Royal Hats In Washington: 1939 Canadian State Visit

We’re joined  again today by longtime reader, hat aficionado (follow him on Instagram or Twitter) and dear friend of Royal Hats, Jake Short, for the next installment in his ongoing series about royal hats worn on visits to the US capital. Thank you, Jake, for this leading us on another learning journey!  

While we kicked off this series with an introductory post recently, let’s officially get it started by going back to June of 1939, which saw the first visit of a reigning British monarch to the United States. King George VI & Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) made a brief detour into the US during their month-long tour of Canada. They were accompanied by Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, which helped to emphasize it was a state visit from Canada and not the UK, although on multiple occasions the King & Queen were still referred to as “Their Britannic Majesties”. This visit happened only months before the UK declared war on Nazi Germany after the invasion of Poland, and allowed US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to emphasize a special relationship between the US and the UK.

As they arrived at Union Station at 11:00 a.m. on 8 June 1939, George VI wore a bicorne hat with full regalia as Lord High Admiral of the Fleet while Elizabeth was dressed in light blue (according to one commentator of the time, although most photos make it look white), donning a small hat with a sharp upturned brim on the left side and featured a large spray of feathers, presumably in the same shade of blue as her dress.

After being formally received in the train station and greeting various members of US government and the British and Canadian embassies, they joined President & First Lady Roosevelt in a motorcade past the Capitol and up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House in the summer heat and humidity that is famous in DC; FDR wore a black (presumably silk) top hat while Eleanor wore a wide brimmed hat (likely navy in color as her dress was said to be blue) with two large bows and veiling that covered her face. A reported 600,000 people lined the streets for this motorcade; the 1940 census stated 663,000 people lived in DC, so this number of spectators was like the crowds that swelled and even overwhelmed the populations of cities and towns in Canada during Their Majesties tour.

Later that day Their Majesties were hosted at the British Embassy for an afternoon garden party. The King carried a grey fur felt top hat while the Queen wore a wide brimmed white hat with a large white flower that was much in fashion at the time, evidenced by the shape’s prevalence among the other guests (it also helped to shield one from the summer sun and oppressive heat).

Embed from Getty Images

The next day Their Majesties were presented to members of the US Congress at the Capitol building. The Queen wore another white ensemble with her wide brimmed hat at a jaunty angle while the King wore a morning suit and carried a black (presumably silk) top hat.

Embed from Getty Images

After visiting the Capitol, Their Majesties traveled on the presidential yacht USS Potomac down the Potomac river to the Mount Vernon estate in Virginia; FDR wore an optimo style panama straw hat  while Eleanor wore a dark colored hat with veiling (see photo below in the car). At Mount Vernon, the King could be seen wearing his top hat and laid a wreath at the tomb of George Washington, the first president of the US.

Embed from Getty Images

Afterwards, they drove just a bit north to visit the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp at Fort Hunt, and then proceeded through the city of Alexandria, Virginia up to Arlington Cemetery, where the King laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. After these busy couple of days in DC, Their Majesties traveled to the World’s Fair in New York City and then up to Hyde Park, the private estate of President Roosevelt (where they famously lunched on hot dogs), before returning to Canada to finish their tour there.

The visit entranced millions in the US and helped solidify the friendship between the US and the UK, which became most important as World War II arrived only shortly after this visit. You can read some locals’ memories of Their Majesties’ visit to DC and enjoy this extended video that shows much of their time in the US.

I’m taken by the scale of this visit- the crowds and parade on the arrival are so much larger and grander than what we see on state visits today. Thanks, Jake, for such a great view of this visit. 

Images from Getty as indicated  

11 thoughts on “Royal Hats In Washington: 1939 Canadian State Visit

  1. QEQM’s looks were quite elegant about this time weren’t they; Hartnell really got her look more up to date than it had been, and gave her a look that has become iconic. Alas in later years he couldn’t hold back from feathers, bows and floating panels which rather gilded the lily, especially as she was a curvy lady. But about this time, she looked fantastic, and although fashionable, a more approachable version of 30s chic than Mrs Simpson’s harder edges version.

  2. An epic post for an epic visit! Some observations:

    Given the heat, I feel bad for the gentlemen in their heavy formal hats. I’m seeing a bit of Prince Charles in the king’s profile in the newsreel shots — I’d never noticed a similarity before.

    Guessing that QEQM’s garden party ensemble was part of the white wardrobe created by Norman Hartnell for the French visit the previous year.

    We don’t think of Eleanor as fashionable, but I like these big-brimmed hats, especially the sharp graphic look of the white bows on navy.

    Thanks, Jake! Looking for to the other posts.

  3. Glad people seem to be enjoying the series so far; I’m working on the next post right now!

    And apologies so many photos are not embeddable, but if you just right click on any of the links, you can open them in a new tab on your browser (assuming you are reading this on a computer) so you don’t have to constantly go back and forth.

    Let me know which royal hatted visits to DC you are looking forward to being covered in this series!

  4. Thank you Jake. These posts of Royal visits to Washington are fascinating. Quite a contrast in styles between Mrs Roosevelt and Queen Elizabeth. I love Mrs Roosevelt’s first hat with the 2 white bows.

  5. Thanks, Jake, for another great edition of Hats in WA! I wasn’t aware that there was a presidential yacht. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was FDR’s own personal yacht that he used as president. I guess before TV and the internet people took more interest in current events and attended visits like these! I agree with Trish that the Queen’s smaller hats look similar to hats of today! “Their Brittanical Majesties” seem like a weird way to refer to the King and Queen of Great Britain.

  6. Jake, thanks for this post today. Yes, upon arrival at Union Station, Queen Elizabeth is seen wearing the palest blue ensemble imaginable. The 2nd video (in color) shows her at the beginning, at the 10 second mark. I really like Eleanor’s large hats also.

  7. Yes, I love these posts, Jake! It seems to me that the Queen Mum’s smaller hats here aren’t so far off from the percher hats that have been so much in style the past 10 years or so.

  8. What a great new episode of this fascinating series!
    The reception of the Royal couple was indeed sensational; they both looked dashing. I especially like the light blue hat Queen Elisabeth wore upon their arrival in Washington. In the video she wears another interesting hat in New York which I find very inspiring.
    Thank you Jake!

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