Search International Hotels
In her 60 years on the throne there have been no wardrobe malfunctions, nor fashion faux pas. So what is the secret to the Queen's impeccable style?
BY Jane Eastoe | 01 April 2012
The often-repeated assertion that the Queen isn't interested in clothes was first fostered by Marion Crawford, governess to both Elizabeth and Margaret. In her book, The Little Princesses, she observes that Princess Elizabeth was not picky about her clothes: 'Lilibet never cared a fig. She wore what she was told without argument, apart from a long, drab mackintosh which she loathed.' Others maintain that the Queen is at heart one of the old school, a countrywoman who does not care about her appearance.
But this is a myth that should be dispelled. 'The Queen is not interested in high fashion,' observes one couturier, 'but she is very interested in her clothes and is very particular. Her Majesty is acutely aware of how invasive the press are - her clothes are part of her armour. And, after a whole lifetime of wearing couture, she knows exactly what she is doing and makes it perfectly clear when things aren't quite right.'
To describe the Queen's wardrobe as expansive, and the task of her dressers as considerable, is something of an understatement; consider that on her first Commonwealth tour in 1953 the Queen took more than 100 specially made new outfits. There have been in excess of 170 Commonwealth visits since then, as well as many State visits. Yet she has worn hand-me-downs, during the war she had her mother's clothes altered to fit her, and she has worn off-the-peg outfits. But principally she has worn couture: that is, clothes designed for her, fitted precisely and in her own choice of fabric.
Right: In a lavender dress and duster coat in India, 1961, GETTY IMAGES; left: Hardy Amies' outfit for the 1955 Remembrance Service at the Albert Hall. COURTESY OF THE HARDY AIMES ARCHIVE.
At the start of her reign she favoured fairytale ball-gowns, or stiff satin frocks, shimmering with beads in patterns designed to emphasise her status. Norman Hartnell, a master with duchesse satin, created two of her most iconic dresses: her wedding dress and her Coronation gown. He specialised in fabulous evening-gowns. His first design for her was in 1935 and he continued until his death in 1979.
Hardy Amies started designing for the Queen in the early 1950s and continued until a year before his death in 2003. While he made many beautiful evening-gowns, he was credited with transforming her day wardrobe with sharp, tailored coats, dresses and jackets. 'I think Hardy always saw her as the beautiful young woman he started dressing in 1952,' notes a former colleague of his, 'and of course she had an amazing figure and a tiny waist for years.'
As a baby and toddler Princess Elizabeth was dressed exclusively in the most impractical colour - white - but as she grew up these frilly dresses were replaced with more practical garments. Despite the four years difference in their ages, when Princess Margaret was taken out of her baby whites the two princesses were dressed identically: hand-smocked and pin-tucked dresses, and velvet-collared coats for best, sensible sweaters and kilts for play. They both hated wearing hats and would snap the elastic under each other's chins to cries of 'you brute'.
As a teenager Lilibet's clothes were made by Miss Ford of Handley Seymour, who also made Queen Mary's clothes. Norman Hartnell, who was to be commissioned to create Princess Elizabeth's wedding dress, was already a favourite with both her mother and her grandmother. The simple cream dress that Elizabeth wore for her official engagement photographs could easily have belonged to her mother, so similar was the style. But fashion in the postwar days was austere, and it was a look that was to dominate until the launch of Dior's New Look in Paris in 1947.
Motherhood brought a distinct change in Princess Elizabeth's wardrobe; for the first time she stopped dressing like a mirror-image of her mother, choosing much more distinctive tailored, full-skirted suits, which emphasised her tiny waist. She dressed like some other mothers of the period in neat suits, complemented with one or two pieces of good jewellery, although perhaps her suits were rather better tailored, and her good jewellery infinitely better than most. It is perhaps at this time that the Duke of Edinburgh's young wife was at her most fashionable. In 1953 Norman Hartnell designed an elegant, slim-fitting, satin dress in black, with a white panel at the front. Nicknamed the 'magpie' dress by the press, it featured in most of the national papers and copies were made and on sale by the next day.
Left: The Queen in a gold dress in India 1961, GETTY IMAGES; right: An Amies design for a gown for the Canadian tour of 1959, COURTESY OF THE HARDY AMIES ARCHIVE
It was available in black and white, but also in a variety of colours, and within just a few days an impressive 120 copies had been sold. It was even turned into a paper pattern that cost the equivalent of 30p. Her Majesty never wore it again. She was also partial to Horrockses printed cotton dresses and whenever she was photographed in one the company would be swamped with orders.
Over the same period Princess Elizabeth also received the first criticism of her clothes. While sporting a temporarily fuller figure, as many new mothers do, she was accused by the American press of being frumpish and the French press maintained that Englishwomen could look pretty but never chic.
The Queen requires more clothes in a year than most of us do in a lifetime. Four or five changes per day are not unusual. When new clothes are required her dresser simply telephones the couturier of choice and puts in a request for designs. Further information as to precisely what functions the clothes are needed for may not be forthcoming. This practice of either supplying, or withholding, relevant detail seems dependent upon the dresser in charge.
Her faithful dresser Bobo used to brief designers, but in other instances they were left to work in the dark. 'We would receive a call from the dresser to say that the Queen would like to see some sketches - and that would be it, no more information,' observes one couturier. 'We would speak to our PR and he would contact the palace press office; they in turn would speak to the ladies-in-waiting and try to glean what was going on. Was a tour planned and if so where and what time of year? For a designer it was so frustrating, you felt you could never do your best - it would have been so much better to have been given a brief, but we were never given one.'
Fittings are a daunting process and most couturiers and milliners confirm that the first visit is terrifying. The hatmaker Frederick Fox explains that he was carefully briefed by Hardy Amies in advance: 'Don't touch the Queen, don't ask questions and don't turn your back,' he was instructed. Come the day, 'the Queen was standing at the end of a long room. I advanced, did my chat and my thing. When it was time to depart I was rooted to the spot. I thought that if I walked backwards I would fall over the furniture or one of the corgis. Her Majesty spotted my dilemma and turned her back on me to ask Bobo to fetch some specific shoes - giving me the opportunity to withdraw.'
Bobo, described in her obituary in The Guardian in September 1993 as 'the scourge of milliners and couturiers', curtailed the influence of designers, ensuring that no single couture house could exert a monopoly. She made it clear that, while they designed the dresses, accessories - shoes, handbags and hats - were commissioned elsewhere. Hardy Amies complained bitterly about ugly handbags, stating plainly that they were ruining his beautiful designs. He, along with other couturiers, adopted the practice of giving Her Majesty tastefully chosen handbags as Christmas presents in the hope they might be used.
Left: In a lemon two-piece, REX FEATURES; right: An Amies sketch for an outfit the Queen wore to make her first Christmas television broadcast, COURTESY OF THE HARDY AIMES ARCHIVE
The Queen's first foreign tour was a trip to South Africa and Rhodesia in 1947; until then she had not set foot outside the United Kingdom. Clothes rationing was still causing problems so Hartnell used some of her mother's prewar clothes as material for her dresses. Then, just four months after the Coronation, in November 1953, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh embarked on a five-and-a-half-month tour of the Commonwealth. Charles and Anne were left behind. The trip included banquets, troop inspections, parliament openings and state occasions and required a huge wardrobe on which Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies had been commissioned to work months in advance.
The daywear was chic and discreet, evening-dresses glittered with beads and embroidery. For the human touch there were even some Horrockses ready-to-wear dresses among the couture grandeur. The weather must always be a consideration when clothes are prepared for Royal tours. The Queen wrote to Amies regarding a planned trip to south-east Asia in 1972: '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.' It has been confirmed that dessous-de-bras, detachable underarm dress shields to absorb perspiration, are used in the royal wardrobe when appropriate. Even so, last-minute changes of outfit still occur; flimsy dresses are replaced if a sudden downpour looks likely, or a tailored coat-suit abandoned in a heat wave.
It is perhaps reassuring to note that despite everything, the Queen, like the rest of us, is still affected by the weather.To this day the Queen remains the centre of attention wherever she goes and is subject to critical assessment every time she appears in public. The pressure of such scrutiny must be phenomenal, yet in 60 years she has not put a sartorial foot wrong; there has never been a wardrobe malfunction, at least none of which the public has been aware, nor a fashion faux pas. Her impeccable style, and resistance to excess, has ensured that her place as an icon is finally being recognised by fashion commentators.