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Lafayette L1597a
Neg. Date:
copyright V&A

Daisy, Princess of Pless (1873-1943)

Daisy, Princess of Pless is seen in the costume she wore, as the Queen of Sheba, at a costume ball organised by the Duchess of Devonshire in July 1897 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

Everyone at the ball would have been familiar with the biblical character of the Queen of Sheba and would have understood her to be the personification of luxury, beauty and independence.

The oriental costume consisted of a dress of purple and gold shot gauze and set with turquoise ovals with engraved hieroglyphics, and a train which was a mass of red, purple, green, blue and white jewels thickly encrusting medallions of raised gold. Over this she had a long pearl and diamond sautoir, and her famous cloth of gold was said to be worth £400 – a fortune at the time!

This cloth, differently arranged, adorned Daisy’s outfits many times and was admired at courts all over Europe. The ensemble was topped off with an Assyrian headdress studded with turquoises, emeralds and pearls, with jewels over both ears.

Although there was a little uncertainty over Daisy’s choice of role – as it was remarked she might have intended to be Cleopatra – there is no doubt about the magnificence and opulence of her costume. An observer at the time was also most impressed that her retinue had darkened their faces appropriately: “Thus she beat Mrs. Arthur Paget, another Cleopatra, but with a white-skinned retinue.”

Other objects seen in the photograph, such as the fur throw and a backdrop in a style of the British painter Alma Tadema, were added by the Lafayette Studio to create an oriental ambience. The enormous pankha (an Indian-style palm-leaf fan) which Daisy holds was most probably her own prop as an identical fan is seen in an 1881 portrait of her mother by the London photographic firm of W & D Downey.

Although the Devonshire House Ball had taken place on the night of the 2 July 1897, this photograph was made over six months later and was printed in an album, privately published by the Duchess of Devonshire to commemorate the event.