The Queen’s fashion rule was symbolism over style


For her 1953 silver and gold coronation dress, the Queen called on Hartnell to employ his over-the-top approach again.

“I despise simplicity; it is the negation of all that is beautiful,” he told British Vogue, designing the gown with maximum motifs.

The Queen in her wedding dress by Norman Hartnell, with fabric paid for using war ration coupons; a sketch of the Coronation gown; and Cecil Beaton’s portrait of Queen Elizabeth II in the Coronation gown. Credit:AP – Bettman Archive

The pedantic Hartnell researched the symbols of the Empire for eight months before submitting nine designs. The Queen selected the eighth, with a sweetheart neckline and billowing skirt. Symbols abounded with an embroidered leek for Wales, a Tudor rose, Scottish thistle, silver fern for New Zealand, a maple leaf for Canada and wattle for Australia.

The Queen was so fond of the dress, which took 12 people 3500 hours to create, that she wore it again to the opening of the Australian Parliament in Canberra in 1954.

In the swinging ’60s, psychedelic ‘70s and decadent ’80s, the Queen was often referred to as a dowdy figure, summed up by her penchant for tweed skirts, silk scarves, cardigans and sensible shoes, when not raiding the royal jewellery collection for official state events. But looking back, there were moments of individuality: a headscarf and printed skirt suit worthy of Prada at Balmoral in 1972; and a brilliant yellow polka dot dress paired with a turban on a 1975 trip to Mexico.

A colour-coordinated Queen: Elizabeth ll at Balmoral in 1972 and in Mexico wearing a turban in  1975.

A colour-coordinated Queen: Elizabeth ll at Balmoral in 1972 and in Mexico wearing a turban in 1975.Credit:Getty

There was an evolution towards her signature style over the past three decades, with the majority of her predominantly block-coloured outfits enabling her to stand out in crowds without the aid of a tiara. The impression has always been that the Queen dressed for her people, rather than herself.

Since the tragic death of Princess Diana in 1997, the Queen slowly became an object of fashion praise rather than derision with her senior style, refined by her dresser, Kelly.

“Nobody does the job better than [the Queen] does. She is never ridiculous; she is flawless,” the notoriously opinionated Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld said on French television in 2012.

“For this job, in our day, she is perfect. She’s not supposed to be a fashion icon who is changing fashion. The Duchess of Cambridge can do that.”

Kelly fine-tuned the Queen’s public style of matching hats, coats and dresses, with a black patent leather Launer handbag, and has been accused of taking the same approach to symbolism employed by Hartnell.

The blue and yellow ensemble worn by the Queen to the opening of British parliament after the Brexit referendum in 2016 was interpreted as a sign of disapproval by mirroring the EU flag and its yellow stars.

In an interview with the UK’s Telegraph, Kelly dismissed suggestions of covert costume plotting.

“We are two typical women. We discuss clothes, makeup, jewellery. We say, ‘Would this piece of jewellery look nice with that outfit?’” But even the use of jewellery has been open to interpretation, with the Queen’s choice of brooches analysed by observers at significant events.

Queen Elizabeth II received then-prime minister Scott Morrison at Windsor Castle in 2021.

Queen Elizabeth II received then-prime minister Scott Morrison at Windsor Castle in 2021.Credit:Getty

The brooches are not just sparkling signs of disapproval, such as when the Queen wore a gift from the Obamas on former US president Donald Trump’s visit to the UK in 2018. In June, a brooch resembling a wattle given by then-prime minister Robert Menzies in 1954 was displayed prominently when former prime minister Scott Morrison visited Windsor Castle.

A few days after the funeral of Prince Philip, she wore a diamond Cartier brooch, a removable part of a tiara given to the Queen on her wedding day by the Nizam of Hyderabad.

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“What she cannot overtly say with language, she secretly says with clothes,” Sali Hughes wrote in Our Rainbow Queen.

The moment most revealing of the Queen’s style took place on her first visit to London Fashion Week in 2018. Alongside US Vogue editor Anna Wintour, her majesty watched the exuberant floral work of emerging designer Richard Quinn in a pale blue suit with black gloves from the front row.

Queen Elizabeth sits next to Vogue’s Anna Wintour as they view Richard Quinn’s runway show before presenting him with the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design in 2018.

Queen Elizabeth sits next to Vogue’s Anna Wintour as they view Richard Quinn’s runway show before presenting him with the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design in 2018.Credit:AP

Wintour was immediately recognisable with her signature bob and sunglasses but more familiar, more comforting and more captivating was the Queen, somehow a part of fashion and at the same time apart from it.

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