LONDON — There were never any surprises in Queen Elizabeth II’s sartorial choices, and many would say that’s a good thing.
Although her style evolved over the years —from the fashionable young monarch who wore Norman Hartnell couture on her wedding and coronation days (and on many other occasions) to the colorful, finely tailored coats and dresses that helped her to stand out in a crowd — the queen never pandered to trends, and focused instead on wardrobe classics.
Over the past two decades — and thanks partly to the dream team of Angela Kelly, personal assistant, adviser and curator to Her Majesty the Queen, and the London-based couturier Stewart Parvin –– the monarch, in her later years, dressed with more zest than ever thanks to a closet full of brighter colors and more flattering fits.
There’s a reason that her neon green outfit, designed by Parvin, started trending on social media within minutes of her balcony appearance at Trooping the Colour, the annual event that marks the monarch’s official birthday, in 2016.
The queen had turned 90 a few months before, and mobile screens were flashing with hashtags including #neonat90 and #highvishighness.
In the years that followed, the queen continued to wear a green field of hues, including lime, chartreuse and shamrock. Sometimes she would add a dash of purple, yellow or peacock blue to the mix, sending an upbeat message to the millions who would turn out to see her each year.
Trooping the Colour in 2016 certainly wasn’t the last time that her outfit was trending: Two years ago, on her wedding day, Princess Beatrice wore one of the queen’s old gowns, a bejeweled and shimmery Hartnell number from the 1950s.
Kelly and Parvin had tweaked it for the occasion, adding organza puff sleeves and slimming down the skirt for a more contemporary feel. The queen, who regularly shopped her wardrobe, was said to be thrilled.
Two months later, the fashion search platform Lyst published its Royal Fashion Report 2020, which revealed a 297 percent surge in searches for “vintage wedding gowns” on the platform. Lyst described this as part of an ongoing trend of “conscious fashion” choices among the royals.
In an interview earlier this year, Parvin said the dress had initially been altered years ago, at the queen’s request, and that he regularly updated the looks hanging in her closet. Most recently, he had spiffed up the canary yellow coat she wore earlier this year to open the Elizabeth Line in London.
The queen’s look never happened by chance, and while she might have had talented creatives around her, she definitely ran the style show and was burnishing a public image, just like her ancestors Queen Victoria, Elizabeth I and multiple monarchs over the centuries.
“The control of image is ancient, and has always been part of the business of monarchy,” said Matthew Storey, collections curator at Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that manages state properties including Hampton Court Palace, the Tower of London and Kensington Palace.
Storey pointed to Holbein’s paintings of Henry VIII, which are as familiar to the British public as images of the queen, and to Hilliard’s images of Elizabeth I that made her appear youthful and powerful, at a time when England was under threat from its neighbors across the Channel.
Queen Victoria, meanwhile, embraced photography in its infancy and adopted it for her own ends, using pictures of herself, and her family, as a way of connecting with the wider public, Storey said.
She showed herself as a monarch, mother and grandmother and those black-and-white images telegraphed to Britain, and to the world, that the monarchy was in safe hands.
Perpetually in the public eye, Queen Elizabeth’s concern was always to construct a similar image of stability, security and regal polish, in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Over the years, she took her cues from couturiers Hartnell and Hardy Amies and her own mother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother — and also drew on her abiding sense of duty and awareness that she was simply the latest in a long line of caretakers.
After all, Elizabeth was never meant to be queen and her early years were not spent with the weight of being an heir to the throne on her shoulders. It was only after her father became King George VI on the abdication of his brother Edward VIII, aka the Duke of Windsor, that Elizabeth Windsor became the heir presumptive.
Susanna Cordner, archives manager at London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London, said while the queen’s style evolved through the decades, key motifs and silhouettes remained and her clothes increasingly became a means of creating and maintaining a “consistent and recognizable” image in the public eye.
In an interview with WWD earlier this year, Cordner said of the queen: “Her clothes, as a rule, are distinctive rather than innovative. They make her appear steady and bright and ever-easy to spot in a crowd — an essential part of her role. Her clothes need to ensure she’s the bright, visible spark in whatever room she’s in.”
Cordner added that from the ’60s onward, the queen “increasingly made a distinction between her own style and that of the fashions of the moment.” She found it interesting, in this age of hyper media exposure, that the queen and her team chose to focus on consistency.
“Instead of pursuing novelty, she is shown to be solidly herself, in a public role separate to any other form of celebrity, even in our arguably image-absorbed and image-anxious times,” Cordner said.
She compared Elizabeth to Queen Victoria, a consummate image-maker.
“Both used color, and more particularly color symbolism, to great effect and used their wardrobes to promote and celebrate British craftsmanship, design and products. Both included tokens given to them by other people in their outfits — either in a state, public capacity or as a marker of a personal relationship. Similarly, they both gifted or loaned items from their own collections and wardrobes to their daughters and daughters-in-law,” she said.
Peter York, the consultant, broadcaster and writer who coauthored “The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook” and, most recently, “The War Against the BBC,” said in a separate interview earlier this year that the queen’s look always chimed with the public’s expectations of a monarch.
“She is doing a duty and delivering what is required. As a queen you don’t ‘do’ fashion, you ‘do’ royal. You need to stand out, and the way you dress is very, very like a uniform,” he said.
Jason Basmajian, the former chief creative officer of Gieves & Hawkes on Savile Row, said that whether she was on an official engagement or in the countryside wearing tweeds, a kilt or a Barbour coat — the queen “dressed for the institution of the monarchy.”
Basmajian, who oversaw three royal warrants while at Gieves, described her look as “refreshing, and never surprising,” adding her look was always rich, but never flashy.
Storey, of Historic Royal Palaces, said he believes the Queen Mother was a major influence on the late monarch’s choice of color, in particular. During World War II when the Queen Mother visited the bombed-out sites and homes in London’s East End, she chose to wear “sympathetic, soft colors in order to boost morale,” he said.
During the ’30s and ’40s, the Queen Mother (who was around 5 feet, 2 inches tall) also wore hats during public appearances to give her more prominence and to help her stand out in a crowd. The instantly recognizable, soft-edged look became her signature and, until her death in 2002, she continued to wear gentle pastels and hats with fluffy, feathery details.
Driven by a similar sense of duty and sensitivity as her mother, the queen long had strong opinions about color, symbolism and iconography, whether she was attending the State Opening of Parliament, cutting ribbons or visiting schoolchildren.
Storey said the 27-year-old queen, who was crowned in 1953, was adamant that the symbols on her coronation dress be correct. Hartnell, who was designing the dress, had suggested floral emblems from Great Britain, but she was thinking bigger and wanted to acknowledge the countries in the Commonwealth, too.
The Commonwealth is a political association of more than 50 member states, almost all of which once belonged to the British Empire. Maintaining friendly ties with those countries was one of the queen’s lifelong missions.
The result of the coronation conversations was a white duchess satin gown with floral emblems representing the queen’s nine dominions, Britain and the Commonwealth regions, picked out in shiny threads, seed pearls, sequins and crystals.
Hartnell didn’t hold back, and even included the decidedly unglamorous leek to represent Wales and added an extra four-leaf shamrock on the left side of the skirt for good luck, so that Elizabeth’s hand could rest on it during the ceremony.
The coronation dress wasn’t her first sartorial collaboration. In 1952, when the queen needed a ceremonial mantle for the Order of the Garter ceremony, the monarch turned to fashion students at London’s Royal College of Art for ideas. She eventually picked one student’s design that featured a —radical for the time — zip-front style for ease and comfort.
The queen’s approach to dress always involved a “dialogue,” with couturiers and dressmakers, the curator Caroline de Guitaut told WWD in 2016, during a walk-through of “Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style From the Queen’s Wardrobe,” a wide-ranging exhibition marking the queen’s 90th birthday.
That dialogue was ongoing even through her later years, according to Parvin, who made clothing for the queen for more than 20 years.
“She’s still very engaged,” the designer told WWD earlier this year. “When I present sketches, I might send five or six [dress] fabrics with coordinating coat fabrics. There might be options for a green coat and a yellow coat to go with the same print. She’ll express her preference for color, and whether coat A should go with dress B, and whether or not she wants a certain detail on the dress. And then I make it all work together,” he said.
Parvin added that the ultimate goal was to create something that made the queen look good and feel comfortable. “She knows what suits her. She’s not afraid of color, and she wants to stand out,” said Parvin, who also liked to nudge the queen in new directions.
Parvin believed the queen’s style evolved considerably over the past 20 years in particular.
“I think there’s been a trend toward simplicity: really simple block colors, and amazing prints. Less is more. It means the jewelry stands out more, the hats can be more detailed,” he said.
Parvin always considered where the queen’s jewels were placed, and left room for a brooch on a coat, or at the neckline of a dress for the queen’s signature three-strand pearl necklace.
Cordner of London College of Fashion said the queen always communicated through her choice of jewels. For her TV address in response to the COVID-19 crisis in April 2020, the queen wore a turquoise brooch. “Many noted that the gemstone is considered to represent protection and hope in many cultures,” she said.
Cordner added the messaging was often personal, emotional and reflective of the queen’s relationships and bonds.
“The three-stranded pearl necklace she often wears, for instance, was given to her by her father, and the brooch she wore for her Christmas address in 2021 — the year her husband Prince Philip died — was one from her honeymoon,” she said earlier this y ear.
From a clothing perspective, the person behind the queen’s style evolution these past two decades was Angela Kelly, who worked with the monarch since the ’90s and who became one of her most trusted advisers.
In her memoir “The Other Side of the Coin: The Queen, the Dresser and the Wardrobe,” Kelly was frank about how she helped the queen to rejuvenate her look.
Kelly recalled that after serving as the queen’s senior dresser for a couple of years she could not help thinking that the monarch’s style “needed to change quickly, before she was made to look older than she was — which was what some of the old designs did.”
Kelly plumped for more vibrant colors and stylish cuts and shortened dresses and coats to accommodate what she describes in the book as the queen’s “good figure, and excellent legs.”
She would later set up the queen’s first in-house design team and was the one who originally tapped Parvin.
Isabel Spearman, the brand consultant, columnist and stylist to Samantha Cameron when she was Britain’s first lady, said it was “Angela who persuaded the queen that color makes you look younger, brighter and more vibrant. Color also makes for a great photo.”
Spearman added that even before Kelly arrived on the scene, the queen always outshone her fellow royals in Europe, and worldwide. “Everything she wears is beautifully cut, old-school and fitted so that it looks immaculate. And because she doesn’t follow fashion, it’s never that obvious which decade her outfits are from,” she said earlier this year.
The word icon is hackneyed, especially in fashion, but in the case of the queen, it is fitting — and then some.
Joanne Yulan Jong, an ESG sustainability and brand consultant, author of “The Fashion Switch,” and a former designer for companies including Giorgio Armani, said icon-making takes decades and the queen managed it, crafting a distinctive look and image that’s embedded in the collective consciousness.
Her silhouette — the coat, shift dress, tailored shoulder, round neckline and pearls — became as distinctive as the Chanel No.5 bottle, Birkin handbag or Audrey Hepburn’s look in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Jong said.
And for five decades, she ruled Britain with a style all her own.