Queen Elizabeth II, who died Thursday at the age of 96 after reigning for more than 70 years, undoubtedly wore a uniform. In her early years on the throne, in her twenties and thirties, the young queen was known for wearing practical yet elegant clothes. She wore clean-lined dresses and wide skirts on formal occasions and artfully tailored skirt suits and dresses during the day, daring in the necklines and form-fitting at the waist. And in her later years, her taste for modest, traditional elegance naturally distilled into what we now know as her usual public outfit, which, as many have noted, communicated the consistency and stability of the crown even as the United Kingdom evolved dramatically in the 20th and 21st centuries.
But the queen’s wardrobe was consistently imbued with deeper meanings, seen as conveying support or affection for other countries and communities, or even as an affirmation of power, if necessary. And since Elizabeth’s reign began in 1952, a time before women were regularly seen at the highest levels of government in the Western world, she helped set a standard in politically bordering women’s clothing.
Queen Elizabeth’s public image was “generally smart, clear, which I think was really something from the 1950s.” Not much fuss,” said Philip Mansel, a fellow at the Institute of Historical Research in London, as well as the author of “Dressed to Rule,” a book about how rulers controlled their public image.
The Queen’s style at home has varied somewhat, Mansel notes: “In her last photo, greeting Liz Truss, her last Prime Minister, she is dressed very simply in a wool skirt and wool jersey and wool coat,” which is what a particular generation of Englishmen people, is “just like everyone’s aunt or mother.”
But in public, and especially in her later years, “I think she always wanted to be two things: reassuring and recognizable,” Mansel says. Being an instantly recognizable pillar of color was her way of reassuring “people despite all the changes going on.”
Malcolm Barnard, the author of “Fashion as Communication,” wrote in an email to The Washington Post that this “type of clothing exemplifies values that are homologous or appropriate to what one might assume are the values of a ruling class – those of resistance to change, a desire for continuity, the continuity of their dominant positions, for example.”
Indeed, Queen Elizabeth famously insisted on a rather formal dress code for royal events. Once, in 2002, she scolded a BBC cameraman at a Royal Ascot event for not wearing a top hat and tail. The stylish yet modest daytime dress code that Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle, Camilla Parker Bowles and others strictly followed during their time as members of the royal family is a tradition that dates back to Elizabeth’s mother and grandmother, Mansel says.
The only person who tried to break the mold, Mansel adds, was Princess Diana. Her style, especially when married to now King Charles III, subtly deviated from the royal formula, sometimes with more masculine or more girlish accents, such as military-style double breasted jackets and the occasional dropped waist dress.
Nevertheless, Queen Elizabeth, who has been called “a link between the end of an empire and the beginning of a cosmopolitan liberal democracy,” helped solidify the contemporary uniform for powerful women that spread in her time on the throne. Boxy, mid-length skirt suits are still seen in United States government offices and in women’s politics throughout the Western world. And Mansel points out that Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first female Prime Minister, “wore light formal attire, a bit like the Queen’s, and always a handbag”.
The Queen also helped maintain the strong tradition of “fashion diplomacy.” As Bethan Holt writes in the 2022 book “The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style,” the Queen has long been known to incorporate small, thoughtful touches that reference local culture when she travels. During the Queen’s 2011 state visit to Ireland, Holt writes that eager to re-establish relations with the neighboring country, upon arrival she wore a deep green wool crepe coat and matching green printed silk dress, and to a state dinner she wore a dress decorated with over 2000 small silk shamrocks.
At dinner in Canada in 2010, the Queen wore a white lace dress with Swarovski crystal maple leaves glistening over her shoulders. She wore a dress embroidered with California poppies to meet President Ronald Reagan in 1983, a dress with an emerald green train like the Pakistani flag when she visited in 1961, and an outfit in heather and thistle colors to show her affection for Scotland at the formation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.
And as Mansel points out, she also occasionally opted for colors that showed her strength. When meeting the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the United Kingdom, she wore red to match the Cardinal’s red dress: “To say she was just as holy and holy , in her eyes.”
The Queen’s special habit of communicating through small details has blossomed in the political world. Princess Diana wore a red polka-dot dress in Japan in 1986, a clear tribute to the country’s rising sun flag. First lady Jill Biden wore an embroidered sunflower on a royal blue dress in March this year to show support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. Madeleine Albright chose her pins strategically when she served as US Secretary of State. And in the United Kingdom, Supreme Court president Brenda Hale made headlines when she wore a spider-shaped brooch to deliver her ruling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament in 2019. “Some of us remembered Who’s song, ‘Boris The Spider,’ Barnard wrote, while others remembered Walter Scott’s ‘entangled web’ of lies and deceit in his 1808 poem ‘Marmion’.’
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Of course, a separate tradition of fashion diplomacy has also emerged: wearing clothes designed by a member of a particular community as a sign of respect or support. When she visited India in 2009, first lady Michelle Obama wore a cream strapless dress and a skirt designed by Indian-American designers Naeem Khan and Rachel Roy, respectively. During a visit to the UK in 2019, Ivanka Trump wore ensembles by British designers such as Safiyaa, Burberry and Alessandra Rich. The tradition goes all the way back to Mary Todd Lincoln, who wore dresses designed by a previously enslaved designer, Elizabeth Keckley.
Queen Elizabeth, on the other hand, almost always wore the work of British designers, a tradition dating back centuries to monarchs such as King Louis XIV, who, Mansel notes, “was obsessed with launching the French fashion industry.” So he wore French silk, French embroidery, especially French lace to do better than Venetian lace, and he let the ladies of his court do it.”
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After all, the Queen sat atop a monarchy known for its colonization and conquest, and her insistence on English designs could be seen as consistent with the history of the British Empire to further its own supremacy.
Still, Mansel says, the queen’s clothes weren’t typically controversial. They were appreciated both inside and outside the UK. ‘A lot of French people liked her clothes, for example’, ‘because they weren’t French. They were different,” says Mansel. “They represented Great Britain.”