If what we wear is an indication of who we are, then the Queen’s formal wardrobe is the ultimate emblem of Royalty: her identity as monarch made material in the splendour of her robes. And yet her reign began in a simple black dress, grieving for the death of her father, George VI, in February 1952. Her mourning clothes were already part of her travelling wardrobe, a sartorial precaution, given the King’s ill health (she was in Kenya when he died, and flew back to London, stepping off the plane in a black coat and hat). After being met at the airport by the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, Elizabeth returned to Clarence House, where her 84-year-old grandmother Queen Mary curtseyed and kissed her hand, while also issuing a reminder of what was to be a lifetime of royal dress codes: ‘Lilibet, your skirts are much too short for mourning.’
Nine days after her accession to the throne, Elizabeth II attended her father’s funeral in a long black veil, face shrouded like those of her mother and grandmother, hemlines well below the knee. It was not until the following year, 1953, that her Coronation took place; so this summer’s colourful Jubilee celebration has as its counterpoint a darker anniversary of bereavement. George VI was 56 when he died, his daughter only 25 when, in her mother’s words, she faced ‘the great and lonely station to which she has been called’. As the Queen’s biographer Sally Bedell Smith observes, ‘Particularly at the outset, Elizabeth II’s focus was on showing gravitas as monarch… The freedom she enjoyed as a young princess – she once attended a ball at the American ambassador’s residence dressed as an Edwardian parlour maid, with Philip costumed as a waiter – had to be subdued, at least in public.’
Yet she had already proved herself more than able to balance the demands of propriety with a more private informality; never more so, perhaps, than as a young bride in November 1947, wearing a gown designed by Norman Hartnell. Elizabeth’s wedding dress was embroidered with 10,000 pearls, and in the aftermath of the Second World War the tiniest of details was significant, as Hartnell noted in his memoir, ‘on grounds of patriotism’, right down to the origins of the silk worms. Hartnell used Scottish satin, but not before ascertaining ‘the true nationality of the worms’, Italian or Japanese larvae having been deemed unsuitable. As it turned out, the worms were from China, which allowed Hartnell to proceed ‘with a much easier conscience.’ Noel Coward, who attended the pre-wedding ball at Buckingham Palace, as well as the ceremony itself at Westminster Abbey, recorded the events in his diary: ‘The most lovely sight I have ever seen. Everyone looking shiny and happy; something indestructible... English tradition at its best.’
But after the glorious pageantry came an entirely different kind of honeymoon outfit: in the seclusion of the Balmoral estate, where Elizabeth went deer stalking with her husband, dressed in army boots and a leather wool-lined jacket. Here, the fairytale princess felt ‘like a female Russian commando leader followed by her faithful cut-throats, all armed to the teeth with rifles,’ as she described it in a letter to her cousin Margaret Rhodes. Her countrywoman wardrobe has remained consistent over the ensuing six decades; somewhat less ferocious than her honeymoon vignette, but completely traditional, with well-polished stout shoes, sturdy tweeds, practical mackintosh, Royal Stewart kilts, cardigans and silk print headscarves knotted under her chin. These latter provide a clue to her determined character; an expert horsewoman, the Queen refuses to wear a hard riding hat, prompting her staff to observe that ‘the only thing that comes between the Queen and her heir is an Hermes scarf’ (although in her view, this is indicative more of practicality than a dare-devil streak; she prefers not to squash her trademark hair-do).
The pendulum swing between public display and privacy, even mystery, has been maintained throughout her reign, perhaps nowhere more clearly reflected than in her wardrobe. This was evident even on the spectacular day of her Coronation on June 2nd 1953, all of it televised except for the most sacred moments of her anointing by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Hartnell was again commissioned to make the gown, based along the same lines as her wedding dress, but embroidered with the symbols of the United Kingdom and the Commonweath. At first, the couturier was dismayed to discover that these emblems must include a Welsh leek, rather than a daffodil, following the instructions of the Garter King of Arms. ‘The leek I agreed was a most admirable vegetable, full of historic significance and doubtless of health-giving properties, but scarcely noted for its beauty.’ In the end, however, ‘the despised Leek proved a real inspiration’, while Hartnell also added a little hidden embroidery, without telling the Queen: a ‘four-leaved shamrock for luck’. At Westminster Abbey, Elizabeth’s maids of honour arranged the monarch’s crimson velvet Robe of State trimmed with ermine, and then carried the 18-foot train as she walked along the aisle. After the Queen had sworn her coronation oath, her diadem and robes were removed, and replaced with a simple dress of white linen, ready for her anointing away from public view; in Hartnell’s words, ‘bereft of all the world’s vainglory’. Then she was enveloped with the heavy coronation robes and decorated with the regalia of royalty: jewelled sceptres, a ruby and sapphire ring to symbolise her fidelity to her subjects, and St Edward’s Crown of solid gold. As Sally Bedell Smith observes, each of the Queen’s garments, ‘from the simple linen dress to the splendid vestments… were designed to signify her priest-like status.’
This was dressing at its most heightened – the theatre of monarchy on the grandest scale -- yet also with a quiet emotional resonance, as noted by the royal photographer Cecil Beaton, who perceived on the Queen Mother’s face a look of ‘sadness combined with pride’. But professionalism prevailed; for as Beaton wrote the following year, ‘Royalty must dress for the crowds. Of first consideration is the fact that they are to be seen. For this reason off-the-face hats are worn; while, if possible, height is added so that those at the back of a crowd can catch even a glimpse of a felt halo or an aigrette and not be disappointed.’
Ever since then, these broad rules have continued to apply. Sir Hardy Amies, who started designing for the Queen in 1950, described his task as providing ‘clothes that help her in what I can only describe as her work. The Queen once spoke of this to me as “going about my business”.’ Thus he had to consider her comfort, as well as the all-important visual effect of what she wore – using fabrics that were sufficiently light for overseas tours in hot climates, yet heavy enough not to blow around in high winds; and with neat tailoring that would keep her from any embarrassment when clambering out of carriages, boats or cars. In general, Amies remarked, ‘the Queen can wear any colour provided it is a colour’, and sufficiently bright ‘so as to stand out in a crowd.’ Like Beaton, he also recognized ‘that a wide-brimmed hat would be undesirable for royalty. Hands must not be used to hold hats in a wind: they are for waving or holding bouquets.’
Sir Norman Hartnell died in 1979, Amies in 2003, but the woman they dressed is still going strong, with an imaginative new team coordinating her wardrobe. Central is the Queen’s senior dresser and personal assistant, Angela Kelly, who organizes her wardrobe with meticulous precision, so that the details of each outfit are entered onto a computer spread-sheet, along with the date and circumstances in which it was worn. While the Queen is not averse to wearing the same clothes more than once – she is known, after all, for her thrift – she is careful to avoid doing so at the same place, lest she disappoints anyone who has seen her before. She is also mindful that many of those who she meets, however briefly, will be seeing her perhaps for the only time in their lives; her clothes and jewels must therefore make an impression.
It was Kelly who introduced Stewart Parvin as a royal dressmaker in 2001, although she designs many of the Queen’s clothes herself, including the striking primrose yellow outfit for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding last year. But Parvin can claim credit for the powerfully symbolic green dress and coat that the Queen wore on her arrival in Ireland a fortnight later (the first time a British monarch had visited since 1911). And despite his predecessor’s injunction that she should be seen in strong colours, Parvin proved that rules are made to be broken with his pale ivory silk crepe gown that the Queen chose for the state dinner at Buckingham Palace the following week, to welcome President and Mrs Obama. (On second thoughts, perhaps he was simply honouring an older tradition: of white as a ceremonial court dress, all the better for displaying a glittering diamond necklace and tiara.)
At the age of 86, the Queen is the embodiment of a great many good qualities – constancy, courage, stoicism – but she also manifests something increasingly rare in a world that tends to celebrate the triumph of youth over experience. She has aged with dignity, and without vanity or apology. According to Stewart Parvin, ‘She has reached a stage in her life when she has complete confidence in who she is… the Queen looks squarely in the mirror and she likes what she sees.’ Given her own observation that she must be ‘seen to be believed’, this makes Elizabeth II remarkably believable. In an era where steadfastness seems lacking in our smooth-faced, sharp-suited politicians, and trust is at a premium, the Queen represents a truer combination of style and substance. More so than any other public figure, she has worn well…