Queen Elizabeth, fashion icon? Yes.


For decades, it’s been relatively easy to dress up – for Halloween, perhaps, or for a laugh at a royal wedding or jubilee soiree – as the Queen of England. All one needs, according to common wisdom, is a strong, brightly colored skirt suit with a brooch on the left shoulder, a matching hat (or, for extra credit, an umbrella) and white gloves, with a handbag swinging gently on one forearm. And maybe a white wig.

Queen Elizabeth II, who died Friday at 96 after reigning for more than 70 years, was probably wearing a uniform. In her early years on the throne, in her twenties and thirties, the young queen was known for wearing practical yet elegant clothes. She wore clean-lined dresses and full skirts to formal events and artfully tailored suits and skirt dresses during the day, loose in the necklines and nipped-in at the waist. And in his later years, of course, his taste for modest, traditional elegance distilled into what we now call his usual public-facing attire, which, as many have pointed out, communicated consistency and stability. of the crown even as the United States The kingdom evolved considerably in the 20th and 21st centuries.

But the Queen’s wardrobe was constantly imbued with deeper meanings, seen as conveying support or affection for other countries and communities, or even an assertion of power, if necessary. And because Elizabeth’s reign began in 1952, a time before women were regularly seen at the highest levels of government in the Western world, she helped set a standard in women’s fashion close to politics.

Queen Elizabeth’s public image was “smart overall, sharp, which I think was a very 1950s thing, really. Not a lot of stories,” says Philip Mansel, a fellow at the Institute of Historical Research in London, as well as the author of “Dressed to Rule,” a book about how rulers controlled their public image.

The Queen’s style at home varied slightly, Mansel notes: “In her last photo, greeting Liz Truss, her last Prime Minister, she is very simply dressed in a woolen skirt, woolen jersey and a woolen jacket”, which, for a certain generation of English people, is “exactly like everyone’s aunt or mother”.

But in public, and especially in her later years, “I think she always wanted to be two things: reassuring and recognizable,” Mansel says. Being an immediately identifiable stalwart of color was his way of “trying to reassure people, despite all the changes going on.”

Malcolm Barnard, the author of “Fashion as Communication”, wrote in an email to the Washington Post that this “type of clothing exemplifies values ​​that are homologous or correspond to what one might assume to be the values ​​of a ruling class – those of resistance to change, a desire for continuity, the continuity of their dominant positions, for example.

Indeed, Queen Elizabeth has insisted on a rather formal dress code for royal events. Once, in 2002, she berated a BBC cameraman at an event at Royal Ascot for not wearing a top hat and ponytail. The elegant but modest daytime dress code that Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle, Camilla Parker Bowles and others strictly followed as royals is a tradition that dates back to Elizabeth’s mother and grandmother. , says Mansel.

The only person who tried to break the mould, adds Mansel, was Princess Diana. Her style, especially when married to the current King Charles III, deviated subtly from the royal formula, sometimes incorporating more masculine or more feminine touches, such as military-style double-breasted jackets and sometimes low-rise dresses.

Nevertheless, Queen Elizabeth, who has been called “the link between the end of an empire and the beginning of a cosmopolitan liberal democracy”, helped cement the contemporary uniform of powerful women, which in her day proliferated on the throne. Boxy midi skirts are still seen in government buildings across the United States and on women politicians in the Western world. And Mansel points out that Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first female Prime Minister, wore “slightly formal clothes, much like the Queen’s, and always carried a handbag”.

The Queen has also helped maintain the powerful tradition of “fashion diplomacy”. As Bethan Holt writes in the 2022 book “The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style,” the monarch has long been known for incorporating thoughtful little touches that nod to local culture when she travels. During the Queen’s state visit to Ireland in 2011, writes Holt, as she was eager to restore relations with the neighboring nation, she wore a dark green wool crepe coat and a green printed silk dress correspondent on his arrival, and at a state dinner. she wore a dress adorned with over 2,000 tiny silk clovers.

During a dinner at Canada in 2010, the Queen wore a white lace dress with sparkling Swarovski crystal maple leaves on her shoulders. She wore a dress embroidered with California poppies to meet President Ronald Reagan in 1983, a dress with an emerald and white train like the Pakistani flag during his visit in 1961, and an outfit in shades of heather and thistle to show his fondness for Scotland when the Scottish Parliament was formed in 1999.

And as Mansel points out, she also sometimes chose colors that affirmed her power. When meeting the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, head of the Roman Catholic Church in the United Kingdom, she wore red to match the cardinal’s red vestments: “To say that she was equally holy and sacred, in his eyes .”

The queen’s peculiar habit of communicating through small details flourished in the political world. Princess Diana wore a red polka dot dress in Japan in 1986, a clear homage to the nation’s rising sun flag. First lady Jill Biden wore an embroidered sunflower on a royal blue dress in March this year to signal her support for Ukraine in its dispute with Russia. Madeleine Albright chose her pins strategically when she was US Secretary of State. And in the UK, Supreme Court Justice Lady Hale made headlines when she wore a spider brooch to deliver her verdict on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s 2019 prorogation of Parliament. ‘spider,’ Barnard wrote, while others thought of Walter Scott’s ‘tangled web’ of lies and deceit in his 1808 poem ‘Marmion.

Madeleine Albright’s ‘Pin Diplomacy’ is at the State Department Museum

Of course, a distinct tradition of fashion diplomacy also flourished: wearing clothes designed by a member of a particular community as a sign of respect or support. During her visit to India in 2009, First Lady Michelle Obama wore a cream-colored strapless dress and skirt designed by Indian American designers Naeem Khan and Rachel Roy respectively. During a visit to the UK in 2019, Ivanka Trump wore ensembles from British designers such as Safiyaa, Burberry and Alessandra Rich. The tradition dates back to Mary Todd Lincoln, who wore dresses designed by a once-enslaved designer, Elizabeth Keckley.

Queen Elizabeth, by contrast, almost always wore the work of British designers, a tradition dating back to centuries-old monarchs like King Louis XIV, who, Mansel notes, “was obsessed with launching the French fashion industry. So he wore French silk, French embroidery, French lace, above all, to do better than Venetian lace, and he made the ladies of his court do that.

After all, the Queen sat atop a monarchy known for colonizing and conquering, and her insistence on English-made designs could be seen as in keeping with the British Empire’s history of promotion. of his own supremacy.

Yet, Mansel says, the queen’s clothing was generally uncontroversial. They were popular both inside and outside the UK. “A lot of French people liked his clothes”, for example, “because they weren’t French. They were different,” Mansel says. “They were representing Britain.”

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