‘She has a confidence that transcends beauty’ — the Queen’s life in fashion

·6-min read
Queen Elizabeth II at Epsom Downs Racecourse  for the Oaks Stakes, Surrey, 8th June 1962 (Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II at Epsom Downs Racecourse for the Oaks Stakes, Surrey, 8th June 1962 (Getty Images)

The clothes Queen Elizabeth II carefully chose have been captured in countless photographs and will be cherished in the memories of those that met her.

The sartorial decisions she made during her reign were informed, crafted by her favourite designers and leave behind a legendary fashion history.

In recent years, it was her zingy block-coloured outfits and matching, brimmed hats that came to define her consistent style identity — both recognisable in a crowd and when broadcast around the globe.

Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh watch a fly past during the Trooping the Colour, 2016 (Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh watch a fly past during the Trooping the Colour, 2016 (Getty Images)

With her black patent Anello & Davide loafers, distinctive black Launer handbag, a brooch and gloves, she found a formula that benefitted her role as monarch. Her headpieces allowed her to be easily spotted, but were small enough so her face remained visible. Whether she was waving from Buckingham Palace’s balcony in a neon green dress coat for 2016’s Trooping the Colour or arriving in horse and carriage in sunshine yellow for Royal Ascot in 2019, the intention was to be visible to as many as possible which was achieved without sacrificing style.

And while the outfits became a recognisable, rainbow-style procession of coats in the last decades, her look has evolved a great deal over time.

Queen Elizabeth II at Badminton House, Gloucestershire, for the Badminton Horse Trials, April 1956 (Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II at Badminton House, Gloucestershire, for the Badminton Horse Trials, April 1956 (Getty Images)

Throughout her life, she adopted the styles of the day but avoided committing to trends, and relied heavily on custom looks by a stronghold of her trusted dressmakers. Sir Norman Hartnell was one favourite, and designed for the monarch for over 40 years. The man behind her wedding dress was regarded for his “sense of theatre”, use of extravagant fabrics and jewelled embroidery. He would send sketches to the Queen and samples to approve, and she would instruct him to send her compliments to the seamstresses, saying: “Tell your girls, their work is fabulous.”

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on their wedding day, London, England, November 20, 194 (Everett Collection/Rex)
Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on their wedding day, London, England, November 20, 194 (Everett Collection/Rex)

To wed Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1947 she wore a gown of ivory duchesse satin, embroidered with 10,000 seed pearls. In 1953, Hartnell was also trusted to make her Coronation gown in its gilded splendour.

The importance of diplomatic nods in her outfits cannot be overlooked. In Hartnell’s memoir, he revealed the complications which these could sometimes cause. In the case of Coronation dress, it was weaving in Wales’ emblem of leeks in glamorous style.

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on their wedding day, London, England, November 20, 1947 (Getty Images)
Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip on their wedding day, London, England, November 20, 1947 (Getty Images)

“In the end, by using lovely silks and sprinkling it with the dew of diamonds, we were able to transform the earthy leek into a vision of Cinderella charm and worthy of mingling with her sisters Rose and Mimosa in a brilliant Royal Assembly, and fit to embellish the dress of a queen,” he wrote.

The 1950s saw her style status blossom, with cinch-waist dresses emulating Christian Dior’s New Look.

Her dream team was Hartnell, who would make glamorous gowns in silk and tulle for evening events, and fellow couturier Sir Hardy Amies who was an expert in beautifully tailored, full-skirted day-wear suits.

Queen Elizabeth II and Duke of Edinburgh greet French dancers Lyane Dayde and Michel Renault at the Opera Garnier in Paris during a state visit in France on April 9, 195 (AFP via Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II and Duke of Edinburgh greet French dancers Lyane Dayde and Michel Renault at the Opera Garnier in Paris during a state visit in France on April 9, 195 (AFP via Getty Images)

Amies designed for the Queen from 1951 until his death in 2003 and paid great attention to detail, even creating gowns to complement the buildings where events were being held.

For a 1965 state banquet in West Germany, the designer made a bodice for the Queen with silver embroidery inspired by the rococo grandeur of Schloss Bruehl, a former archbishop’s palace where the dinner was held.

At this time, if the Queen chose to wear ready to wear pieces from the high street – often from respected British label Horrockses in the 1950s – the styles would instantly sell out. It is a precedent that has continued with younger members of royal family today.

Queen Elizabeth II leaving the Royal enclosure at Ascot Racecourse, Berkshire, June 1963 (Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II leaving the Royal enclosure at Ascot Racecourse, Berkshire, June 1963 (Getty Images)

By the 1960s, the Queen had eschewed the New Look in favour of shift dresses, coats and petal-covered hats. She also wore fur on many occasions over the years, choosing a leopard-skin coat for a day at the races in 1962, and a mink trimmed coat and hat on the sober occasion she visited Aberfan, Wales, after the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip in 1966.

Queen Elizabeth II wearing a leopard-skin coat at a Sandown Park race meeting, 1962 (PA)
Queen Elizabeth II wearing a leopard-skin coat at a Sandown Park race meeting, 1962 (PA)

In 2019, however, it was announced she would withdraw her support for wearing real fur. “If Her Majesty is due to attend an engagement in particularly cold weather, from 2019 onwards fake fur will be used to make sure she stays warm,” wrote Angela Kelly, who was the Queen’s senior dresser since 2002, in her memoir. She also revealed the mink trim had been removed from one of her favourite overcoats.

Queen Elizabeth ll arrives at Aberdeen Airport with her corgis to start her holidays in Balmoral, Scotland in 197 (Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth ll arrives at Aberdeen Airport with her corgis to start her holidays in Balmoral, Scotland in 197 (Getty Images)

In the 1970s, she turned to trendy geometric or bold prints for daywear, and softer lines and flowing chiffon outfits designed by Ian Thomas, a former assistant to Hartnell, for evenings, before she dipped a toe into the shoulder-pads and pussy-bow blouse fad of the 1980s.

Others who designed for the Queen include John Anderson, who worked for the monarch between 1988 and 1996, and German tailor Karl-Ludwig Rehse from 1988.

Queen Elizabeth II is pictured in March , 1986 in Adelaide (AFP via Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II is pictured in March , 1986 in Adelaide (AFP via Getty Images)

In later years, the Queen’s outfits simplified and settled into a staple style which continued into her older age, but this was not without its exceptions. Specifically in 1999, she committed to a high stakes, red carpet statement in a harlequin dress with a head turning, multi-coloured sequin top and gradient yellow shade silk skirt to the Royal Variety Performance. It was designed by Rehse, who afterwards said: “She’s like all ladies, she’ll go for something new. People seemed to be thrilled at how she looked. She was stunning.”

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh arriving at the Birmingham Hippodrome for the 1999 Royal Variety Performance (PA)
Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh arriving at the Birmingham Hippodrome for the 1999 Royal Variety Performance (PA)

From 2000, it was couturier Stewart Parvin who became a go-to for her Majesty, a man best known for making elegance in simplicity. He was approached by personal assistant and senior dresser Kelly before the Golden Jubilee, with the aim of building a more contemporary edge into monarch’s wardrobe.

He said of the Queen in 2012: “I see beautiful, wealthy young women looking in the mirror and all they see is their faults. The Queen looks squarely in the mirror and she likes what she sees. She has a confidence that transcends beauty – that’s the most fascinating thing with her.”

Queen Elizabeth II arrives to greet the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani to her Windsor residence on October 26, 2010
Queen Elizabeth II arrives to greet the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani to her Windsor residence on October 26, 2010

Kelly, who is a designer in her own right, also became the Queen’s prioritised choice for day and evening wear, and helped bring some pomp and glamour to the head of state in her later years. She was not afraid to make a feature of dazzling Swarovski crystals and re-used gowns, removing decorations and adding new ones.

“The Queen loves clothes and is a real expert on fabrics,” she once said. “It’s not been a question of me teaching the Queen – it’s been the other way round.”

The Queen watches a fashion show with Dame Anna Wintour, Caroline Rush and Angela Kelly (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Archive)
The Queen watches a fashion show with Dame Anna Wintour, Caroline Rush and Angela Kelly (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Archive)

And it was Kelly who dressed the Queen in a duck egg blue tweed dress and jacket, embellished with tiny aquamarine Swarovski crystals, as she sat in the front row at London Fashion Week, watching a Richard Quinn catwalk show beside US Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour in 2018.

Queen Elizabeth II after watching the Ladies Side-Saddle in the Copper Horse Arena during the Royal Windsor Horse Show at Windsor Castle,  2009 (PA)
Queen Elizabeth II after watching the Ladies Side-Saddle in the Copper Horse Arena during the Royal Windsor Horse Show at Windsor Castle, 2009 (PA)

There was another side to Queen Elizabeth II’s wardrobe which has stayed constant for the majority of her 96 years: her countryside wardrobe. It is often quoted she was happiest at her homes Balmoral Castle, Scotland, and The Sandringham Estate, in Norfolk.

For horse riding and outdoor pursuits, she relied on trusty long wax coats, tartan skirts and quilted jackets – but it was her array of headscarves that became the most recognisable symbol of her out-of-town look.

Queen Elizabeth II 96th Birthday, 2022 (PA)
Queen Elizabeth II 96th Birthday, 2022 (PA)

So often, these accessorize the moments Queen Elizabeth II looked her happiest. Be that watching The Royal Windsor Horse Show, as she did in May for her remarkable 79th year in a row, or arriving at King’s Lynn railway station to spend Christmas with her family in Norfolk, she wore them with a beaming smile and silk knot tied under her chin.

Scroll the gallery above for Queen Elizabeth’s greatest ever fashion moments