Queen Elizabeth II was a fashion icon. Not because she slavishly followed trends or wore the latest designers during her seven-decade reign, but because from 25-year-old Princess to nonagenarian monarch she rarely put a sartorial foot wrong. Her Majesty’s wardrobe was the epitome of elegance, consistently chosen as a subtle means of communication to her loyal subjects. Here, fashion writer Bethan Holt celebrates 70 years of The Queen’s majestic style.
The importance of the Queen’s faultlessly appropriate style was crystallised within hours of her accession to the throne. Having flown back from a trip to Kenya in the wake of her father’s death, the 25-year-old new sovereign waited inside the aircraft on the runway at London Airport while a black outfit was brought for her to change into before she was photographed for the first time as Queen Elizabeth II. Pinned to her left lapel as she descended the steps of the plane was her flame lily brooch, given to her during a tour to southern Africa with her parents and sister five years before – a small detail representing happy memories at a time of tragedy.
It is in this impeccable, considered vein that Her Majesty continued for 70 years, the longest reign of any British monarch. The second Elizabethan age has seen the way women dress change almost beyond recognition – in the early 1950s, they rarely left the house without a hat and gloves, whereas now leisurewear and trainers can be the height of fashion. Trends for miniskirts, boob tubes, flares and power shoulders have come, gone, come back and gone again. The way fashion is consumed has changed, too, from genteel salon shows and homemade dresses to social media spectacles and shopping at the tap of a screen.
Through it all, Elizabeth II’s style was an extension of all she represented as Queen; it was stoical and cautious yet dazzling and majestic. It was testament to her success that, in her nineties, she was as revered for her singular style as she was adored for her beauty and youth in her twenties. No matter what was happening in the world, we could be sure that Elizabeth II would be there in her vibrant coat, her heirloom brooches and carrying her sturdy Launer handbag.
In the past seven decades, it’s estimated that Elizabeth II wore more than 10,000 outfits, honing a clothing strategy that saw her semaphore respect, diplomatic flattery, elegance, gratitude, regal glamour and much more with what she chose to wear. There are outfits that she might rather have forgotten but, overwhelmingly, there was no one in the world to rival her flawless, idiosyncratic look.
The word ‘Queen’ still conjures a fairy-tale image of otherworldly glamour – a woman dripping in jewels and dressed in lavish gowns of the sort the rest of us can only dream of. Slowly but surely, Queen Elizabeth II chipped away at those connotations with her unerring dedication to a slightly more functional daytime uniform, but she was all too aware of the vital importance of upholding the mystique. Thus, some of her most memorable outfits have been those that transform her into a magnificent, glittering vision of classic majesty.
‘Of course, it’s full of sequins – but you should just see how my duchesses lap them up,’ Norman Hartnell said of one of his collections. Renowned for being most at ease when he was designing sparkling evening wear, the designer and young Elizabeth were a match made in heaven when it came to dreaming up the most regal gala looks imaginable. The couturier looked to the history books for inspiration, whether it was portraits of royalty through the centuries or references to different periods in court dress, like the ‘robe de style’ pannier look of the 17th century that provided the starting point for a gown worn by the Queen in 1963.
Hartnell set the evening wear template for all the designers who have followed. But the sovereign also recognized the importance of moving with the times, and didn’t seek to channel regal fantasy for every evening engagement. These were also times when she took some of her biggest fashion risks, experimenting with boldly fashionable new silhouettes and eye-catching colours.
The Queen On Tour
Elizabeth II was the best-travelled monarch in history, having undertaken almost 200 visits during her reign to far-flung countries, ranging from Norway to Nigeria, Panama to Portugal. She has been called ‘the million mile Queen’.
Her tours ranged from one-day visits to months-long excursions, where she travelled by plane, boat, train and car to cover as much ground and greet as many people as possible – when the Queen visited the USA in 1957, it was estimated that a million Americans came out to see her.
Clothing was an essential component in the success of any tour. Always conscious of putting on a good show, Elizabeth II and her entourage put immense effort into ensuring she looked the part day after day and night after night with outfits that, at the very least, impressed and, hopefully, conveyed respect and soft power through thoughtful colours and details.
The Queen may have appeared effortlessly immaculate at all times, but behind the scenes it was a military operation to ensure standards never slipped … In a letter to Hardy Amies about an upcoming trip to SouthEast Asia in 1972, Elizabeth II wrote: ‘I find every time I read a programme for the Far East Tour, I get hotter and hotter at the prospect of six weeks in that climate.’ To help alleviate some of these concerns, dessous-de-bras (detachable underarm pads used to absorb perspiration) were inserted into the Queen’s dresses when appropriate.
But of course, the Queen’s composure never belied any of these efforts. Wherever she was and whoever she was meeting, she never looked anything less than regal and cool.
The Queen of Colour
The Queen never gave an interview, so we have few insights from the woman herself about her role. There is one illuminating quote, however, which has long been attributed to her. ‘I can’t wear beige because nobody will know who I am,’ she once said, adding, ‘I have to be seen to be believed.’
This is a seemingly simple observation, but one that showed acute awareness of her unique position, elevated above the rest of us and under some pressure to meet our expectations of what a Queen should be. It’s an idea for which she had to forge a new visual identity, in the same way that Elizabeth I had her power ruffs and Queen Victoria her opulent gowns and jewels.
For Elizabeth II, the answer was colour.
Since the earliest years of her reign, choosing vibrant, striking and meaningful hues was a cornerstone of the Queen’s look. ‘The Queen is aware that colours have all sorts of symbolic associations and that they can reflect a variety of emotions – happiness, condolence or respect, for example. So helping the Queen put across her desired message by selecting the right colour and outfit gives me real satisfaction,’ wrote Angela Kelly in her book Dressing the Queen: The Jubilee Wardrobe. While an outing may not have necessitated a particular colour, thought was given to what was most appropriate and the shades that stood out most against the backdrop.
The Off-Duty Queen
Fashion has undergone radical changes since the Queen was born in 1926 and her public style, gently, reflected that. But from her childhood to her nineties, one aspect of Her Majesty’s wardrobe remained resolutely and remarkably the same: her off-duty country style.
There are photographs of a young Princess Elizabeth riding her pony in Windsor Great Park wearing a tweed jacket and jodhpurs and of her aged ten wearing a kilt and cardigan as she plays with one of her beloved corgis. These are exactly the kind of outfits that she was pictured wearing in recent years, whether out for a ride, happily watching the Royal Windsor Horse Show or relaxing with her great-grandchildren at Balmoral.For Elizabeth II, the answer was colour.
‘For the Queen, the country is neither an idyll nor an escape, it is her real, royal world,’ wrote Suzy Menkes in her 1992 book Queen and Country. Following the Royal family from Balmoral to Sandringham, she observes them hunting, shooting and taking tea, discovering that the Queen ‘has a penchant for the Fair Isle sweaters sold in the knitwear shops in Ballater’, a town a few miles to the east of her Scottish estate.
As much as glittering jewels or a rainbow of matching coats and hats, the off-duty Queen’s twinsets and practical skirts were an instantly recognisable sign of a stoical approach to clothes (if it worked, why change it?) and an unerring dedication to detail and heritage.
This is the look in which the Queen appeared at her most relaxed and most like the horse-mad countrywoman she would have been had destiny not brought her to the throne. From silk headscarves to Barbour coats, Her Majesty made rural chic style her own.
This is an edited extract from ‘The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style’ by Bethan Holt (Ryland Peters & Small, £18.99)