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Topic: Richard Seddon’s Civil Court dress coatee

Is part of topic Exhibiting Ourselves (Te Papa exhibition 14 February 1998 to 31 January 2001)

If you attended a royal function in England at the turn of the century you had to be careful to wear exactly the right outfit, as failure to do so could cause great offence. Politicians and other civilians wore ornate military-style uniforms at court events such as coronations or levées, which were daytime functions where people were introduced to the monarch.

What you wore depended on your rank, and each rank had its own class of collar and cuff. The rules were extremely strict, for example, a Second Class Privy Counsellor was allowed not more than four inches width of gold embroidery on his cuff, whereas a First Class Privy Counsellor was allowed not more than 4½ inches. There was even a Schedule of Civil Uniforms published so that people who attended court knew exactly what to wear. To learn the correct court etiquette one could consult other books such as Manners and Rules of Good Society, or Solecisms to be Avoided, which included instructions on how to kiss and bow to royalty. 

This uniform, known as a Civil Uniform First Class Dress, was worn by Richard ‘King Dick’ Seddon, one of New Zealand’s greatest Prime Ministers, and the driving force behind the 1906 International Exhibition in Christchurch. The uniform was created especially for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. Seddon’s short-tailed coat is known as a coatee and is made of black velour, a woollen velvet-like material. The waist-length coatee is heavily embroidered with gold thread and sequins and has nine gold buttons, evenly spaced down the front edge of the jacket.

The coatee was worn with breeches, not trousers. An American Ambassador caused a diplomatic incident at Queen Victoria’s court when he chose to wear trousers instead of breeches. Swords were also carried to court functions, not because they were needed, but because they symbolised that the wearer was a gentleman.

The hat Seddon wore to Edward VII’s Coronation, known as a Bicorn Court Hat, is made of beaver skin trimmed with ostrich feathers, and like the coatee, was made by the ‘Hill Brothers’ who were one of the numerous military tailors in Victorian London. Court functions sustained a healthy uniform industry, as such intricate uniforms required tailors, lacemen (who produced gold and silver wire woven into intricate patterns), and button and sword makers. Dress hire shops also flourished in London, as the ornate uniforms were expensive.

Seddon’s court uniform is rather large, as ‘King Dick’ was a ‘larger than life’ figure in more ways than one - he weighed over twenty stone. One can easily imagine this portly, extroverted prime minister from the Antipodes, with a penchant for arm-wrestling, looking quite a sight in such a grand uniform. 

But it was not only Seddon who cut a figure. His wife Louisa, and two of his six daughters accompanied him to King Edward VII’s Coronation and, according to a local gossip columnist; Mrs Seddon wore ‘… a magnificent violet velvet gown, artistically trimmed with iridescent embroidered blonde and pale mauve chiffon …’. (1)
While Seddon and others at the Coronation would have taken the formal dress rules very seriously, court dress also had its detractors. The satirical magazine Punch considered it ‘… a masquerade costume’…. Anybody would rather go to court in plain clothes if possible’ (2). Even Richard Seddon himself eventually tired of the protocol.  While he loved the British monarchy and the pomp and circumstance associated with it, he believed King Edward’s Coronation to be ‘… too much fuss and too much bother’. (3)

The tradition of wearing uniforms to Court continued until the Second World War. Some twentieth century monarchs, such as George V, believed correct court dress was very important. ‘He once told the Aga Khan that to see an Order or Decoration misplaced on a uniform offended him as much as a man in the street would be startled to see someone with his shirt tail hanging out.’ (4) 

The cost of court dress and the growing informality of our society has meant that court dress  has almost disappeared. Once part of a proud and strong tradition, gold-embroidered coatees, plumed hats and ornamental swords are now only seen on very important state occasions such as coronations, or worn occasionally by governors of colonies (including various governers-general of New Zealand), and officials at the Palace of Westminster.

Even today protocol plays an important part in court life: women are expected to wear gloves and hats to royal garden parties and guests are expected to bow or curtsey on meeting the Queen. Many people in England were outraged when Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating had the audacity to break royal protocol and lead the Queen through to a reception by touching her!

(1) O'Connor, P.S. (1968). New Zealand Profiles: Richard Seddon. Wellington: Reed. p 21.

(2) Arch, Nigel and Marschner, Joanna. (1984). The Court Dress Collections: Kensington Palace. London: Department of the Environment. p 12.

(3) O'Connor. (1968) p 21. (4) Arch and Marschner. (1984). p 22.

(4) Arch and Marschner. (1984). p 22.

Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (1998).

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