There’s an early photograph of Queen Elizabeth II, taken at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Economic Conference in 1952, in which the monarch is wearing a tiered, embroidered gown with white, long-sleeve gloves and a tiara atop her perfectly set curls. She’s surrounded by prime ministers and other world leaders — all men — dressed in smart yet comparatively unspectacular dinner suits. Against a sea of black, she is resplendent and unapologetically feminine.
Then, as now, the Queen stood out from the crowd, an objective that has steered her wardrobe throughout her 70-year reign — swaying public perception, influencing world leaders and leaving a legacy for future monarchs.
The Queen’s early wardrobe was shaped by Norman Hartnell, the British couturier who also made dresses for other members of the royal family. His signature silhouette, said to have later influenced Christian Dior’s New Look, was longer and more figure-hugging than the flapper styles of the ’20s. “The Queen razzled and dazzled with her fashion,” says Elizabeth Holmes, journalist and author of HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style. “That was part of her charm offensive in those early days.”
It wasn’t until she was slightly older that she settled into a more classic and less fashion-focused look, which came with the help of Hardy Amies, who made dresses for the Queen from the ’50s until the ’90s. His designs were more simple than Hartnell’s, in accordance with the Queen wanting to appear more friendly to the masses and which coincided with the demystifying of the monarchy — the BBC documentary Royal Family came out in 1969, and the Queen went on her first “walkabout” in 1970, during her tour of Australia and New Zealand. “There’s always something cold and rather cruel about chic clothes, which she wants to avoid,” Amies told the Sunday Telegraph in 1997.
The Queen’s style as we know it today is thanks to Angela Kelly, royal dressmaker since 2002, who modernised her wardrobe, introducing brighter colours and a slightly more fitted silhouette. In 2008, while attending a hockey game in Slovakia, the Queen wore tall black boots, a sequin dress and a feathered hat.
“How fun it is to see a woman in her 80s wearing knee-high boots? Those tiny little details really jump out, and I think they do a tremendous amount in terms of the affection people feel for the Queen,” says Holmes. “If she was an older woman on the world stage, just doing her duties in grey or navy or another neutral, you might not feel the way that you feel when she’s in bright pink or a vibrant orange. It automatically grabs the heart, because there’s something very sweet and grandmotherly about it.”
She has created a formula for her outfits — hat, coat, Launer bag, shoes — without resorting to wearing the same black mockneck (à la Steve Jobs) or navy suits (Barack Obama) every day.
It has set a precedent for other women in positions of power over the decades. The skirt suits and pearls of Margaret Thatcher in the ’80s, for example, or Angela Merkel’s use of vibrant, solid colours took more than a leaf out of the Queen’s style book. “The hyper-coordinated look, and the timelessness of the outfits would have pointed women politicians in the direction that made them feel safe and comfortable,” says Robb Young, author of Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians & Fashion.
This is a lesson, too, in stability — an influence that extends to her male counterparts. “The consistency with which she has built this archetypal style helped the politicians under her to feel that the state was stable even at times of national crisis,” adds Young.
Her use of colour and symbolism is another device picked up by politicians and other royals. During her tours, the Queen would often wear something specific to the country she was visiting — such as the white Hardy Amies gown with embroidered orange poppies, the state flower of California, that she wore while visiting the West Coast in 1983 — a tradition carried on today by the Duchess of Cambridge. And her witty use of brooches and jewellery — often steeped in messaging — has often been adopted by politicians; look at former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s fiery use of brooches. And who could forget the Queen’s controversial “Brexit” outfit, worn to Parliament in 2017, in which a blue hat with yellow-centred flowers seemed to echo the EU flag. “When you’ve been very literal with your outfits your whole life, it’s very hard to say that this one was a coincidence,” says Holmes.
What distinguishes her from most other prominent figures is her persistent wearing of hats, which plays into her mission to be distinguished from a crowd. “The British are renowned for hats and that reputation has been largely driven by the Queen,” says milliner Rachel Trevor-Morgan, who has held a Royal Warrant since 2014. She points to the hat the Queen wore for Trooping the Colour in 2016 as the most memorable she’s created for her. “Unable to dye a colour to match, I ended up making the hat in the [neon green] fabric of her outfit. She stood out against the red of the uniformed troops and was not missed by anyone.”
Her influence on the broader fashion industry is far-reaching: take Erdem’s spring 2018 collection, inspired by the Queen, which featured prim skirt suits replete with brooches, chiffon dresses with floral needlework and long white gloves. “I was very fortunate to have a tour of Her Majesty’s wardrobe at Buckingham Palace,” says designer Erdem Moralioglu. “The Queen’s coronation dress in itself is amazing to see. There are so many beautiful secrets embroidered onto the dress — a thistle for Scotland, a leek for Wales.”
Emerging designer Richard Quinn, who was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design in 2018 (and whose London Fashion Week show the Queen attended) has also directly referenced Her Majesty’s style, specifically her Balmoral attire, sending models down the runway in chintzy florals and silk scarves worn over the hair.
The Queen’s country look, which usually includes a waxed Barbour jacket or quilted gilet, printed silk headscarf and jodhpurs or a tartan skirt, has come to be seen as quintessentially British, especially outside the UK. It’s also been adopted as an informal uniform by politicians such as Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon. “Women politicians — and not to stereotype — particularly in the home counties and other constituencies, they would definitely have been reassured by the Queen’s country woman look, if they had to appear at an event, or were trying to appeal to a particular demographic in those middle class areas,” notes Young.
These motifs, and the wardrobe formula that the Queen has cultivated throughout her reign, form her style legacy. “In the US, when Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away and people showed up at her memorial in her signature collar, it was a way to honour her,” adds Holmes. “And I see that with the Queen — the three strands of pearls, or her bright colours. Long after she has gone, people will be able to close their eyes and remember what she looked like.”
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