When King Charles walked Meghan Markle down the aisle at Windsor Castle’s St. George’s Chapel in 2018, all eyes were on the bride. But while the fashion world fawned over her Givenchy gown, fastidious royal followers took note of her future father-in-law’s look too. Next to a royal wedding dress with a five-metre-long embroidered silk train, the King’s grey three-piece suit might have appeared unremarkable, except for one detail. It was 34 years old.
“I’m one of those people who hate throwing anything away,” the future king said in an interview with British Vogue in 2020, adding that he’ll keep wearing that particular morning coat “as long as I can go on getting into it.”
It’s not often that a grey suit makes headlines, but the King’s haberdashery is more than a fashion statement. “Fashion has, for centuries, been at the heart of the monarchy’s image,” says Kate Strasdin, a British fashion historian and the author of Inside the Royal Wardrobe: A Dress History of Queen Alexandra. “Many monarchs recognized the power that clothes convey, especially for an institution that so often has to communicate non-verbally.”
From Queen Victoria’s choice of a Shamrock-embroidered dress to ease tensions with Ireland to Queen Alexandra’s careful selection of colours to promote her popularity, royal fashion has historically conveyed messages and influenced trends. Queen Elizabeth was known for her colour-co-ordinated ensembles, which helped supporters catch a glimpse of her at public appearances. The items that Catherine, Princess of Wales, steps out in are known to sell out and spark collections of high-street lookalikes. And the aesthetic influence of Diana, the “fashion princess,” can still be seen in fashion to this day.
What King Charles wears – and rewears – signals both continuity and change within the institution, offering a glimpse into the future of the monarchy and the emergence of an overshadowed style icon. “I think in many ways he will forge his own path – he is not the dandy that Edward VIII was certainly and would shy away from that kind of label of extravagance,” Strasdin says.
Charles cut a dashing figure in his early days as the Prince of Wales, as vintage photos remind. Whether wearing colourful sportswear on the polo field, a safari suit and desert boots in Nairobi, a Stetson hat and bolo on a visit to Alberta, or in full military dress or black tie, he had a debonair, sporting handsomeness. His love affair with traditional British culture, style and architecture also made him a natural influencer for the Sloane Ranger style, a mix of preppy classics and country-inspired accessories that became a symbol of British upper-class fashion and lifestyle for affluent 1980s Londoners.
“I have an image of what a British gentleman looks like, and that image finds real expression in Prince Charles. He is beyond fashion – he is an archetype of style,” Donatella Versace told British GQ in 2012 when he landed on the magazine’s annual best-dressed list.
Over the decades, Charles has developed a uniform for himself from a shortlist of British heritage brands: suits from Savile Row tailors Gieves and Hawkes, and Anderson and Sheppard; shirts from Turnbull and Asser; shoes by the likes of John Lobb, Trickers, and Crockett and Jones. While his tailors of choice declined to comment on the specifics of the King’s file, it’s telling that he’s picked a purveyor of some of the most relaxed threads on the row. “Anderson and Sheppard are known as the civil tailors. Our origins are in soft tailoring, not in military tailorings, like some of our competitors. So instead of a more rigid, firmer chest, there is that fluid, flowing motion throughout the suit,” says the firm’s managing director, Colin Heywood.
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King Charles is known for his nearly obsessive interest in clothing and craft, making field trips to watch the master cutters at work at the Anderson and Sheppard atelier and hopping behind the sewing machine on a tour of the Turnbull and Asser factory. He’s also concerned about what his clothes are made of, and what impact they have on the environment. In 2010, he launched the Campaign for Wool to raise awareness about the fibre’s unique, natural and sustainable benefits in response to a global decline in price and demand, which affected whole industries of farmers and textile mills.
“It’s all interconnected,” says Matthew Rowe, CEO of the Campaign for Wool in Canada, explaining how the King’s advocacy for wool intersects with his support for organic farming and his belief in the need for a circular economy. “It’s an appreciation for natural fibre because of the role that it plays in the environment, which is also connected in terms of making quality garments, which is also connected with craftsmanship and traditional trade, artists and artisans. It’s also connected to how we manage the land, which is connected to how we dispose of clothing, how we consume garments and other materials.”
As he himself admits, disposing of clothing is not something King Charles does often. Indeed, he was spotted in his decades-old morning coat from the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s wedding again in 2021 at the Royal Ascot. He’s also been known to wear the same two double-breasted coats, one camel, the other tweed. Then there is his gardening jacket, which made an appearance on a BBC special in 2013. It’s a garment so patchworked it’s hard to tell what it may have originally looked like.
Clearly, wearing something old is nothing new for King Charles, yet there is something quietly modern about that. “Such a lot has changed in recent decades as far as the consumption of clothing is concerned and I think King Charles will be mindful of that,” Strasdin says. Much is being made of his pragmatic approach to the monarchy and his plans to slim it down and make it more efficient in the 21st century, she adds, and that his wardrobe will follow suit. “Certainly he will subscribe to the ceremonial traditions of the coronation in its most formal parts but beyond that, any suggestion of conspicuous consumption will not be a welcome label.”
In an era of uncertainty about the climate and the economy, perhaps King Charles’s subliminal sartorial message is this: Keep calm and carry on wearing what’s in your closet.