If you’ve ever wondered how much thought goes into planning a royal wardrobe, you might recall the outfits the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, wore on the royal tour in Ireland in early 2020 (when the Royal Family still travelled, prepandemic). On the first day of the visit, the Duchess wore an Alessandra Rich lime print dress underneath a Catherine Walker emerald coat – admittedly predictable since green is Ireland’s signature colour.
The following day, she resurrected a Reiss cream-coloured coat from her pre-royal days, and on the third day, she sported an orange-coral knit sweater from British brand Really Wild (fittingly, she wore the same sweater in red on the Canadian tour in 2016). While none of these looks was particularly over-the-top with sartorial symbolism on their own, considered together they revealed all three colours of the Irish flag.
“It’s a testament to how much planning goes into the looks as a compilation,” says Elizabeth Holmes, author of the new book HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style. The book looks at the style, strategy and branding of four of the most fashionably influential royal women of the past century: Queen Elizabeth II; Diana, the late Princess of Wales; Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex.
A former senior style reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Holmes’s inspiration for the book came from her popular Instagram Stories series So Many Thoughts, where she parsed the meaning behind the Duchesses’ outfits. “I started my royal commentary on social media three years ago, when I saw Prince William and Kate’s holiday-card portrait,” she says. “I screenshotted the photo, added text bubbles with some pithy thoughts and posted it to Instagram.”
What’s fascinating to Holmes is the way each royal woman uses her clothes to speak for her. “The Queen and her family members aren’t known for granting revealing interviews or giving long, personal speeches,” she says. “What they do is appear in public. Photographs of these events go around the world in seconds, and their outfits are a source of excitement and press coverage. Kate and Meghan recognize that attention, and quite savvily, they dress in a way that sends a message.”
The messaging can be overt, as seen on royal tours – or it can be subtle and reveal their values, such as Kate’s dedication to British labels and accessible fashion and Meghan’s frequent choice of female-owned or sustainable brands. Holmes says it’s important to note that royals don’t exactly have free reign when it comes to choosing their style. “They’re not celebrities with agency to wear what they please. They make their choices under the microscope of the British public and press, both of whom expect them to be simultaneously stylish and sensible; both fancy and frugal,” she says. “It’s a lot to consider.”
We took a look at four images from the book and asked two prominent royal fashion historians for their thoughts on the sartorial messaging of each.
Queen Elizabeth II
“Much like her great, great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, Elizabeth II felt the pressure of her responsibilities given the monarchy she inherited,” says British fashion historian and curator Dr. Kate Strasdin, author of the book Inside the Royal Wardrobe: A Dress History of Queen Alexandra. At the time of the state opening of Parliament in 1966, “the spectre of her uncle Edward VIII’s abdication crisis still loomed large, so she needed to portray a sense of strength and stability. She made sure to depict this by ensuring that her public royal body was appropriate to every occasion.”
The Norman Hartnell haute couture gown fit the bill. “In the tradition of important royal gowns from the time of Elizabeth I, the dress is covered in glittering rhinestones and embroidery in order to emphasize the status of the wearer,” says British fashion historian and auctioneer Kerry Taylor of Kerry Taylor Auctions London. Hartnell, who was responsible for designing both the Queen’s wedding dress in 1947 and her coronation gown in 1953, was hugely influential in Elizabeth II’s early years as Queen, helping to establish her as a glamorous young monarch.
“As a younger woman, the Queen had quite a curvaceous figure with a tiny waist, which Hartnell emphasized in this dress,” Taylor says. Stylistically, the gown could easily have been from the 1940s or 1950s – “very traditional with narrow waist and full skirts. It had little in common with the fashion styles of the ‘Swinging London’ of the 1960s,” she adds. Yet it was everything it needed to be: “Quietly fashionable and appropriately regal,” Strasdin says. The opening of Parliament wasn’t the first time the Queen had worn the much-loved statement gown – and it proved to be just as relevant this year when Princess Beatrice wore the reworked dress for her wedding day this past July.
Diana, Princess of Wales
“In many ways, this image [snapped on her way to a workout at the Chelsea Harbour Club in 1997] captures the kind of approach that Diana brought to the British monarchy,” Strasdin says. “Whilst she was more than capable of bringing as much glamour to an occasion as it required, she also embraced a less formal aesthetic” – a style that she explored much more after her divorce from Prince Charles. “Diana had a penchant for American sweatshirts, baseball caps and jackets, which she contrasted with tight Lycra shorts. She usually accessorized the ‘sporty’ look with a luxury designer handbag by Dior, Chanel or Gucci,” Taylor says.
“This rebellion was perhaps a step towards modernizing the monarchy and making it more in touch with the general public,” adds Strasdin, who says that during her time as princess, Diana exclusively wore British designers for formal wear (i.e. Catherine Walker and the Emanuels, who created her famous wedding gown), but after the divorce she took fashion risks, often with Gianni Versace (with whom she became great friends). “His shimmering, sexy evening gowns showed off her gym-toned figure.” Diana’s casual gym styles – recreated by Vogue Paris last year and heralded as a key look of the 1990s – have engendered a whole new generation of fans.
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge
On the Duke and Duchess’ first Canadian tour in 2011, Kate channelled the features of this country’s flag, with both the ruffle of her ivory dress and the fan of her red clutch resembling ripples. The outfit was contrasted with a scarlet hat by Sylvia Fletcher for Lock & Co., which was specially adorned with maple leaves as a tribute. The look was completed with red court shoes. “The long tradition of diplomatic dressing was first adopted by Queen Victoria in the 1850s and has continued by generations of royal women since,” Strasdin says. “The non-verbal communication that can be conveyed through dress has long been a strategy of flattery.”
The Duchess’s entrance into the royal fold also coincided with the rise of online shopping, making it possible to buy things immediately and launching the phenomenon known as “the Kate effect,” Holmes says. “She has the power to sell out a style or a design quickly, or put a small brand on the map.”
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex
As a former actor, the Duchess of Sussex has worked with stylists on the Hollywood red carpet and a costume designer on set, so she fully understands the ways in which her wardrobe sends a message. Here, Meghan wears a casual, California-style outfit to attend Wimbledon in 2018. Her ensemble is American preppy-chic by quintessentially American designer Ralph Lauren.
“The striped business-like shirt contrasting with the over-long, voluminous white trousers is redolent of her relaxed L.A. style,” Taylor says. The panama hat is part of her signature style; she was often photographed wearing one before dating Prince Harry. “It’s important to note that the hat is carried – not worn – since it is against royal protocol to wear a hat in the royal box at Wimbledon,” Taylor adds.
This injection of a more laid-back American style was refreshing – the combo was one of the more fashion-forward looks she wore during her tenure as a senior working royal, Strasdin says. “Even in this day and age, it’s still quite unusual for a prominent female royal to wear trousers to an event such as Wimbledon, so she brings a welcome edge of all-American comfort and modernity.”
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