The Meaning Of “Beach Towel”

You may know that English actress and singer Grace Kelly was married to US Ambassador to England and later – after his assassination – to the Duke of Windsor, later King George VI. One of the wedding gifts she received was a beach towel with the Duke’s monogram on it.

What you may not know is that this simple present became one of the most important and iconic symbols of the Second World War.

In fact, after the war, the actress gave the towel to her successor as British princess, Elizabeth II, who wore it throughout her reign.

The Duchess of Windsor’s beach towel became such an important symbol not just of her time as Princess of Wales but of the whole of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. In 1945, the year after the war had ended, Princess Elizabeth opened the Edinburgh and Glasgow markets in a drive to boost post-war reconstruction in the country. She is pictured above in 1945, after the drive had begun, helping to open the Glasgow Markets.

During that same year, the Princess gave a talk at a gathering of the Women’s Emergency Civil Service (WECS) in London. One of those present that day was a young woman called Elspeth Duxbury, who would go on to become Director General of the Women’s Institutes and CEO of The National Trust.

Duxbury, who was also a member of the Edinburgh War Cabinet, remembered the day well: “She spoke for about half an hour on the work of the Women’s Institutes and the role we played in providing childcare and practical support to our families and communities. She was wearing her Duchess of Windsor’s tartan dress, which she had inherited upon succeeding to the throne. And at the end of her speech, she held up her Grace Kelly beach towel and said, ‘This is what I need you to remember today. This is what our work is about’. The Duchess’s simple gift proved to be the most effective way of summing up what our war effort had been about. And it is still used today as a symbol of pride for the hundreds of thousands of women who were involved. The pride and the feeling of achievement still exist, not just for those who fought in the war but for everyone who took part in the effort to keep the nation together.”

It is a sentiment that Robert Pattinson, the English actor who plays the part of Edward Cullen in the Twilight films, shares. When asked by Vanity Fair how he’d spent his time while waiting for the premiere of the final film in the series, Eclipse, to see how it went, he replied, “Well, I finished the laundry, I think. I was mostly just hanging out at the beach or with friends, doing nothing. It was glorious.”

Pattinson is not the only actor to have his own dedicated beach towel. More recently, David Beckham has sported a dark brown version of the iconic ‘Windsor’ tartan. But what are these towels actually used for? Let’s look at some of the ways in which this simple present has evolved over the years.

From Duchess to Duchess

When Elizabeth II succeeded to the throne in 1952 she received the towel along with hundreds of other presents from members of the public. The newlywed Queen Mother had been a popular figure throughout the Second World War and her legacy lived on – in both her children and their descendants.

It wasn’t only the Duchess of Windsor who made a lasting impression on the future Queen. Her daughters, Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, both went on to have important royal roles. Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 and in 1967 gave birth to the now famous Queen Victoria, who became Queen Victoria in 1967. Margaret was Queen Margaret of Scotland until her death in 1994 and was the grandmother of the current Queen.

While the future Queen Elizabeth may not have been actively involved in war work during her childhood, her actions as a young adult would show that she was committed to giving her countrymen and women a good example to follow. In 1948, the Queen opened the first of what would become known as the ‘Herbert Chambers’ – a series of schools, initially located in London but now in other cities across the country, named after the war veteran who had been both a classmate and later a tutor of hers. As well as teaching the Prince of Wales, the late Princess Margaret, and Elizabeth, had also studied under Chambers at Oxford University.

The ‘Chambers’ would become one of the most influential and well-known schools in the country. Its alumni include several prime ministers, two European heads of states, and numerous billionaires, millionaires, and multi-millionaires. It is now possible to find the school’s logo on items as various as handbags, blazers, and shirts.

The Queen’s Own Tartan

One of the trademarks of Edward Cullen, the main character in the Twilight series, is his love of all things Scottish. One of the first things we see him do, after he awakens from his hundred-year-long sleep, is to ask for a kilt. Later, we find out that his grandparents were Scottish and that he has a deep fascination with all things Scottish. The fact that the series takes place in Scotland clearly has something to do with this.

While fans of the Twilight series may feel that they know exactly what Scottish accessory the actor wears in the movies, the truth is that this is a tradition that has been continued from the time that the first trailer for the films was released. In fact, if you’ve ever seen a photo from the set of Twilight, you’ll know what Robert Pattinson wears almost everywhere: a kilt. This is because the actor has worn the same outfit in every interview regarding the movie. As well as looking incredibly stylish, this has also helped the movies to achieve a certain level of authenticity.

Back To Basics

After a few years of grand designs and symbols of national identity, the Duchess of Windsor’s tartan began to make a comeback during the 1960s. People were starting to get back to basics, and the tartan was seen as a simple but effective shorthand for making a statement about British pride and patriotism, especially following the lead of the young Princess Elizabeth.

The Duchess is often cited as the role model for a modern woman, which is fitting as she was an active campaigner for women’s rights. During a visit to the University of Sussex in 2017, her great-granddaughter Zara, the Duchess of Cambridge (formerly Middleton), said, “I think my grandmother would be incredibly proud to see how far we have come and what difference she has made. She led a very full and busy life, which consisted of many great causes. I think she would be pleased that we are continuing her work and that we are setting an example for younger generations to follow. I have tried to live my life in a way that she would be proud of.”

A Family Affair

While the Duchess of Windsor and the Elizabeth II were not related by blood, their lives were inextricably linked. In later years, the younger Princess would often spend very public holidays with the older one, who became a constant companion in years to come. In 1965, when the Queen Mother was no longer able to travel due to poor health, Princess Elizabeth would often vacation with her grandmother and the Duchess of Windsor. During one of the famous photo-op sessions the three of them would sit together, looking relaxed yet stylish, as they signed the guestbook.

The Queen Mother would live for another year, until her death in 1966. During the final weeks of her life, she and the Duchess of Windsor would spend as much time as they could together. On the very last day, the Queen Mother is reported to have said, “I love you, my darling. You have been my best friend for many years.” To which the Duchess replied, “I love you, too, dear. And I you.” These three women’s lives are inextricably linked, and it is fitting that their last words, as quoted by biographer Andrew King, were “I love you, too. You have been my best friend for many years.”