Queen Elizabeth II and the Shape of 20th Century Power Dressing

Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-serving monarch, who died on Thursday, remained steadfastly silent about her political leanings while on the throne, as her role in her country’s constitutional monarchy was announced. Yet an integral part of her legacy — along with her unwavering devotion to her country, its heritage and a crown emblem — was to model a new kind of feminine power dress in the latter half of the 20th century.

“I must see to believe,” the Queen famously said, and from the moment she became sovereign in 1952, aged 25, she dressed herself with that aim in mind.

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Confined, essentially, to revelry and pantomime (while at the same time taking part in some 300 public events a year), he deeply understood that imagery could nevertheless speak volumes — and that he dressed not only for his people, but also for them. More than the glittering evening gowns she wore as the successor’s young queen, which offered a dose of post-World War II fairy dust and glamor but were of a piece with the royal imagination that came before, were her singular contributions. His ability was to break new ground as well as convince the world that he was doing his job dutifully, upholding tradition.

She was an adept and committed practitioner of fashion diplomacy, paving the way for Michelle Obama and the Duchess of Cambridge (among other women whose roles demanded fluency in political semiology) to work with designers and brands to extend friendships across borders. He used his position to shine a light on local art before Brigitte Macron or Jill Biden.

And he was a master of dressing for the media: originating (and popularizing) Hillary Rodham Clinton, Angela Merkel and Nancy Pelosi, the habit of wearing a brightly colored suit as a way to blend in with the establishment and stand out in the crowd.

Queen Elizabeth II flashes a smile in her pastel blue dress. (Source: Instagram/The Royal Family)

Long before Kim Kardashian appeared in a full-body black unitard and dress at the 2021 Met Gala, the fact that she was a pop culture presence so ubiquitous that she could only be identified by her outline, the queen, is a petite woman wearing a hat. Can be identified from her silhouette alone, with a handbag hanging off the crook of her arm. That’s why whatever actress Her Majesty (Claire Foy, Olivia Colman, Helen Mirren, Emma Thompson, Imelda Staunton) was channeling, she could easily look the part.

Although Elizabeth lived through as many trends as Prime Ministers (15) and US Presidents (14), including the era of Mod, Punk, Teddy Boys and Sloane Rangers, she never followed them. He set his own. And although he was often characterized as stealthy in his style, he was ahead of the curve in style.

The consistency of her clothing was a sign of reliability in the face of global change, a physical expression of her function as a living historical symbol, and a tool wielded delicately with aforementioned thoughts. After all, he learned to appreciate the use of uniform early on when he joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service in 1945.

Her strategic attire began with her coronation gown in 1953, an ivory satin style embroidered with the kingdom’s favorite flora — including English roses, Scottish thistles, Welsh leeks, Irish shamrocks, Canadian maple leaves, New Zealand silver ferns, Pakistani Australian wheat. and the South African protea – which would be considered diplomatic symbolism for decades. So much so that Daniel Conway, a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Westminster, told the CBC in 2016 that it had become a core part of “British foreign policy”.

Queen Elizabeth II never followed trends, she set her own. (Source: Instagram/The Royal Family)

The Queen wore a green and white maple leaf dress to a state dinner in Ontario, Ontario in 1957; a white dress decorated with orange California poppies for a Hollywood dinner with Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 1983; A pink dress embroidered with China’s national flower, the tree peony, for a meal with Deng Xiaoping in 1986. She arrived in Dublin in 2011 wearing a bright green dress and coat when she became the first British monarch in the Republic of Ireland.

But his purpose was not limited to his foreign visits; He was keenly aware of his position on the domestic agenda.

He settled on his tone-on-tone look, from hat to suit or dress and coat to 2-inch pumps, to make himself easily identifiable to his subjects, and he stuck to it faithfully for years, a glow in the periwinkle, the rose, Jade, Lilac and Grape. “I can never wear beige because no one will know who I am,” she once admitted to royal biographer Robert Hardman. On his 90th birthday, his lime green suit was so bright it got its own hashtag: #neonat90. In fact, her use of color inspired a book by Sally Hughes, “Our Rainbow Queen,” one of at least seven in the Queen’s style. (Repetition serves as a kind of armor against the slings and arrows of public opinion when needed.)

Norman Hartnell (who made the Queen’s wedding and coronation gowns) and Hardy Amis were her favorite local couturiers, followed in recent years by Stuart Parvin and Angela Kelly, more than two decades her senior dresser (and author of two books on royal style). The Queen’s famous boxy handbags (she owned more than 200) were by Laura London, which she was awarded a royal warrant for in 1968; His cotton shirts were from Grosvenor Shirts Ltd, Jermyn Street.

Weekends and holidays at Balmoral in Scotland allow him to shine in Scottish tartans and English tweeds. In 2018, she sat front row at London Fashion Week to launch the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, given to a young designer, thus extending her patronage far beyond what she might be able to wear herself.

Her political awareness extended to her recycling of clothing and fabrics before becoming part of a larger celebrity drive for sustainability. And, in response to changing public sentiment, she elected to stop wearing real fur in 2019 (unless it was already in her wardrobe).

That he did all of this while somehow being considered out of fashion, using the protection of frumpiness and disturbingly apt to disguise how shrewd his choices were, was a masterclass in satirical misdirection. And those gowns and suits moved from her closet to museums and royal archives, to be preserved for future study, should be remembered not just as relics of royalty, but as instruments of a different, strangely modern kind of realpolitik.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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