s way to nice for that!” 😉 But I has been writing this post already, and didn’t have a good launching point for it. I hope I didn’t offend?

      P.S. Have you noticed that you look a little like Princess Izabela?

      • Lauren says

        Not offended at all! I really enjoy debate and understanding different perceptions, so I loved hearing your dialogue.

        I guess I could also blame the explosion of Disney princesses… But I do like me some Disneyland.

        I’m really glad you realized it wasn’t aimed at you! In fact, when I realized your upcoming challenge, I was like “doh! I hope she didn’t think that was pointed at her!” I’m an ardent fan of your “Sew Fortnightly” and how it’s unified our Costume community.

        I had never realized that, but I can see it a bit! She does look an awful lot like my grandmother who just passed away.

  3. my princess would be Caroline of Brunswick – wife to the Prince Regent, later King George IV. Very dodgy in so many repects – upbringing, morals?, personal hygene, behaviour. But how far you get from my concept of the regency lady – driving a sea shell shaped phaeton covered in mother of pearl, pulled by piebald ponies while wearing pink top boots and a skirt cut to the knees. (and a lowcut pink bodice!)

    • Caroline of Brunswick is an interesting one. Whenever we get another story about Britney or Lindsay or whoever misbehaving I think of Caroline – acting out her unhappyness on the public stage, determined that even if her husband wouldn’t love her, at least he would notice her. I feel pathos for her situation, but I’d admire her more if, like Marie of Romania, she’d turned some of that energy towards helping others. And I suspect that many of the stories about her were exaggerated, just like the tabloids today exaggerate any celebrity behavior.

    • Elise says

      There seems to be a lot of similarities between this idea and that of the US military wife: You move too much to have a career, your husband often gets called away, confining tradition, a pecking order and scads of gossip. Many officers’ wives, especially are identified only by their husbands’ jobs.

      And one of the ways they find their self-worth is to be noticed. Others descend into depression. Others enjoy a life of doing nothing. Others still find a lot of good and valuable things to do from motherhood to volunteering to carving a career.

      The worst is the derision with phrases like “wears her husband’s rank” and “dependapotamus”.

      Sorry for the rant–this just touched a nerve.

      (You’ll notice none of this applies to husbands of servicewomen)

  4. Melanie says

    Thanks for the round-up of real life princesses of real worth. I love hearing about the Hawaiian royal family, I had no idea they had one until your posts thoughtfully enlightened me. I also had no idea who Louis xvi’s mother was, as she never rates a mention in the tales of MA (who gets a inordinate amount of attention – new French movie coming soon, with Diane Kruger – looking forward to costumes and design!).
    Re: the hunted and stalked thing, It’s a relatively new phenomenon, this paparazzi job, maybe since the 60s? Before that royalty had maximum control over their coverage and media outlets were few. It’s hard for us to believe that most of England was unaware of Wallis Simpson until the abdication crisis, as apparently even US imported gossip mags had any stories about her and the PoW blacked out…can’t remember where i read that now, but would be impossible today.
    So what I meant to say is, I agree that Princesses get extraordinary privileges and with that great responsibilities. Only some of them have done a great job of balancing that – but its a tough gig whichever way you look at it. But the wardrobes would be nice.

    • Your welcome! It’s funny how one princess can by hyped, and the other ignored. Speaking of which, another MA film? Is there anything more that can possibly be said about her? Maria Josepha never turns up in her stories because she died of tuberculosis 3 years before the marriage – she had disapproved of the proposal of MA as a bride for her son though. I wonder how she would have been as a MIL had she survived 😉

      While I agree that there was much less paparazzi stalking before the 1960s, earlier princesses weren’t immune from having their every move scrutinised and discussed (just look at MA, and Caroline of Brunswick had the same problem). It was a smaller circle, yes, but the people in it had more influence.

    • Of course you may! Bernice just missed my list (along with Kaiulani). I’m torn on Te Puea – she did some amazing things, but she was quite divisive in some ways. Another amazing Pacific Queen is Salote of Tonga – she was a master of unification, and of raising her nations international profile. Plus, I’m so in love with this picture of her as a young girl. Just look at that smile! I want to go back and be her best friend at 8 years old. I bet we would have had a riot!

  5. What great knowledge you have about princesses, my dear! I don’t know how you fit it all in your brain.

  6. My princess is definitely Agnes of Bohemia… and not just because she was Czech, although that does play a role, because I learned about her at an early age. 😉 She’s definitely one of those who directed their power and their frustration with their limited royal life towards helping others…

    • Now there is a princess I was not familiar with! What a wonderful life (except for the mortification of the flesh, I’m not so keen on self flaggelation). And how amazing and wonderful that she was able to refuse marriage and choose her own life.

      • It could be only fasting, which I am inclined to believe it was. The Czech Wikipedia does not mention it, and it’s somewhat more… emotional, as much as an encyclopaedia article can be. 😀 Somehow, I see her as far too common-sense for flagellation…

  7. […] Oakes wrote about her favourite princesses.  And no, we’re not talking about those dreamed up by […]

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  8. Cat says

    I may be terrible for posting this (not to mention terribly late), but the phrase “Pretty, Pretty Princess” invariably brings up fond memories of the game I played as a child. It was called “Pretty, Pretty Princess” and was an actual board game with real plastic jewellery. 🙂

    I link to an advert of the game from the 90s,

    And a rather funny video mocking the game,

    • Oops, I meant “I don’t know when you stop checking these pages for new links”.

  9. Fantastic round-up! I sometimes wonder if age comes into how people view the whole Pretty Pretty Princess thing. I’m in my mid-thirties, and I’ve noticed girls younger than me have been inundated with the princess thing. I didn’t get a lot of it growing up until I was in high school (I’d wanted to be a ballerina or a horsewoman when I was younger, so I guess there’s some princessy stuff in ballet), but when I hit high school/college, my dad finally retired from sea and he was around much more, and he started to call me princess. It was a very fond thing, and it always emphasised two points, for the two of us: that he would always do whatever he could in his power to make sure I had what I needed, and that I had a responsibility to do with what he gave me what was best for other people, not just myself. I always thought that twin emphasis on care and duty was perhaps the best princess motif I could have been given as a teenager. Healthier and less entitled, to be sure.

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