how the queen used clothes to send signals to the world
For the past 70 years, Queen Elizabeth II’s wardrobe has been devoted not to fashion, but to dress. Both are different. She treated her clothes as a working tool, ensuring comfort and fit, and providing visibility, ownership and immutability. She has also deployed it not only to connect with her people, but also as a strategic weapon in the battlefield of national and international diplomacy.
The dress is serious business, something that Elizabeth II’s predecessor, Elizabeth l, fully understood. One need only look at the 1600 ‘Rainbow’ portrait of the all-seeing, all-hearing virgin queen – in the Hatfield House collection – her cloak embroidered with ears and eyes, to appreciate this in-game message. Both Elisabeth, although born four centuries apart, threw themselves into battle, like medieval knights, under their own coat of arms, their own coat of arms, their own dress code, instantly recognized on the ground and from afar by their subjects. Elizabeth II’s banner was a solid color and her coats of arms, whether embroidered symbols or pinned brooches, delivered messages.
she deployed [dress] not only to connect with its people, but also as a strategic weapon in the battlefield of national and international diplomacy
Building the virtually unchanging image of Queen’s, a brand as distinctive as Coca-Cola, was the work of many minds and many hands. Having studied the history of the constitution closely under her private tutor Henry Marten, vice-rector of Eton College, a constitutional scholar, the Queen was steeped in the art of monarchy.
The arsenal of her soft power, the visual message communicated by the dress, was translated and amplified by her chosen designers who were all British – successively, Norman Hartnell, Hardy Amies, Ian Thomas and Stewart Parvin – and by her trusted dressers , the most recent, and 25 years old, being Angela Kelly. His team understood the rules of engagement.
Amies, a decorated World War II intelligence officer who served in the Belgian sector of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), was inspired by military tailoring. He may not have been innovative—it wasn’t his job—but he was effective.
I sometimes discussed with him the royal file of Amies. It included restrictions such as the size of a hat brim, limited so that the queen could be seen by her people; weighted hems to ensure ownership on windy days (its dressing department even included an electric fan used to test sheer fabrics); dresses rather than skirts so that no rearranging of clothes was necessary when she exited a vehicle; zippers rather than buttons to facilitate up to five changes of clothes per day; 15 cm long white or black cotton washable gloves from Cornelia James, and of great relevance, comfort – as an active woman, she was often on her feet all day. Angela Kelly, who coincidentally is the same height 4 feet, would break the royal shoes.
The Coronation Robe, 1953: An Embroidered Signal of Commonwealth Importance
One of the earliest examples of coded messages from the Queen was the dress she wore at the coronation on June 2, 1953. It was originally designed to be embroidered (in silk, silver and pearls) with the Tudor rose, the thistle, leek and clover, in honor of the United Kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Seeing the preparatory drawings for the dress by Norman Hartnell – who had consulted the Garter King of Arms on the symbolism – the Queen made a politically crucial addendum. Hartnell had omitted any reference to the Commonwealth and so the four British flowers were garlanded with those of the Commonwealth, including the South African protea and the Australian acacia flower, in recognition of their importance.
The Prince of Wales Inauguration, 1969: Using Sixties Style to Be Seen
Looking back over the decades, it’s remarkable how the Queen negotiated the 1960s, a time of dramatic fashion change. She chose the elements that served her purpose, aware of their connotations; freedom of movement but not propriety, a breath of youth but not irresponsibility, a nod to relaxation but not disorder.
In fact, it was during this decade that it honed its enduring image and displayed a reassuring image of stable and luminous permanence and immutability. Her hemlines rose, but never higher than the upper kneecap and not until the end of the decade, by which time most fashionable hemlines had fallen to the ankles. His may have reached its shortest in 1969 when the Prince of Wales was inaugurated.
Color blocks and pins: a traditional version of the color television era
In the 1960s, the Queen enthusiastically adopted triple gabardine, a durable, firm and resistant fabric, which was adapted so simply from 1964 by André Courrèges, Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent in boxy jackets, trapeze skirts and shift dresses. They were imitated soon after by his own designers, but the placing of a royal brooch on the shoulder reminded us that certain traditions are never overcome.
It was also the decade when bright, solid color – tomato red, cerulean blue, Wedgwood blue, mint green, daffodil yellow – was exploited, not only to make the queen stand out in the crowd, but also as a tool of the television age. . The BBC and ITV launched color throughout the program in 1969.
She only wore pants once during an official engagement, in the 60s. It was considered a failure that she did not repeat
She never favored the fragility, the ephemeral, the informality of the hippie dress. Her hair was kept perfectly styled, reasonably short and under control. Attentive to the messages, aware of the performance of her clothes, she used the qualities of the early 1960s to serve her purpose, whereas those of the late 1960s would have undermined it. And she only wore pants once during an official engagement, in the 60s. It was considered a failure that she did not repeat. Although her sister, Princess Margaret, liked to play with fashion, the queen was kept away from her wilder shores by duty and lack of vanity. Image control was everything.
The taste of hacking jackets: Britain’s most equestrian monarch
Outside of her duties, the Queen is most British and regal. Aristocratic life in Britain focused on the countryside and field sports: horse riding, angling, and windswept and impractical picnics. Classic British all-weather outfits from Aquascutum, Burberry or Barbour zip up to cashmere twinsets, fearsome tweed skirts or jodhpurs and pirate jackets, always accessorized with that triple row of pearls given to her by her father, King George VI.
An enduring television image is of his gait, full of direction and purpose, shod in chunky brown laces circled by his beloved corgis. His only nod to foreign-made clothing, the Hermès scarf, is of course the product of a company founded on equestrian saddlery. It’s no coincidence that a recent photograph of Elizabeth taken to celebrate her platinum jubilee shows her standing against budding magnolias, holding the reins of a pair of gray (platinum) ponies. Interestingly, she wears a Loden cape coat, the traditional attire of the German upper classes. She is, after all, of Hanoverian lineage.
Brooch message: tenderness for the victims of the Covid and a coded incitement for Donald Trump?
In June 2018, keen royal watchers decoded the Queen’s use of a trio of brooches – as if they were epee, foil and saber – for the working visit of President Donald Trump in Britain. Day 1, a modest flower, a gift from rival Obamas; on Day 2, the sapphire snowflake given to him by the people of Canada, a country that Trump made fun of; and on day 3, a brooch usually worn during mourning (and by the Queen Mother at George VI’s funeral in 1952).
But the language of her dress could also communicate tenderness, like the turquoise brooch, representing protection and hope, pinned to her shoulder as she delivered a message of encouragement during the Covid-19 crisis in April 2020.
Clothes that abhor chic and exhibition
I remember being struck by Barbet Schroeder’s film in 1985, A reversal of fortune, the story of the unexplained coma into which American socialite Sunny von Bulow had fallen. It was the clothes. Whoever had done his hair had really understood how the very privileged dressed. They dress discreetly, comfortably. They have nothing to trumpet, their confidence is almost impregnable.
Of course, it was extremely talented costume designer Milena Canonero who had worked on the film, communicating that for members of this rarefied society, clothes serve them, not the other way around. Resistant tweeds, timeless camel and pearl gray cashmere, darned and repaired favourites, original jewellery, outfits to do and not to show off, these are their signatures. Not for them the brand image of haute couture which is so recognizable with the hand of a designer and the vintage of the catwalk.
As Amies said of the Queen when speaking to the Sunday Telegraph in 1997, “There is always something cold and rather cruel in chic clothes, which she wants to avoid.” Instead, it evoked a warm munificence.