The Queen was a fashion icon – not because she embraced new trends, but because she always managed to stand out boldly but elegantly, while projecting continuity and tradition.
She was often chosen for “best-dressed” lists, and whether she was wearing cerise, sunshine yellow, or the much-talked about neon green at the 2016 Trooping The Colour, she always knew how to stand out from the crowd, ensuring those who had waited hours, come rain or shine, to catch a glimpse of the monarch were not disappointed.
She used clothes to make people feel special – that she had made an effort for them – but she also used clothes as a message for tacit diplomacy.
For royal tours in her younger years, she – with the help of a well-informed team of designers and dressers – would work national colours and symbols into her outfits to flatter the countries she visited.
This was a Queen who dressed with duty and public service at the forefront of her mind.
“If I wore beige, nobody would know who I am,” she reportedly once said.
The Queen’s 2011 visit to Dublin was of huge historical importance. King George V had been the last reigning monarch to visit the country, in 1911, when what is now the Republic was then part of the UK.
As a symbol of peaceful ango-Irish relations, she was dressed head to toe in green, the national colour of the Emerald Isle.
Designers used fabrics that were not prone to creasing and sewed tiny weights into her hem so it did not blow up.
The Queen’s dressmaker Angela Kelly began working for her in 1994, and eight years later became her personal assistant and dresser. In 2006 she was appointed to the Royal Victorian Order, and six years later promoted to Lieutenant of the same order (LVO) for “distinguished personal service to the Sovereign”.
In her 2019 monarch-approved memoir, The Other Side of the Coin, Ms Kelly wrote that for a 10-day tour she would prepare 30 outfits for the Queen to take – and perhaps two hats to choose from depending on the weather.
“This allows us to offer two outfits to choose from for each engagement, and if neither is quite right, or one gets soaking wet, we always have a backup,” she wrote.
The head-to-toe colour blocks and matching hats the Queen so often wore for her public engagements became her instantly recognisable style.
It was rarely the pattern you would notice, so much as the vivid pastels or bright colours.
“Tracing the history of the Queen’s dresses worn on state occasions, I noticed greens and yellows were often worn to African and Caribbean countries, because these colours symbolise African nationalism and are incorporated in many African and Caribbean nations flags,” says Dr Daniel Conway, senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Westminster.
He added: “Very ornate and glamorous evening gowns were worn to France and national flowers of other states were sewn onto the fabric of many evening gowns. The Queen’s jewellery had colonial and also diplomatic significance – sometimes given as a gift and then worn whenever the Queen revisited the country.”
The Queen was loyal to number of brands through her reign including Anello & Davide, where she sourced her shoes from for 50 years, and Launer for her handbags.
The Queen’s handbag is perhaps the most familiar item in her wardrobe, and she is said to have owned over 200 of them, all with elongated straps to allow for the crucial hand-shaking she did over the years.
“Our role as her dressers is to ensure that Her Majesty is appropriately attired for each occasion,” her dressmaker Ms Kelly writes in her book.
“I look for movement with soft light materials, and might even switch on a fan to see how they behave in a breeze…
“As the light changes, or when Her Majesty moves to an interior space, this will have an effect on the colour and texture of the fabric, and this must be taken into account.”
When the Obamas visited the Queen for a third time at Windsor Castle in 2016, her scarf worn under her chin signalled a more informal feel, a sense of familiarity.
It signalled that she was comfortable with them, this wasn’t a first meeting, and that she wasn’t just the Queen but also a traditional Englishwoman.
Queen Elizabeth’s nuanced diplomacy can also be seen in the early years of the her reign, with her coronation gown, designed by court couturier Hartnell.
It featured numerous motifs from the UK and all the Commonwealth nations, which enforced all the messages of her monarchy.
She was, with this opulent yet elegant gown, telling the nations who looked to her, that she was powerful and that she would keep the Commonwealth stable.
The Queen largely favoured the same off-duty look throughout the years as she enjoyed her time in the countryside in England and Scotland.
Her headscarves, tweeds and jackets mirrored the Queen’s public role; as constant, always there, committed to her country and to her roots.
She managed to look comfortable while also remaining regal.
The Queen also loved a statement hat but there was a practical element to this sartorial choice.
Her daughter-in-law Sophie, Countess of Wessex, revealed in the documentary The Queen at 90: “She needs to stand out for people to say, ‘I saw The Queen’.
“Don’t forget when she turns up somewhere, the crowds are two, three, four, sometimes 10, 15 deep, and someone wants to be able to say they saw a bit of the Queen’s hat as she went past.”
It has been reported that the Queen’s milliner Rachel Trevor-Morgan had strict instructions about the width and height of the Queen’s hats.
Hats couldn’t be so wide that they obscured the Queen’s face and they couldn’t be too tall, or she might get stuck getting in and out of a car.
In homage to the flag of Hong Kong, which features a white bloom in a sea of crimson, the Queen wore a wide berry hat dotted with white flowers on a trip to the country.
The Queen’s dresser has said that the Queen was always aware of how her outfits would be perceived, both by the people she was speaking to and by the media.
According to historian, Robert Lacey, the monarch’s choice to wear a hat almost without fail to every event was “a reminder that the Queen is indentured to a service, to a job.”
It was a sense of habit and repetition akin to that of the military.
The Queen loved bold colour blocks but when it came to certain meetings, she had to obey royal protocol like other members of the Royal Family.
For her engagements with the Pope at the Vatican, she always opted for black, with a black veil.
Ms Kelly is responsible for some of the monarch’s most iconic recent looks, including her salmon pink dress for the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, her gold frock for the Diamond Jubilee concert that same year and her buttercup yellow outfit for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
The so-called “EU hat” the Queen donned at the 2017 State Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords caused something of a debate.
The fact she wore a hat was nothing new – the Queen was a stickler for protocol and hats were deemed appropriate etiquette.
But the design and colour scheme of the hat had an uncanny resemblance to the EU flag. Could this really have been a coincidence?
Not according to royal commentators, who concluded the publicly apolitical figure was making a statement about Brexit.
Ms Kelly denies the connection. She said it never occurred to her, or to milliner Stella McLaren, that the hat would send such a message, saying it made her smile.
When the Queen recorded an address to the nation during the pandemic – her first such message, aside from her annual Christmas speech, in decades – she chose a bright green dress and turquoise brooch.
Many believed the choice was a nod to NHS workers with her choice of dress colour, echoing the colour of scrubs worn by health and care workers.
“I want to thank everyone on the NHS front line, as well as care workers and those carrying out essential roles, who selflessly continue their day-to-day duties outside the home in support of us all,” she said in the message.
The Queen will have left the world many legacies, and fashion is one of them. In all her years of dressing under the public eye, she rarely put a foot wrong.
Her clothes might have reflected the times, but ultimately they also reflected the Queen.
Her power, her sense of duty and her commitment to the role as Queen Elizabeth II.
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