Royal Style

Don’t miss our beautifully illustrated and fascinating Royal Style article by Luise Wackerl, featuring regal fashion icons of the past and present from Elizabeth I to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge

Always beautifully dressed with her mix of high street and high fashion, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge adorns the newspapers and glossy magazines on a weekly if not a daily basis here in Britain. But she is not the only member of the Royal Family to have made an impression. Centuries ago, her royal predecessors also caused a sensation among an admiring British public. Elizabeth I reinforced her power with swathes of sweeping robes and Queen Victoria popularised the white wedding dress.

As they have done in the past, the royals continue to set trends. Flesh-coloured silk stockings were a fashion faux pas until Kate Middleton appeared on the scene. Since her wedding to Prince William last year, The Duchess of Cambridge has become a style icon and breathed new life into so-called ‘granny glamour’. She covers her bare legs out of deference to court protocol, but as a consequence she has elevated the nude-coloured patent leather pump and nude tight combo to a must-have look. She also boosted the sale of skinny, coral-coloured jeans around the world, with young girls and women striving to look like a princess.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with prince Harry at the races in Epsom

The not quite rags-to-riches story of the millionaire’s daughter from Berkshire is almost too good to be true. The romance of the decade began in 2001, as William and Kate fell in love at the University of St Andrews. After a slight ‘blip’ the couple announced their engagement. On 16 November 2010, William’s new fiancée revealed a love token ‘par excellence’ – the bright-blue sapphire ring made 30 years ago by the world’s oldest jeweller, Garrard, for Diana, Princess of Wales. The ring, with its dazzling oval 18-carat sapphire surrounded by 14 diamonds, was considered a wonderful way to pay tribute to Prince William’s mother.

Mirroring Diana’s engagement look, Kate matched the colour of her outfit to the ring. The Daniella Issa Helayel blue drapé silk dress (£400) sold out within hours, while the ring – albeit cheap imitations – became an instant worldwide sensation.

British royals have been setting trends for centuries, the difference being that while Kate is keen for her image and popularity to resonate with the general public – mixing luxury labels with affordable items from the high street – the magnificent wardrobes of past royals kept them far apart from the simple folk of their day.

In order to assert herself, Elizabeth I (1533-1603) spent her whole life at court. The monarch had to underscore her power by wearing severely cut, sweeping robes. Her skirts were held by a rod at the waist and assumed unprecedented proportions beneath. As if to say ‘come to me, just don’t get too close’.

In order to cement her position of power, the Virgin Queen refused all offers of marriage. Although she is said to have amused herself with lovers, ultimately she was married to her kingdom. In order not to look too masculine, and in contrast to the gloomy garb of the Spanish court, she had many of her 6,000 garments tailored in white and filled with gold applications and bows.

But Queen Elizabeth was not strictly a fashion icon in those days, because her style could not be imitated. Elizabeth would brook no rival fashionista by her side either and she dictated strict codes of dress to her ladies-in-waiting: woe betide them if they should disobey. In 1587, fearing for her throne, the childless monarch had her second cousin, Mary Stuart Queen of Scots beheaded. Headless Mary gave her name to the fan-shaped, high-necked ruff or Stuart Collar, which was one of Elizabeth’s favourite accessories.

Queen Elizabeth I consciously used her gowns to create a distance between herself and others

Some 300 years later, Queen Victoria (1819-1901) became Britain’s greatest trendsetter. For most brides, Maria de Medici had already introduced the white wedding dress in 1600, but the British made it popular throughout Europe. Victoria was not a great beauty but she knew how to move in the right light. As in the days of her predecessor Elizabeth I, the kingdom flowered in a new golden age, the great-great-grandmother of the present Queen ruling for 63 years over a quarter of the world’s population. At the same time, she was right up there in the fashion stakes next to Elisabeth of Austria (‘Sisi’) and Eugénie de Montijo, as one of three great, ‘trendy’ queens of her time.

Victoria’s genuine love match to her cousin Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1819-1861) was a milestone of royal style in the 19th century. Although their marriage was arranged, the 20-year-old, as she was then, was head over heels in love with her husband. When she stepped inside the chapel of St James’s Palace on 10 February 1840, her wedding dress symbolised this great passion. The diminutive monarch appeared in a strapless corset dress with ruffles and a relatively short veil. Two hundred people worked on the hem of her dress for nine months.

Most unusual, however, was the colour of the dress – white. While the nobility were often married in silver and gold fabrics, the people preferred black for everyday use. Since at that time photos were not very common, the pair repeated their vows for the camera 14 days after the wedding.

Victoria brought nine children into the world. Whilst waiting to take his seat on the throne, her eldest son Edward VII (1841-1910), spent his time on parties, women and clothes. He not only gave his name to the Prince of Wales’ check, (formerly the Glen Check), but he also started a fashion for wearing the smoking jacket outside the smoking lounges. At that time, gentlemen wore their velvet jackets only when smoking and then slipped back into a frock coat or tailcoat for dinner. Edward had a smoking-jacket made in black fabric, rather than silk, by London tailor Henry Poole & Co, which he would not remove even when eating. Hence, the smoking jacket became the dinner jacket we know today. The trend quickly spread to America. After visiting the Prince of Wales in London, a certain James Brown Potter appeared in the new quilted jacket at the Autumn Ball at the Tuxedo Club, a private members’ club in New York. In the US, therefore, the dinner jacket is known as the ‘tuxedo’.

Elizabeth II has also been at the forefront of enduring trends. Her colourful mix of candy-coloured suits and matching hats, and her bags with box-shaped handles and sturdy shoes are instantly recognisable wherever she goes in the world. During her reign, she has confided in only seven court tailors and a personal stylist (whose official title is Personal Assistant and Senior Dresser to The Queen). The first was Norman Hartnell (1901-1979), who dressed The Queen, her sister Princess Margaret (1930-2002) and The Queen Mother (1900-2002) in what is now considered typical Windsor-chic.

The Queen Mother first rose to fame as a true fashion icon after her state visit to Paris in 1938 (she was then Queen Consort of King George VI). Her mother, the Countess of Strathmore died suddenly just before she was due to depart but Norman Hartnell had already tailored 30 dresses for the visit. On hearing the news, he designed a new wardrobe entirely in white – a reference to Queen Victoria, who had been buried in white, and the queens of France who had, until the 17th century, unusually adopted white as the colour of mourning.

In short, the Queen Mother’s White Wardrobe had a huge impact on the streets of haute couture’s capital. A cult developed around the her and her two daughters – Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. While Margaret smoked cigarettes from a long holder with a diamond-encrusted tip and appeared in a fluffy ball gown from Dior, her fingernails painted pink on her 21st birthday, her elder sister quickly learned to use her clothes more as a political statement.

Queen Elizabeth II’s sumptuous coronation gown by Norman Hartnell was embroidered with the emblems of the Empire and all the Commonwealth states. On her feet she wore a pair of golden goatskin pumps by Parisian ‘king of shoes’ Roger Vivier. He had created a fleur-de-lis motif with small rubies – a reference to Elizabeth’s famous Imperial State Crown and the St Edward’s Crown, which were both used in her coronation.

Princess Diana

Even today The Queen is still a royal trendsetter, helped by her personal stylist Angela Kelly. When she appeared at the wedding of her grandson Prince William in 2011 with a cream-coloured handbag made of calf leather (a unique bespoke item by its purveyors Launer of London), she sparked a boom in sales of similar styles.

Princess Diana (1961-1997) knew how to use the language of fashion for herself. In 1994, as Prince Charles tried to restore his honour after his affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles had been revealed in the press, Diana stole the show at a gala at London’s Serpentine Gallery in a strapless, black cocktail dress by Christina Stambolian. After her divorce in 1996, the Princess became an icon of ‘clean chic’, favouring clean lines and fine fabrics, sheath dresses by Versace, and high-heels by Jimmy Choo. Although her looks were always simple, they also increasingly emphasised her well-toned body.

As different as these royal style icons all are, each has left their own indelible mark on the world of fashion.

Read more features about the Royal Family