‘Fashion is at the core of the Coronation’: royal insider Henry Conway on what to expect on the big day
As a teenager, I was fortunate enough to be in the Royal Gallery to watch Queen Elizabeth II’s procession at the glorious State Opening of Parliament. It is the closest I’ll ever have to the feeling of what the Coronation might be like to watch up close.
The Queen was, at that stage, still wearing the Imperial State Crown, dressed in white court dress, her train carried by four page-boys in full scarlet coats and white court breeches. I have such a clear memory of the awe, the true wonder, of state ceremonial on full blast. No visit to the Tower of London to see the Crown Jewels could have matched seeing those stones ablaze on her head, under the full heat of television lights.
Pomp and pageantry is at the epicentre of our national life — we demand a good show, it’s part of the contract — but Coronations are different. They are like a hyper version of a wedding, it’s just that the protagonist is marrying the country and, like all good weddings, they mirror trends and changing times. In 2023, we have a blended family; two divorcees remarried, coming together, with all the drama stepchildren, step-grandchildren and family bring.
Yet, it’s fashion that is at the core of the whole event. Saturday is the ultimate lesson in power dressing — and they are costumes more than they are clothes. Every opening of a hospital, or school visit, sees the Princess of Wales’s threads pored over — the iconography of what she wears is key to Brand Britain and the Coronation. Even when it is stripped back a little, the Coronation will still rely on the traditional function of clothing to position Catherine and William as rock-solid heirs on which we can depend.
We have no preview of what she will wear, but I’m sure tradition will be firmly in place. I gather, even up until last week, senior members of the royal family were still asking the Palace if anyone will be wearing coronets, before a U-turn confirmed they all will be.
There is the Harry and Meghan issue — the spectre at the feast, even if Harry is there, hiding behind a pillar. Despite being high in the line of succession, exile has made him a sullen, sorry side player
Kate’s ability to wear white is unrivalled, so I’m hoping for a McQueen take on a white court dress in a high priestess-meets-Dynasty look. Prince George is a page to his grandfather and I imagine they will stick with that traditional scarlet page court dress, a continuity linked back to the late Queen.
My bet for change is on Charlotte and Louis wearing tartan as a nod to keeping Scotland in the fold. No doubt they will be nervous — it’s a lot of attention for small people, but they are well trained. As a child, I went to big events with my parents, but until I was old enough to realise their significance, I just rolled with it. For me, the Waleses are key to the whole spectacle. After the earthquake that was Harry’s Spare, Kate and Wills and their offspring present a stable, united family front — contemporary parents, but with a dose of comforting Laura Ashley nostalgia.
The rumour that Kate is ditching a tiara for a flower crown, I hope, is unfounded. She will have dispensed with the old court style of white ostrich feather plumes in the hair for fear of looking too Downton, but a head full of diamonds is surely mandatory.
The Marchioness of Londonderry was taking too long in the single Abbey lavatory, and it was discovered that somehow her whopper of a tiara had fallen into the pan, and had to be fished out by forceps
Fretting about the optics of tiaras is nothing new. In 1902, at Edward VII’s Coronation, there was an early tiara ban, quickly rescinded for fear of looking too ordinary. At the same coronation, the Marchioness of Londonderry was taking too long in the single Abbey lavatory, and it was discovered that somehow her whopper of a tiara had fallen into the pan, and had to be fished out by forceps (I know, forceps — every eventuality is catered for at a coronation, even childbirth). Those wearing head furniture, or ‘my hats’ as the late Queen would say, should have them sewn firmly into their hair. Back in the day for State Openings, I remember peeresses popping their tiaras in Tesco bags, so they would be less likely to be robbed en route, and go to Neville on Pont Street to have them attached.
Every coronation has the Establishment fretting about how the look reflects the idea of monarchy. Still smarting from the excesses of George IV’s unpopular OTT coronation, William IV’s in 1831 was so frugal it was known as the ‘Penny Coronation’, as everything had been hired, borrowed, or reused. It was as shoestring as you can get, and it played well to the cash-strapped public. Charles III’s will be not dissimilar in terms of clothes; the King wearing no new ceremonial clothes, chiming with the times, and his championing of sustainability. His uniforms have been thus for years — all shoes are repaired, and old Saville Row suits altered. When Prince William helps his father into the embroidered Imperial Mantle, just remember it was made in 1821 — what screams more toff-parsimonious than using a cape for 202 years.
Peers have now been instructed that they can wear their proper Coronation robes and coronets, as the original suggestion of lounge suits was universally derided. Even if the Lord Great Chamberlain has admitted that most of the ermine is a little moth-nibbled, it needs to look like a coronation — dial it down too much and the gloss comes off. The King wearing military uniform rather than court breeches and dress is a good update, or he could have come off looking a bit vaudeville.
If your zip fails at any point, you’re literally left with it hanging out in front of your monarch
The late Prince Philip, to the former Vice Chamberlain
The grandeur of State image is about giving them the old razzle dazzle — the Edwardian Crown baked it in. Edward and Alexandra were the first truly performative monarchs, they understood the need for theatricality. During their Coronation, the congregation was bleary-eyed and dazzled as brand-new electric lights were suddenly switched on at the moment of crowning, making up for the fact that, earlier in the ceremony, the heavy pile of the carpet tripped several duchesses as robes stuck to it like Velcro.
Today’s royals, I’m sure, will have learned from Edwardian theatrical trickery. We live in the most visual era: our eyes crave and consume content. Charles always wanted to be an actor, and Camilla is his perfect supporting actress, and they don’t underestimate the showmanship of State that they are there to perform.
There will be plenty of elephants in the room. The provenance of the jewels is just the start, though exclusion of the controversial Koh-I-Noor was the right call. The growing noise of the republican movement seems significantly louder this time round. It was there in the Fifties, but they just didn’t have the aid of TikTok to magnify their sound. I know the Welsh nationalists feel Wales is underrepresented.
Then there is the Harry and Meghan issue — the spectre at the feast, even if Harry is there, hiding behind a pillar. Despite being high in the line of succession, exile has made him a sullen, sorry side player. Meghan would most likely have been booed by royal die-hards had she come. I noticed that one of the eight Windsor Grey horses pulling the state coach is called ‘Meg’. Make of that what you will…
My father was Vice Chamberlain of the Household in the last throes of the John Major government, or Vice Chamber Pot as we used to call him, and in his weekly audiences with HMQ, as long as you played by the rules you got on, including dressing the part. My advice for Coronation guests comes from Prince Philip, who told my father, on his first day at the Palace, that he hoped he got the memo about his hatred of zips at Court, insisting on button flies on the trousers of morning coats — as he said if your zip fails at any point, you’re literally left with it hanging out in front of your monarch.
The establishment plays well when in full pomp and circumstance — dress the part, change your actions to suit the times, and stick by your guns. Could it be the last Coronation with this level of tradition? The King is known for his dandy flourishes and lauded by menswear commentators, but William doesn’t really like dressing up, and it’s evident in his personal style. The heavy Coronation jewellery may feel too old-fashioned for him when it’s his turn next. He could take the direction of the Swedish monarchs, who have the crown next to them on a cushion (which Charles did when he deputised for his mother as Prince of Wales).
In a post-Covid world, where athleisure is universally depressing: what we need is Kate in a heel, diamonds, and acres of velvet. I hope the Abbey gives us the full spectacle. What should a Coronation be after all, but high-end drag — dressing up and putting on a visual feast, with a healthy amount of symbolism thrown in. God Save that ermine…