Queen Elizabeth II once famously said: “I have to be seen to be believed,” referring to what it was like being a living link to centuries of tradition. Over the course of her 70-year reign, this shaped every element of her wardrobe, from her coronation gown in 1953, to the Imperial State Crown resting on her coffin in Westminster Hall.
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As a young woman, the queen was dressed by Sir Norman Hartnell, who also dressed her mother. He created her 1947 wedding gown that, in post-war Britain, was made from satin she bought using ration coupons. He also made her coronation gown from ivory silk that at Elizabeth's request was hand-embroidered with emblems from every country she would represent.
Only 26 when she acceded to the throne, Elizabeth had to always convey a sense of regal timelessness. Her sister, Margaret, in contrast, was free to pursue a love of fashion, including Dior's New Look of 1947. Elizabeth's dresses could only gently nod to such trends, and so over the years, she developed her own signature style. By not chasing fashion or trends, she managed to transcend both and create a lexicon of her own.
In turn, this became something of a uniform — the ultimate in power dressing. Always in bright colours, to ensure she could be easily spotted, the look was always a dress or separates with a matching hat and coat.
The hemline always fell to just below the knee and the hat was always off the face. She was always finished with white gloves, a framed bag by Launer and sensible shoes by Anello & Davide, reportedly broken in for her by a member of her staff. Every look was accessorised with an heirloom brooch on her left lapel and a three-strand necklace of pearls.
While the colours have become steadily brighter over the decades, reaching almost neon tones in the last 15 years or so, they have never tipped into being garish. Even lime green felt remarkably normal when teamed with the matching hat, coat and that familiar handbag.
Little wonder then that we were all so charmed, when, during her platinum jubilee celebrations, she revealed to Paddington Bear that she used her ever-present handbag to safely store her marmalade sandwiches.
Acutely aware of the power of her clothes, for a her visit to Ireland in 2011 — the first by a British sovereign in more than a 100 years — the queen understood she needed to strike the right note to move on from Ireland's brutal treatment by the British. To do this, she chose to wear a shade of green, that while not emerald, played homage to the nation's famous colour.
In February 2018, she made a surprise appearance at London Fashion Week, sitting front row at the Richard Quinn show, next to Vogue editor Anna Wintour. On her own blue velvet cushion (the rest of the audience sat on bare benches), the queen was there to present Quinn with the inaugural Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design. Wearing duck egg blue, Wintour complimented the queen's unique style as being an "iconic uniform suggesting continuity and tradition.”
Speaking at the time, Caroline Rush from the British Fashion Council, welcomed the Queen, saying: “Your Majesty, I know you do not wish to be known as a fashion icon, but from all of us in this room, we have the utmost respect for you and also your hard work and diligence.“
The uniform that Wintour described was so well choreographed that when it rained, the Queen carried a transparent umbrella with trim to match her outfit of the day. Nothing was left to chance.
For the past 30 years, the queen's clothes have been designed by Angela Kelly, her personal dresser, who replaced Saville Row tailor Hardy Amies, who in turn took over from Hartnell. Always mindful of the moment, in 2019, the queen announced, via Kelly, that she would no longer be wearing fur.
Of course, the true power of the queen's wardrobe was for formal evening occasions, where she favoured full length, often in pale colours. For state occasions, or hosting dinners for visiting dignitaries and heads of state, she let her jewellery do the talking, arriving in a gown, sash, long gloves and priceless tiaras, necklaces, brooches and bracelets.
Hartnell once said of the queen and the queen mother that neither wanted to be regarded as ”fashion setters”, and instead were "content to leave that to other people with less important work to do.”
Of course, in reality, Queen Elizabeth II created an entire identity through her clothes, providing an unfailing consistency that — for the millions who never met her — made her as familiar as one of their own.
Scroll through the gallery below for more images of Queen Elizabeth II over the years