Fit for a queen: the timeless, magisterial power dressing of Elizabeth II

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Harriet Hall
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Head of the Commonwealth and the longest reigning monarch in UK history; for some, the Queen may mean nothing more than a profile on a coin. For others she has been a constant and safe presence spanning decades that have encompassed wars, economic downturns and uncertainty. However we think of her – be we Republican or Royalist - one thing is undeniable: Over her 90 years, Her Majesty has perfected a singular sartorial aesthetic quite unlike anyone else's. Here, Harriet Hall considers her role as a timeless style icon.

Over 63 reigning years, Elizabeth II has successfully cultivated an instantly recognisable signature look of elegance, sophistication and personality that has proven unwavering.

Her fashion choices may not be to everyone’s tastes, but there’s no denying their power. Her style is consistent, appropriate and immaculate. Most notably, over the course of almost a century, she has never put a foot wrong.

Whether she’s meeting a world leader, attending the opening of a new building or visiting a school, the Queen has finessed a magisterial uniform of dresses, coats and hats in bold blocked colours, accessorised with brooches, pearl necklaces and white gloves.

Her style has become so iconic that even her casual-wear of tartan skirts and headscarves inspired Italian design duo, Dolce & Gabbana, to base their entire AW08-09 collection on it.

The early years

Although quintessentially unique and instantly recognisable today, it took until around the 1980s for the Queen to really perfect her signature look.

Ascending to the throne in June 1953 (aged 27) during the golden age of couture, the British Sovereign began her reign in the clothes of her mothers’ favourite designer: Norman Hartnell, who first began designing for her in the 1940s when she was a princess. The looks she wore during this era echoed Christian Dior’s glamorous New Look of 1947, with cinced-in waists, large, bell-shaped skirts and an extravagance that spoke of celebration following the end of wartime austerity.

Hartnell was her go-to designer for grand state occasions, including the coronation, creating opulent designs in silk and duchesse satin. For her wedding dress in 1947, Hartnell’s design was inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera, embellished with pearls and crystals.

The Queen was always one to set an example - even on her wedding day- and, as she married during a time when fabric limitations were still in place, she collected her ration cards to pay for the design. Today, she continues to set a precedent for a make-do-and-mend mentality, sending her handbags to be repaired rather than replaced.

In the 1950s, Hardy Amies, a Savile Row tailor by trade, started designing for the Queen and, while Hartnell continued creating the monarch’s opulent evening wear, Amies transformed her day style with his smart tailoring - although, the designer once famously said: “I do not dress the Queen. The Queen dresses herself- there is a difference.”

Other designers included in the Queen’s dress history are Ian Thomas (who designed summery chiffon dresses), Karl-Ludwig Rehse, couturier Stewart Parvin, Maureen Rose and the milliners Frederick Fox, Philip Somerville and Marie O'Regan. Her senior dresser, Angela Kelly, has also become a trusted fashion adviser and designer.

Although she has been seen to wear ready-to-wear in the past, including having a penchant for Manchester-based brand, Horrockses in the 1950s, the Queen is most often wearing couture: clothes commissioned, designed and created bespoke for her in fabrics and colours that she has selected. While always championing British fashion in the way that Kate Middleton has also been seen to do, Elizabeth II may indeed be the last queen of couture. 

Power dressing

The Queen is the ultimate power dresser. Although her style seems worlds away from the aggressive padded shoulders and mini skirts of the 1980s, the look she has forged for herself is essentially a subdued power suit.

Speaking to, Caroline de Guitaut, senior curator of decorative arts at the Royal Collection, whose exhibition Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen's Wardrobe opens this week, says: 

“The careful planning and the thought process that goes into what she wears means she is always dressed impeccably and correctly. It’s this dedication to appearing in an appropriate and elegant way that sets her apart.”

As someone whose every move is watched by the world’s media, her clothes have become a protective regal façade she presents to the world to display class and strength as a monarch. Over the years, she has adopted a carefully curated style that takes into consideration every last detail.

Stewart Parvin, who’s been designing for the Queen since 2000 told the BBC in 2012 that whatever the Queen is wearing, she adheres to a set of self-applied rules: a two-inch heel, a hemline below the knee (which is usually weighted to allow for strong gusts of wind) and a black Launer handbag.

It might sound rather dull for someone to approach dress in this way, but it is vital. 

Elizabeth II’s style is rooted in the feminisation of the gentleman’s suit. Popularised in the late 1970s, educated women hoping to break out of the secretarial pool and into the boardroom began wearing what later became known as ‘power suits,’ in order to create a professional auroa for themselves.  

The basic principle of this style of dressing has since been transcended by women’s position in the workplace, but it made a lasting imprint in fashion history.

The Queen’s style nods to the power suit – although significantly softer and brighter than any office wear, her clothes project a business-like air, and of someone who is in control as a monarch. The image created is an unwavering one, that is both immaculately smart and professional whilst also being distinctly unthreatening: she is in control, but she remains personable.

Just looking at the styles of women in leadership positions over the years from Margaret Thatcher in Aquascutum blue, to Angela Merkel and Theresa May, you can see the properties of the power suit in the soft feminine tailoring, and the influence of the Queen’s style of block colours.

Colour blocking

Undoubtedly the most instantly recognisable element of the Queen’s wardrobe is her colour blocking. From the pastel hues of lavender, buttercup and rose, to the bold reds and violets – each colour is selected with the utmost care. She even makes sure to match the trim of her Fulton umbrella to her chosen ensemble.

The Queen’s colour-blocking does not only reflect a bright and colourful demeanor, but serves a functional purpose, too. At only 5’4’’, it enables her to be instantly seen – during public outings or in photographs.

“Colour is used as a way of making her visible, and we always see her wearing hats with daytime outfits, that enable her to be spotted in a crowd,” says de Guitaut. Her hats are also carefully designed to ensure they never obscure her face, but comfortably frame it.

Additionally, the Queen’s colour-blocked suits are often steeped in subliminal meaning based on the occasion – whether it be a shade that nods to the host nation's flag, or a symbolic brooch:

“She has established certain convention which others have tried to follow - this idea of being diplomatic through her clothes, paying complements to the place she is visiting either by incorporating their national colours or through symbolic embroidery in her clothes. In the exhibition we have a dress that is embroidered with California poppies,” says de Guitaut.

Although in her early years on the throne, the Queen was seen following the fashionable lines of the day – from Dior's New Look of 1947, to Balenciaga-inspired cocoon coats in the 1960s - she soon settled into her own aesthetic, which pays no heed to what’s happening on the catwalks.

The Queen’s style as we know it today, is classic, timeless and transeasonal. She has developed her own unique look – an almost anti-fashion aesthetic that transcends trends to always appear timely and, most importantly, sophisticated.

As de Guitaut says: “the timelessness of her style is so noticeable. Many people have come around the exhibition and said: ‘you could wear that now’ – it just always feels modern.

“She has established a style which is instantly recognisable, which is entirely her own. And that’s the key.”