Photograph by Åsa Westerlund via Svenska Dagbladet
The Queen of the Nobel dresses, dresses up the Princess
It hangs over the banister in the studio, well hidden under a white sheet. But the colour shines through, this secret nuance which no one is to know about before the Nobel festivities.
- Absolutely no pictures with the dress of this year,
says Elisabeth Wondrak decisively.
We can however see when Princess Lilian today makes her last fitting before the Nobel festivities. But first it’s time for morning coffee with toast and jam.
It smells delicious from the little kitchen in the house, in the middle of London’s fashionable Mayfair neighbourhood. This is where the uncrowned Queen of the Nobel dresses receives her customers from near and far.
In the house there is a pleasant mess. The dining table if flooded with fashion magazines, letters and photographs. In the studio on the second floor, one is welcomed by green velvet armchairs, an old piano and a see of sketches, cloths, sewing thread rolls and a pincushion.
A large mirror with a golden coloured frame stands against the wall, on the wooden floor a wooden trying-on doll awaits, with Princess Lilian’s exact measurements. In the middle of it all, a white Bernina sewing machine parades.
- Here I sit and daydream, sketch and think. At the end, the Nobel dress of the year is born under my hands.
Elisabeth Wondrak cracks up in one of her mild but at the same time rogue smiles. She starts to think about the Nobel dress in April, and often sew the first stitches in August. In between that, cloth samples and sketches are sent back and forth between Stockholm and London.
- The challenge is to make a “big dress” without it demanding too much room. If you understand what I mean.
The Nobel dress should be romantic without being vulgar, elegant without being boasting, thought through without being over worked, she explains. The cloth needs to be of the highest quality.
- The Princess cannot look like a walking lamp shade.
There are a few “faux pas” that one is to avoid, she emphasizes. Black is not suitable, because all the male guests wear tails and white shirt, and the ladies should choose something different. It cannot be sexy. And large flower patterns should be avoided: “otherwise she looks like a sofa on legs”
But spangles are something Elisabeth Wondrak likes to have on her Nobel creations. And wasp waists. But she doesn’t follow the turns of fashion: it is “Lilian’s silhouette and personality”
that decides how the dress should look. Elisabeth Wondrak means that there is a typical “Lilian look”: soft, feminine elegance.
While we brace ourselves with the black morning coffee, the 78 year old Court seamstress tells “how it all began”. It was in the middle of World War II, she was twelve and the sirens went off with even intervals.
- We were forced down into the shelter all the time. I took paper, colours and brushes with me. Then I sat there and painted and dreamt about Princesses on balls.
After the war she started to attend an art school in Bromley near London – and only 21 years old she sewed her first dress. The first sewing studio was in the dining room in her parent’s home south of London. In the beginning she went home to the customers, well off Brits who could afford tailor made clothes. She didn’t like that.
- I felt like a commodity, like a travelling salesman. Sat there on a chair with my sewing box in my lap and waited until I was called into the bedroom
With time, Elisabeth Wondrak was established enough to have famous customers queuing to her own “dresshouse” near London. She had a staff with seamstresses and could concentrate on the fashion designing. Hollywood stars like Vivien Leigh were mixed with British aristocracy and multi billionaires – and then Lilian entered the picture.
The two of them met through friends 56 years ago, before Lilian had become Princess of Sweden.
- I called her “satin doll”. I sewed her first dress in February 1950, a cocktail dress for the villa in St Maxime,
Elisabeth Wondrak remembers.
The gaze full of thought disappears out in the rainy weather outside the window. There she spots Princess Lilian who with enthusiastic steps is on her way to the door. In the next moment she stands on the wooden floor of the studio, flings her winter coat with fur collar off and takes on the Nobel dress.
- She is a genius! This is the best Nobel dress she has ever made,
Lilian exclaims with shining eyes.
She tosses and turns in front of the mirror, pleased. The colour, shape, cloth, everything seems to be in her taste. It even seems better than last year when Lilian won the battle about the Nobel dresses in a vote. Then she wore a salmon pink creation that made others fade.
- Elisabeth could do the dress without me. She knows me outside in, and knows exactly what fits. I always follow her advice,
It is this sister-like relationship that makes Elisabeth Wondrak refuse almost all interviews. “most are after gossip about Lilian”
, she says.
So the Nobel dress is taken off and replaced with a new party dress: a half done black velvet dress for the next party:
- I love velvet,
These days she (Lilian) has a whole cellar vault filled with hundreds of Wondrak-creations, including the sky blue wedding dress for the wedding with Prince Bertil in 1976, and no less than 29 Nobel dresses. Also Queen Silvia had a Wondrak-designed Nobel dress in 1977.
Elisabeth Wondrak remembers some Nobel dresses more than others. Like the first, turquoise from 1976.
- There was a large strike and we were without electricity. I sat and sewed in the light of candles during the fist days. It was necessary for the dress to be finished for the Nobel banquet.
Another Nobel dress that she will never forget is the one with a gold brocade from 1997. The Nobel festivities were nearing but Elisabeth Wondrak was in Switzerland with her severely cancer sick daughter. The family was waiting for a new liver, Lilian on the Nobel dress, and it ended with Elisabeth sitting and sewing up in the Swiss Alps at her daughter’s side and finished it in two weeks. All ended well: the Princess got her new dress and the daughter a new life.
And then she of course remembers her favourites: the royal blue in taft from 1983 and the lemon yellow with lace and small crystals from 1998. And the least successful: ice blue taft from 2001.
- Lilian dresses best in deep blue, turquoise, lime, pistachio green and bone white,
she settles. And no, she does not check with the rest of the Royal Family about which colours they will wear for the Nobel festivities…
It’s getting dark, Princess Lilian has hurried off to the hairdresser and Elisabeth Wondrak sews the last stitches in the Nobel dress, whose price tag will end on circa 25 000 Swedish crowns.
She takes the rolling cloth in her arms and we walk down the stairs, which is used as a practice for the City Hall’s steps where one isn’t supposed to trip on the dress. But the Court seamstress herself has never been at a Nobel banquet, despite her production of thousands of gala dresses through out the years.
- Now I will put the kettle on,
she says resolutely, corrects the pearl necklace and puts on a little red on her lips.
Elisabeth Wondrak is finished with this year’s Nobel dress.
- At last I will clean off the dining table, spread the dress for one more check. Then I will press/iron it and then it can hang to get cold. Like a newly baked cookie.
She takes a sip of her hot Earl Grey tea and smiles with satisfaction. Peeks out on the streets where glittering trees shine up a dark Hyde Park. Soon it is Christmas. But first it’s the Nobel festivities.
From left to right: the wedding dress 1976, Nobel 1976, Nobel 1977, Nobel 1978, dress 1976, dress 1976, Nobel 1979, Nobel 1980.
Among the trickiest things are, tells Elisabeth, the clasps which are to keep the order ribbon in place.
The original & full article can be found here.