Platinum jubilee: Queen Elizabeth’s style, from a coat she ‘loathed’ as a child to her wedding dress of Chinese silk to today’s bright colours and pastels
- The British monarch’s style has been hyper-documented from her birth to the present when, 70 years into her reign, she celebrates her platinum jubilee aged 96
- Though most experts would agree she has not been known as a trendsetter, Queen Elizabeth’s style is very much her own and tremendously recognisable
Queen Elizabeth just might have the hardest working wardrobe on the planet.
“Every outfit worn in public is carefully calibrated to inspire or remind, to signal gratitude or respect, to convey a sense of power or familiarity,” wrote British tabloid newspaper The Mail on Sunday in 2015.
“Her Majesty neither sets trends nor follows them – but while she is deaf to the siren call of fashion, she has her own singular style.”
Cotton or wool? The queen’s very birth prompted style debate, writes Bethan Holt, fashion editor of British newspaper The Telegraph and author of this year’s The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style.
Her wardrobe from the get-go was a topic of national fascination, with a layette (clothing for a newborn) sewn by her mother and grandmother with a little help from underprivileged women throughout Britain. Declaring that babies in wool looked like “little gnomes”, her mother, then the Duchess of York, opted for frilly cotton, rejecting anything too fussy.
When sister Margaret came along four years later, the princesses often twinned it, dressing alike into their teens. But as a girl the future queen “never cared a fig” about clothes, according to her former governess Marion Crawford.
The young heiress
Enter couturier Norman Hartnell, according to Holt. While there were other designers, he was entrusted with dressing the family as they emerged on the world stage, including the two princesses at ages 11 and six. Their “bow-adorned dresses and little cloaks signalled a return to the calm dependability of the monarchy”, Holt wrote.
During the second world war, 18-year-old Elizabeth began to make more public appearances, training as a mechanic in early 1945 toward the end of the war. It was the only time she routinely wore trousers, according to Holt.
The queen was, and remains, a practical dresser when necessary, but also glamorous in sparkly gowns when the moment beckoned. And she often went short-sleeved or with no sleeves at all, something that doesn’t happen today. She stood for photos with Prince Philip in a simple, light-coloured dress with sleeves above the elbow and peekaboo low heels on her size four feet before their wedding in 1947.
“People want to see their royals looking like royals, but equally, they don’t want to think that taxpayers’ money is being blown away,” said Nick Bullen, editor in chief of True Royalty TV – a streaming service documenting royals around the world.
The wedding dress
Customs impounded 10,000 seed pearls from the US, and journalists were assured that the origins of the silk produced in Kent and woven in Essex were worms from “nationalist” China rather than “enemy” Japan.
Thousands in the UK sent in their ration coupons for Princess Elizabeth to use for dress materials. That would have been illegal, so she saved up her own and asked the government for 200 extra, Holt said.
“It showed the thirst there was in the country for this big moment of glamour,” she said. “In recent years, we have known the queen and Prince Philip as this sweet old couple but we have to remember, in that time they were this dazzling, glamorous new couple on the scene.”
The wedding was not without behind-the-scenes drama. Queen Mary’s Fringe tiara, made by Elizabeth’s grandmother from a necklace given to Mary by Queen Victoria, snapped right before the ceremony and was rushed off to crown jeweller Garrard for repair.
As Queen Mary curtsied to her granddaughter and kissed each cheek, she admonished: “Lilibet, your skirts are much too short for mourning,” Holt writes. The new queen’s dress hovered well above her ankles yet respectfully below the knee, while that of her grandmother reached the ground. All, including Queen Elizabeth, were shrouded in black veils, as Queen Victoria was for 40 years after the death of Prince Albert in 1861.
Finding a uniform
The queen we know today wears sensible block heels or brogues, usually handmade by Anello & Davide, a custom Launer perched on her arm and a brooch on one shoulder. She goes with kilts and skirts in tartans and plaids as her country style. But the queen of the early 1950s charmed the world in nipped-in waists, pencil silhouettes and some floaty, full experiments as a post-war fashion quake took hold in Britain.
“In the early years of her reign, she really embraced Dior’s New Look aesthetic, and women looked to her outfits as a source of inspiration, much like people do with the Duchess of Cambridge today,” said Kristin Contino, style reporter for Page Six.
There was a playful glamour in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, including a bold multicoloured evening dress in 1999 for a Royal Variety Performance. Created by Karl-Ludwig Rehse, it featured a riotous sequin diamond-pattern bodice of bright yellow, blue, green and pink.
The queen learned of her father’s death on a stop in Kenya en route to Australia. Some reports indicate she was wearing jeans for an encounter with a herd of elephants the moment her father died in his sleep at Sandringham House (a royal residence), Holt wrote. She donned trousers on safari in Zambia in 1979, and a trouser set in 2003 as she left King Edward VIII hospital in London after a knee operation.
Little sister helped the queen scout new British designers and introduced her to up-and-comers, such as milliner Simone Mirman, according to Holt. Mirman created some of the queen’s stand-out hats, including her Tudor-style “medieval helmet”, as Hartnell called it, in soft yellow, for the 1969 investiture of Prince Charles.
“Margaret was really in tune with fashion. She would have been the one reading Vogue. And so she would often go with the queen to appointments to help her inject that little bit of extra style into her looks,” Holt said.
While she usually stuck to British designers, the queen has a long-held fondness for silk scarves by the French fashion house Hermès. The brand has issued several special designs in her honour. It did so in 2016 with a horse-themed scarf to mark her 90th birthday.
One doesn’t equate the queen of today with a mad rush to copy her style, but for a brief spell in the 1950s women could do just that thanks to her love of cotton dresses in dainty floral or abstract prints from Horrockses Fashions, a British ready-to-wear brand, Holt said.
Another look from those early years stands out as well. In October 1952, soon after ascending the throne, the queen was a sensation at the Empire Theatre for a royal viewing of the musical comedy Because You’re Mine. She wore a tuxedo-like Hartnell gown in black with a white front and wide lapels in a halter design, paired with long white gloves, a tiara on her head and a diamond bracelet on one wrist.
She hit every magazine and newspaper the next day. Manufacturers rushed to copy it. It was dubbed the Magpie and she never wore it again.
The queen loves to colour coordinate, sticking to bright colours and pastels in coats and floral dresses today.
“He says she has several styles in several colours. He says that 200 is very far off the mark,” Holt said.
Launer extends the straps of her leather bags to make it easier for her to hang them on her arm, and they make them lighter for her to carry. And what does she carry? Bullen said he’s heard there’s always a lipstick, a handkerchief and a photo of Prince Philip, who died last year aged 99.