· A look at the different ways the Queen has used fashion in Fashioning a Reign ·
To celebrate her ninetieth birthday last year, when the Queen opened three of her palaces to the public, she also let them have a glimpse into her wardrobe. The exhibition, titled Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from the Queen’s Wardrobe, was displayed across Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, all three working palaces. It showcased clothing worn by the monarch throughout her entire life and offered a different perspective on Her Majesty, who has come to be known in recent years for her brightly colored coats and hats. Contrary to what many of my generation may assume, she did not always wear this uniform, and the exhibition showcased everything from evening gowns to riding clothes and, of course, even some of the aforementioned coats.
Perhaps the most striking displays were the formal gowns worn by the Queen in the forties, fifties, and sixties. Today, even when she dresses for state dinners, as beautiful as her glittery gowns and sumptuous fur wraps are, they fall flat in comparison to, say, the Duchess of Cambridge; she is, after all, 91 years old. However, overshadowing even her granddaughter-in-law’s gowns are the Queen’s own glittering numbers from her younger years. These gowns came, overarchingly, in two forms: sparkling, beaded sheath dresses and satin ball gowns. These stunning garments show a side of the Queen those of a younger generation do not immediately associate with her.
On display in Buckingham Palace was a beaded sheath dress designed by Norman Hartnell and worn by the Queen in the fifties. Glittering with gold and silver sequins, beads, and diamantes, the dress showed off two aspects of the young Queen we no longer necessarily see: glamour and a beautiful figure. This sheath dress showed the tiny waist and slim figure of the Queen in the forties, fifties, and sixties, but also showed a glamour that we no longer are privy to. And this was not the only dress showcasing these aspects.
In fact, glittering sheath dresses were a reoccurring theme in the Queen’s wardrobe. There’s the aforementioned Normal Hartnell number, complete with glittering floor length cape, along with a sparkling gown with diamond-shaped accents adorning the skirt, and, a not-quite-so-glittering, but beautiful nonetheless, turquoise sheath dress from 1965 with a shimmering, beaded bodice. And this was only a sampling.
The entirety of the Queen’s wardrobe on display demonstrated the glamour of her clothing over the years, but none more so than these glittering gowns. They were timely, fashionable, yet elevated to an opulence not found elsewhere. In these gowns, the Queen truly demonstrated the unparalleled luxury available to her. Yet, though these impressive, dazzling dresses are opulence incarnate, there was a style of gown that went beyond even these: Her Majesty’s satin ball gowns.
Perhaps more numerous than the sheath dresses covered in sequins and beads, the ball gown seemed to be another go-to for the Queen in the forties, fifties, and even into the sixties. Showing both the prevailing silhouette of the time and the resources available to the monarch, these gowns impress in a way that diverges from the ostentatious beaded sheaths. Among these ball gowns were a deep red velvet New-Look-style gown, a cream and green gown with a cape-like adornment, and a gorgeous lilac-grey dress embellished with beads and sequins. However, it is clear that there was a consistent theme within many of the Queen’s other ball gowns: ivory or white duchesse satin embellished with intricate designs. Variants of this style were found across all three palaces and spanning several decades.
These gowns, in some ways, demonstrated the notion of anti-fashion. In Fashion as Communication, Malcolm Barnard writes about the ways in which fashion is used to communicate status or class. “Fashion and clothing… may be the most significant ways in which social relations between people are constructed, experienced and understood,” he writes. He continues to explain how dress can indicate membership to a certain group of people, including class.
Importantly, though, fashion is about change. Barnard, citing Ted Polhemus and Lynn Procter, introduces the notion of anti-fashion: a fixed way of dress that changes little. They point specifically to the Queen’s 1953 Coronation gown, which was displayed along with her 1947 wedding dress, as anti-fashion and Barnard writes, “Overall, the argument is that the Queen would like to see things stay the way they are and she uses anti-fashion which changes slowly, if at all, in time to express this.” He continues, “The ‘traditional’ and ‘fixed’ nature of the gown is a sign of continuity, a way of making the House of Windsor appear legitimate and proper.” Indeed, the Coronation gown, along with Her Majesty’s wedding dress, drew my eye to a portrait of the Queen’s ancestors in their own formal Coronation gowns that was on display at Buckingham Palace. Like the Queen’s ivory ball gowns, her predecessors wore gowns of creamy ivory, with rich adornment, and it’s here that you can see how the Queen utilized anti-fashion to maintain a relationship with her family’s historic claim to the throne.
Transcending the need to assert her status and class, the Queen’s formal clothes also nod to prevailing trends but do not necessarily follow it. Barnard writes, “Clothing and fashion are often used to indicate social worth or status.” The Queen’s social worth is firmly and famously in place, so she had no need to use changing fashion as an indicator of her status. Rather, it benefits her more to assert the timelessness of her status through anti-fashion. Further, the exhibition’s curator explains in a Q&A, “The Queen allows her clothes to reflect fashion but not lead it.” The ivory ball gowns, while they remind of the cream-colored dresses of her predecessors, also nod to contemporary silhouettes. And though they would not look out of place in a 1940s, ‘50s or even ‘60s formal event, the almost-uniformity of the cream color, the silhouette, and the embellishment with seed pearls and crystals, lend itself to the timeless anti-fashion mentioned by Barnard.
These images help illustrate the idea of anti-fashion. You can see the similarities between Queen Adelaide, Queen Victoria, Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary, and the Queen Mother. The painted portrait of the Queen hits home how her Coronation gown related to her predecessors’. The Coronation gown, along with the Queen’s wedding gown, was shown alongside portraits similar to the ones above which were on the walls at Buckingham Palace, drawing attention to the anti-fashion nature of some the Queen’s formal gowns. I would like to draw attention to Queen Mary’s gown, which featured the thistle, rose, and shamrock, as did the Queen’s. (Coronation image, Cecil Beaton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, other image links can be found below).
While many of her formal gowns could fall under anti-fashion, her less formal daywear lends itself to diplomacy. A well-known fact about the Queen’s wardrobe is the subtle (and not-so-subtle) nods to occasion-appropriate detail. Whether it’s the maple leaf in Canada, shamrocks in Ireland, or even simply wearing black when she met the Pope (apparently queens only wear black for mourning), the Queen is careful to include a detail to pay respect to those she is meeting.
Curator Caroline de Guitaut refers to this as “soft diplomacy” and it’s something that the Queen’s granddaughter-in-law has picked up on. Royal watchers are quick to compare the Duchess of Cambridge’s wardrobe choices to the late Princess Diana, but Fashioning a Reign shone a light on the ways in which the 91-year-old monarch’s own fashion choices may be influencing the young Royal’s.
One such example that jumped out at me was an electric blue chiffon dress worn in Canada in 1976 during the Montreal Olympics. The dress was adorned with an Olympic-ring motif. It called to mind the similarly colored Stella McCartney dress Kate wore in July 2012 for an Olympic-themed event at the National Portrait Gallery. In the run up to the 2012 London Olympics, the Duchess accessorized with a Cartier necklace with Olympic-style rings. The effect of the color, combined with the homage to the Olympic rings set me to wonder if Kate and her stylists were paying subtle deference, or simply taking inspiration, from the Queen’s success in diplomatic dressing.
The Queen wore this dress to Canada in 1976, the year Montreal hosted the Olympics. The Duchess of Cambridge wore a similarly-colored dress with an Olympic-ring style necklace that made me wonder if she was giving a subtle nod to the Queen’s diplomatic dressing. Via OMG That Dress and Hello! Fashion
Once I made this connection, I began to see more. The gown next to the Queen’s Montreal dress was a yellow chiffon number worn in Australia and embellished with the wattle, Australia’s national flower. While on the Royal Tour of Australia and New Zealand, the Duchess of Cambridge wore a black Jenny Packham dress with a crystal fern leaf on the shoulder. As the Queen’s dress featured one of Australia’s national colors (yellow for gold) and its national flower, so the Duchess’ featured New Zealand’s national color (black) and national plant in a similar way. As I visited each exhibition, I continued to make more of these connections. I strongly believe it’s much more likely that the young Royal is following the revered, respected, and reigning monarch’s sartorial direction, than it is that she is trying to emulate a late princess who she is so often compared to regardless.
This suit was on display and in the garment-safe lighting looked like a pale blue with navy trim. The pale blue color it appeared made it reminiscent of the suit the Duchess of Cambridge wore in the Netherlands. Upon research, I found that it is actually white with navy blue trim and was worn at the Greenwich Naval College. Kate Middleton wore a similar-styled white dress with navy trim to the National Maritime Museum, also in Greenwich. Via Pinterest, Elle and Marie Claire
One of the Queen’s go-to off-duty looks throughout the years has been tweed skirts. As you can see, she paired it with a matching blazer as she watched the Badminton Horse Trials in 1968 and with a pussy-bow blouse and cardigan to walk her famous corgis. For Christmas 2015 (and again a few weeks later), Kate Middleton opted for a tweed skirt suit by Michael Kors. The fit of the skirt, tweed, and matching jacket would not look out of place on the Queen herself! Via 22 Words, Vanity Fair and Independent.ie
Just as the Queen honors the diplomatic setting in which she wears something, much of the clothes displayed in Fashioning a Reign had some connection to the working palace in which they were displayed. One of the ball gowns exhibited at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh had a Stewart tartan sash and was worn in Scotland; the Queen’s Coronation and wedding gowns, which were worn in London, were displayed in Buckingham Palace; Pantomime costumes used in Windsor Castle are housed just a few rooms away from where they were worn. To see the Queen’s clothing within a setting in which they might have been worn lends a reality to the unbelievable life of the British monarch. And it helps us think about the fashion of a monarch in a different way – it was striking to see the Queen’s custom Coronation gown reflected back in a nineteenth century painting on the wall of Buckingham Palace. Fashioning a Reign was staged in three working palaces, after all. Rather than if they were displayed behind glass in a sterile museum setting, seeing ball gowns and glittering sheaths against the backdrop of the Queen’s true homes reminded the visitor that this wasn’t a movie or a fairy tale.
No, instead, this was someone’s reality.
Ayed, Nahlah (2016) Dressed for diplomacy: How the Queen’s fashion strengthens foreign ties via CBCNews. Available at: http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/queen-fashion-diplomacy-1.3624823.
Barnard, Malcolm (2002) Fashion as communication. New York: Routledge.
The Express (2015) The Queen: Every year of her reign in pictures. Available at: http://www.express.co.uk/pictures/royal/3104/Queen-Elizabeth-II-longest-reigning-British-monarch-1953-2015-pictures.
McCure, Kate (2016) Queen Elizabeth: Exhibition showcasing 90 years of royal fashion opens at Buckingham Palace via ABC News. Available at: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-07-23/queen-elizabeth-exhibition-showcases-90-years-of-royal-dresses/7654510.
Muddy Stilettos (2016) See this: Fashioning a Reign exhibition, Windsor Castle. Available at: https://berkshire.muddystilettos.co.uk/uncategorized/see-this-fashioning-a-reign-exhibition-windsor-castle/.
Royal Collection (2016) Press Releases. Available at: https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/about/press-office/press-releases/fashioning-a-reign-90-years-of-style-from-the-queens-wardrobe?language=fr#/.
Russell, Ann (2016) Inside Holyrood’s new royal style exhibition via Vogue UK. Available at: http://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/inside-queen-exhibition-fashioning-a-reign-the-palace-of-holyroodhouse.
Wheeler, Alex (2016) Queen Elizabeth II’s glittering gowns on show in Buckingham Palace’s Fashioning a Reign exhibition via International Business Times. Available at: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/queen-elizabeth-iis-glittering-gowns-show-buckingham-palaces-fashioning-reign-exhibition-1571969.
Queen Adelaide: John Simpson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Queen Alexandra: Luke Fildes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Queen Mary: photograph via Grand Ladies and William Llewellyn [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons