One of author Bethan Holt's favourite Royal looks is this lime-green suit, worn by Queen Elizabeth II on her 90th birthday in 2016, proving "women her age no longer needed to fade into the background." Photo: John Stillwell/AFP/Getty Images
The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style
After researching seven decades of the monarch's style choices, British fashion journalist Bethan Holt says her favourite royal designers are Norman Hartnell and Angela Kelly / BY Leanne Delap / June 30th, 2022
The Queen’s fashion staples – hat and handbag, brooch and monochromatic coat-and-dress combo –offer an unchanging image, save for the bold colour palette of the day. But, in fact, Elizabeth II’s image has been a slow and steady transformation from princess to icon, with clear-eyed decisions about how to adapt to dramatically shifting fashion trends. In The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style, British fashion journalist Bethan Holt traces her journey, calling it stoic and cautious, yet dazzling and majestic.
Holt, the fashion news and features director at The Telegraph and author of 2021’s The Duchess of Cambridge: A Decade of Modern Style, estimates the Queen has worn some 10,000 official outfits. To do this, she has had to depend on a series of designers to help interpret the trends of the day.
In an interview from London, where Holt was on maternity leave, she says the Queen “has always made very savvy wardrobe decisions.” When asked whether the 96-year-old monarch has always chosen the right guides, she singles out one British designer from each end of the Queen’s 70 years on the throne. “Having Norman Hartnell so involved at the beginning of her reign was a masterstroke, as he was incredibly clever at taking historical references and making them contemporary.”
She also praises Angela Kelly, who has been the Queen’s dresser for the last two decades (and published a behind-the-scenes look the Queen’s style, The Other Side of the Coin: the Queen, the Dresser and the Wardrobe, in 2019.) “[Kelly] has also been brilliant at subtly reinventing the monarch’s look for the 21st century, and has helped her to become a fashion icon in her 90s.”
Holt thinks there was room for improvement before Kelly came on the scene. “I think in the mid years of her reign – around the ’80s and ’90s – the Queen’s style lost its way a little, and there are some examples of her being labelled ‘dowdy’ around this time.”
Holt says the Queen cares about fashion, and understands the inherent power of presentation. “I think the Queen has long been acutely aware that the way she presents herself has a huge impact on how she comes across,” and this lesson was driven home from an early age. “Her mother and grandmother instilled high standards of style in her – like never leaving the house without a hat and gloves – which she upholds to this day. The Queen knows how important it is to look the part as well as act it.”
The transition from princess to Queen involved some serious wardrobe considerations. For instance, in the ’50s, her sister Margaret became a devotee of French designer Christian Dior and his New Look, but as Queen, Elizabeth couldn’t wear anything but British designers. (The rules have loosened now, and Diana, Kate and Meghan mix some French, Italian and American designers into their predominantly British-aligned wardrobes.) But the influence of the New Look – with its nipped waist and exaggerated skirts, which were luxuriantly long of hemline after the deprivations of wartime fabric shortages – carried on for more than a decade, so her designers had to come up with a way to nod to it without copying it.
“Elizabeth became Queen at a time when much of the world was optimistically looking to the future whilst still suffering the after-effects of the Second World War, and she really symbolized the hope and excitement of a new era as a youthful and glamorous young Queen,” says Holt. “This was really the only time when her look has closely reflected the fashions of the time, without being over the top – she really revelled in the nipped waists and full skirts of the time, which were fashionable, but also ladylike. Hartnell and Hardy Amies created some beautiful looks for her which really helped to underline the excitement so many felt for her reign.”
Her mother – and the long shadow of the Wallace Simpson debacle – also influenced the Queen’s fashion choices. Wallace was a couture regular who favoured Paris-based designers like Elsa Schiaparelli and Dior, but the Queen Mother rejected anything associated with the American divorcee, who prompted Edward VIII to abdicate the throne in 1936 so he could marry her. The scandal threw the House of Windsor into upheaval and changed the line of succession; Elizabeth’s father George VI was crowned King of the United Kingdom in Edward’s stead. “Elizabeth certainly adopted her mother’s approach to clothes,” says Holt, “which was to respect them and value how they helped them to do their jobs without becoming obsessed – even vain – in the way Wallace was. It’s a fine line!”
There were important things at stake, such as regaining the public’s faith in the monarchy after the abdication, and fashion was an important tool. Seen so much and heard so little, Royal women let their clothes do the talking. “Elizabeth and her mother recognized that it was important to be the antithesis of Wallace in order to restore stability to the monarchy,” says Holt. That is why loyally supporting British designers became so important, to help restore an industry so damaged by war.
Royal tours were more glamorous affairs then, and Holt says the Queen made the most of her wardrobe, knowing the media coverage would be intense and how her clothes would present her image across the Commonwealth. “I also love the romance of any of her tour looks from the 1950s, as they beautifully represent a bygone era of elegance, and any look involving a silk headscarf, as they are such a chic signature accessory.”
Style-wise, middle age was difficult for the Queen, the way it challenges the rest of us. She had to negotiate what Holt calls in the book “a fashion youth quake” in the ’60s, where she tried to appear modern while befitting her station – without looking too groovy, as it were.
“I think the ’60s were a time of huge style transition for the Queen – not only was she entering middle age, but fashion was so youth-centric that she couldn’t possibly keep up,” says Holt. “So she really had to find her own way of dressing, and this is when she established the ‘uniform’ she’s known for today – the bright, block colours and straight silhouettes.” She points to a great look from 1969, the light yellow, quite Mod dress the Queen, then 43, wore to Charles’s investiture as Prince of Wales. It was obviously a terribly important occasion, and she knocked it out of the park with a bold colour and a thoroughly modern look that was still refined. “[It] was definitely a stand out for me, too, as it was the perfect balance of fashionable and regal,” says Holt.
Looking back at the Queen’s middle-aged style now, “it definitely looks like there was room for improvement – often the styles and cuts she wore simply weren’t very flattering,” says Holt. “But we also have to remember that the way we view being 50 or 60 has completely changed. Then, you became an ‘old’ lady, but now women of that age dress more youthfully.”
The 70s, 80s and 90s were what Holt called the dowdy years, when the Queen was always perfectly turned out, if a bit staid, and pulled out the big jewels for state banquets and tours. But it was her private wardrobe, developed over these three decades, that was unexpectedly stylish. Her now-familiar country look – Wellies, a kilt and Hermès headscarf – presented the public image of an outdoorsy Queen, surrounded by corgis, horses and grandchildren, long before 90s supermodels coined the term casual chic.
Holt calls out one later-in-life look for its boldness and directionality. “I also love the lime green outfit she wore for her 90th birthday celebrations. It was such a bold statement, which told the world that she was going nowhere, despite reaching such a huge milestone, and showed that women her age no longer needed to fade into the background.”
Today, she adds, “fashion has become enamoured with older women and the Queen has definitely been central to that movement. We love women who have stayed true to themselves and created a unique look. The Queen completely epitomizes that, which is why she makes best-dressed lists and people want to buy the bag she carries or be as daring as she is with colour.”
That’s why Holt picks the present as her favourite fashion period of the Queen’s long life. “There’s a lot to love from all eras, but I think the last decade has been particularly wonderful. Angela Kelly has created some fantastically colourful and inventive outfits, which prove that being in your 90s need not be a barrier to enjoying fashion and taking pride in looking good.”