The Queen as style icon: colours solid and bright as a Cluedo piece

Queen Elizabeth II Jess Cartner-Morley


Her remarkably consistent, well-chosen wardrobe made her as recognisable to us as a member of our own family Jess Cartner-Morley @JessC_MFri 9 Sep 2022 12.00 EDT

  • The Queen was one of the greatest fashion figures the world has ever known. It is testament to her extraordinary life that 70 years of style will go down as one of her more minor achievements. In her rainbow colours she flew a flag for a dependable, unflashy cheer. Each day, she doubled down on one colour, wearing it head to toe. She wore yellow, red, pink, purple, blue or green. (She was ever the diplomat, so we will never know which was her favourite. I always thought she looked particularly pretty in buttercup yellow, not an easy colour to pull off.) A plain knee-length coat layered over a dress in the same colour or a coordinating floral pattern, and matched with a hat. Neutral accessories: a handbag hanging from her left wrist, gloves, and block-heeled shoes. A brooch at her left lapel, and a triple strand of pearls around her neck. ‘Each day, she doubled down on one colour, wearing it head to toe’ … Royal Ascot in 2018. Photograph: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images A photograph of the Queen from May 1977, taken during her silver jubilee tour, shows her in a duck egg blue coat with self-covered buttons, with a dress and coat to match. The wide lapels of the coat show a glimpse of the pearls at her throat, and her white gloves match her handbag. Another photograph, taken 42 years later at the February 2019 centenary celebrations for GCHQ, shows her in an almost identical outfit. The coat is a bolder blue, the hat more angular, the gloves and bag now black rather than white, but these are mere details. It is essentially the same outfit. It hits at the same point at the knee, has the same clean silhouette. This remarkable constancy, which th couturier Sir Norman Hartnell called “a non-sensational elegance”, has defined the Queen’s wardrobe. With her ceremonial brights and sharply tailored lines, Queen has been described as the ultimate power dresser. But that does not do justice to the spirit in which she dressed. There was a generosity and warmth to a wardrobe that helped all of us to feel that we knew her. Her clothes were chosen not for how flattering they looked in her mirror but for how well they spoke to the rest of us. Attending state occasions and gala openings, walking to church or in her box at Ascot, the Queen was as recognisable to us as our own family members. You didn’t even need to see her face to pick her out in an instant. The diminutive but sturdy figure; the colour, solid and bright as a Cluedo piece in Mrs Peacock purple or Colonel Mustard yellow. (When it rained, her umbrella was transparent.) She made herself part of the landscape of ordinary people, as familiar as a grandparent’s photo on the mantelpiece. Most of us never got a garden party invite, but through the way she dressed, she made herself familiar to us. She was a fixed, unwavering landmark who helped us steer a steady course, like the spot a ballerina focuses on to keep her balance in a pirouette. The Queen arrives in Kuwait during a tour of the Gulf States in February 1979. Photograph: Anwar Hussein/Getty ImagesMonarchs throughout history have used clothes to impress their subjects with their wealth and status. Think of Henry VIII, shoulders padded like a Tudor linebacker; or Louis XIV of France in his red high-heeled shoes and white ermine. The Queen knew how to turn on the firepower when the occasion called for it. It took 350 women seven weeks to embroider 10,000 seed pearls into flowers on her spectacular 1947 wedding dress. The annual state opening of parliament saw her in a white fur stole, white gloves, and her diamond diadem crown, a magical, Narnia-white contrast to the blood-red parliamentary robes around her. But the look by which most of us will remember the Queen is not the fashion of her opulent gowns, but her day-to-day coats and dresses in their crayon brights. The Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, walks down the aisle of Westminster Abbey, with Prince Philip at their wedding in 1947. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive“The Queen and Queen Mother do not want to be fashion setters,” Hartnell once said. “That’s left to other people with less important work to do.” She had an eye, though. To spend 70 years in the public eye without once making a fashion faux pas – without ever forgetting to smooth down the coat before you sit to prevent creasing, without once knocking a hat brim askew – attests to a strong visual sense and a keen eye for detail. I was once told, by someone who knew someone who knew such things, that the Duchess of Cambridge had stopped wearing her once-beloved wedge heels because the Queen thought them inelegant. I can’t vouch for the truth of this, but I like to believe in it. (I do rather agree.) The state opening of parliament in November 1998. Photograph: Anwar Hussein/Getty ImagesThe Queen’s most well-known quote about her image is her assertion that she “needed to be seen to be believed.” They say your brand is defined by what a person sees if they close their eyes and hear your name, and the image that comes to mind of the Queen – cheerful in bright colours, her regal diamonds and pearls counterbalanced by the eminently practical handbag and shoes – sums up what she stood for. Rather than take traditional deference to monarchy for granted, she won the respect of the public through hard work. Long before resilience became a buzzword during the pandemic, she was modelling what resilience looked like with her dependably rainbow-hued wardrobe. She showed up, as the young people say. Her clothes were never the main event, but they were a steadying mood music which set a certain tone. Practicalities underpinned the royal wardrobe. The Queen’s “work shoes”, as she called them, were patent low-heeled loafers by Anello & Davide, a style she wore for half a century. Stewart Parvin, one of the royal couturiers, once confirmed to the Telegraph that when a new pair arrived, a Buckingham Palace employee would be tasked with the job of pacing the long corridors in the shoes and a pair of cotton ankle socks, to break them in so that the Queen did not get blisters. Royal privilege, to be sure – but quite different, surely, from having a valet put toothpaste on one’s toothbrush. As Parvin put it: “The Queen can never say, ‘I’m uncomfortable, I can’t walk any more.’” There were times, also, when matters of state inserted themselves into the logistics of dressmaking. The silk for her wedding dress had to be imported from China, Italian silk being deemed inappropriate so soon after the end of the second world war, for an occasion which Time magazine called the Allies’ first great postwar celebration. Carrying her trademark transparent umbrella in Lancaster in May 2015. Photograph: Getty ImagesThere have been moments of frivolity, humour and perhaps even mischief. In contrast to the simplicity of her clothes, she had a penchant for theatrical millinery. The 1960s and 1970s were the high-water mark of her most fabulous hats, with wrapped silk turbans, feather cloches, fox-fur cossack hats, and floral swim-cap styles. Her headgear was brimful of personality. In 1960, for the wedding of her sister, she teamed her turquoise dress and bolero with a hat in the same shade finished with two large silk roses – a reference to the middle name of Princess Margaret Rose. And while she has tended not to associate herself with flashy designer names, she made an exception for her signature off-duty silk headscarves. Those all came from Hermes. Wearing a brooch given by Barack Obama, during the US president’s state visit in 2011. Photograph: Rex/ShutterstockWe will never know, now, the truth behind the incident which the internet dubbed “brooch warfare”. When the then US president, Donald Trump, met the Queen in 2018, she chose to wear a small moss agate floral brooch. It was a low-key choice, perhaps chosen simply to pick out the green leaves printed on her dress, but eagle-eyed observers noticed it was a piece that had been given to her by Barack Obama. The choice was seized upon as evidence that the Queen was subtly trolling the new president by semaphoring friendship with his predecessor. That those who wish to believe this can choose to do so, and those who wish to insist it is coincidence can hold the opposing view, is perhaps the ultimate in fashion deal brokering. Nonetheless, I can’t resist a word in support of the theory that the Queen was Team Obama. Michelle Obama recalled being touched by the Queen wearing the brooch to the last dinner of the state visit during which she and her husband had given it to her. “In the gloriousness of that outfit she had on, she put on the little bitty pin we gave her,” she remembered. “That was my experience … That kind of warmth and graciousness, and intelligence and wit.” I met the Queen once. To say “met” is perhaps overstating it, but I attended a Buckingham Palace reception for the British fashion industry, and during the evening my turn came to be included in a group of guests to be introduced to the Queen. We were in the picture gallery and, realising that it would be inappropriate to comment on her outfit as would be standard fashion cocktail party smalltalk, I complimented her instead on a Rembrandt I had been admiring. “That’s my favourite, too,” came the reply. I include this not to flatter myself on being soulmates with the Queen, but because I expect she would have said this whichever painting I had singled out. She had a way of reaching out to connect with people, while never quite coming down to earth. That gift defined her wardrobe. I didn’t say it that night, but she was a style icon like no other.

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