Elizabeth II - a reluctant style icon?

To mark her 90th birthday, we examine the Queen’s influence on UK style via The Anatomy of Fashion
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Queen Elizabeth II - (from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository)
Queen Elizabeth II - (from Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository)

Throughout her 64-year reign Queen Elizabeth II has had a huge influence over public life in the United Kingdom. It is easy to detect her effect on the political and social side of life, yet can she, on her 90th birthday, be said to have had a huge impact on fashion?

“Monarchs have frequently been trendsetters,” writes Colin McDowell in his brilliant book The Anatomy of Fashion, “from the pharaohs of ancient Egypt – whose long-toed sandals showed their rank – to the Duchess of Cambridge. Royals who changed clothing styles include Charles II of England, who introduced what eventually became the waistcoat; Queen Elizabeth I, who popularized accentuated waistlines; and Princess Alexandra, whose choker, worn to disguise a blemish on her neck, became a fixture of society dress. 

"Others, like Louis XIV, France’s ‘Sun King’, created a fashionable milieu in which dress and manners were the very qualities on which individuals were judged. More recently, Kate Middleton’s dress for her marriage to Prince William retained a degree of romance, though far more understated. Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen set out to combine an essentially Victorian corset with modern materials and delicate embroidery by the Royal School of Needlework in Hampton Court. The dress drew a reported 600,000 visitors when it was put on display in Buckingham Palace."

 

Sir Norman Hartnell, pale blue silk faille evening gown worn at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, during the State Visit of King Olav of Norway in 1962. Royal Collection Trust / (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.
Sir Norman Hartnell, pale blue silk faille evening gown worn at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, during the State Visit of King Olav of Norway in 1962. Royal Collection Trust / (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

“Queen Elizabeth II, so far as we can tell, sees clothes merely as part of a uniform for her job," says McDowell. "Off duty, she is happiest in country tweeds, Barbours, headscarves and wellington boots. But even this conservative dresser – her sister, Princess Margaret, was a far more dedicated fashion follower – has inadvertently set trends, such as the green felt beret she wore on her 16th birthday (she was an honorary colonel of the Grenadier Guards) or in 1953, when the so-called Magpie Dress by Norman Hartnell, a slim black evening dress with a white panel at the front became a best-selling pattern for women who wanted to sew it at home, as well as selling in its thousands in Oxford Street.

“The queen is not unusual in separating regal style from fashion. Her own mother, Queen Elizabeth, set out to restore the reputation of the monarchy after the Abdication Crisis of 1936 and her husband’s ascent to the throne as George VI. Her clothes were those of the fairy tale princess: crinolines, lace, taffeta and lots of diamonds. The look was frothy and colourful … and frankly ludicrous. But once her style was established, it did not change.

Nothing could be in greater contrast to the woman who sparked the Abdication, Wallis Simpson, whose dress was fashionable, elegant and simple. In the 1930s, Simpson, by then Duchess of Windsor, was asked what the Queen could do to promote British fashion abroad; she is said to have replied, ‘Stay at home’.

 

Norman Hartnell, evening dress for The Queen's State Visit to Thailand, February 1972  Royal Collection Trust / (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.
Norman Hartnell, evening dress for The Queen's State Visit to Thailand, February 1972 Royal Collection Trust / (C) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

For more style conundrums check out Colin McDowell's The Anatomy of Fashion, to see how the consummate professional puts a great look together buy Grace and for a wonderful primer on any budget take a look at The Fashion Book.

And followers of regal fashion will be pleased to hear that the largest exhibition of The Queen's dress and accessories ever shown in Scotland will open at the Palace of Holyroodhouse today (21 April). It is one of three separate special exhibitions entitled Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen's Wardrobe to be held at Her Majesty's official residences during 2016, each displaying a different selection of outfits.


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