During the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, the way women dress transformed almost beyond recognition. We rebelled in our mini skirts, embraced power shoulders, slinked around in slip dresses and swapped tortuous heels for comfortable trainers.
Through it all, though, the Queen barely seemed to change. From the moment she came of age as a young woman in the 1940s, right up until her death, she insisted on upholding the style standards she had learnt from her mother and grandmother. She never appeared in public without a sturdy yet elegant handbag (rumoured to have carried Clarins lipstick and a crisp £5 note), a hat, a pair of gloves and a carefully chosen brooch pinned to her left (always the left) shoulder.
It’s a remarkable feat to make it through nine decades with such a singular dedication to a certain way of dressing. Even more remarkable is that her style evolution is, nevertheless, fascinating and never, ever boring; even into her ninth decade, she could surprise us with an outfit (like the time she caught a train to Sandringham wearing a Burberry headscarf) or make us feel better as a nation simply by choosing just the right colour at just the right time, like when she wore soothing, uplifting turquoise which also happened to match the colour of medical scrubs at the height of the first Covid lockdown.
The Queen didn’t blaze a trail with her fashion choices by suddenly making us all want to wear whatever latest look she was sporting, but she operated on another level which was all her own, crafting a style which was entirely unique to her and her alone. It’s little wonder she was given a special citation on Vanity Fair’s International Best Dressed list in 2016.
And yet, look back and there are dozens of examples of Queen Elizabeth II epitomising ’50s ladylike elegance, ’60s chic, ’70s glam and ’80s power dressing, while never making a sudden move. Her wardrobe, like her, was dependable yet dazzling and majestic, never shocking but somehow always relevant.
‘Whenever you see a photograph of her, no matter what era it’s from, she always stands out,’ Stewart Parvin, her favoured couturier in later life, told me when I spoke to him for my book, The Queen: 70 years of Majestic Style, ‘and it’s not just because she’s the Queen, it’s because she looks beautiful.’ Meanwhile, Hardy Amies, who designed for Elizabeth from the 1950s until the 1990s, emphasised that, ‘I do not dress the Queen. The Queen dresses herself. We supply her with clothes – there is a difference’.
Elizabeth II paid close personal attention to her wardrobe, acutely aware that, in her own words, she had ‘to be seen to be believed’, a mantra which explains her dedication to bright head-to-toe hues. ‘The Queen had a mind of her own. Just as she fell in love as a teenager and made a clear choice about who she wanted to marry, so she decided how she should look,’ said Justine Picardie, author and former editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar.
If there was anyone whose opinion she valued more than her own, it was her husband’s – there are countless stories of him suggesting designers for her to visit when he admired their clothes on other women or of him being given the last word on whether a new hat or outfit passed muster.
The occasions and scrutiny that the Queen had to dress for may not be relatable to any of us, but the spirit which made her a style icon like no other is one for us all to learn from; that dedication to finding a way of being ‘you’ amidst a cacophony of possibilities, a love for bringing joy to others with your clothes and an admiration for great craftsmanship. Oh, and a great handbag always helps, too.
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Elizabeth II’s off-duty look became as iconic and influential as her on-duty one. This cardigan and silk scarf ensemble, worn in Windsor in 1982, is a perfect example of the genre.
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It was incredibly rare for the Queen to cause controversy with her fashion choices, but social media exploded with theories about the hidden messages behind this hat, worn for the State Opening of Parliament in 2017, which seemed to recreate the EU flag at the height of Brexit negotiations. Her dresser Angela Kelly later said it was simply a ‘coincidence’.
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For the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London, Her Majesty agreed to become a Bond Girl for the night and needed the outfit to match. Angela Kelly settled on vibrant coral shade which would stand out without showing support for a particular country. A secret second version of the glamorous look was made for stuntman Mark Sutton to wear as he parachuted into the stadium.
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As was so often the case with the Queen’s looks, it was her hat which really did the talking in her look for Prince Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales in 1969. The ‘medieval helmet’, as Norman Hartnell called it, was a ‘labour of love’ for milliner Simone Mirman, who embellished it with hundreds of pearls and beads.
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Prince Edward mixed up the usual royal wedding dress code for his 1999 marriage, instructing guests to wear evening gowns and no hats. The Queen, naturally, rose to the occasion in a glittering lilac dress and feathered headpiece.
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Her Majesty showed fashion editors how it’s done when she attended her first fashion show in 2018 wearing a chic blue tweed Chanel-inspired skirt suit and timeless pearl earrings.
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The sunray details of the lemon yellow coat which the Queen wore to William and Kate’s wedding were designed to radiate light and joy. It was an outfit which introduced millions to her iconic style – sales of HM’s beloved Launer handbags shot up by 60% after she was spotted carrying one at the ceremony.
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The Queen rarely followed trends, as evidenced by this tulle ballgown from 1961. While Jackie Kennedy embraced the elegant streamlined look which was becoming fashionable, Elizabeth II stuck to 1950s frou-frou romance which now looks like it could be straight off the Molly Goddard catwalk.
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Her Majesty was dubbed ‘high vis highness’ when she opted for this vivid green look for her 90th birthday celebrations – far from blending into the background as she became a nonagenarian, it was a look which made her more admired than ever.
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Elizabeth II was always a woman in a man’s world, which she often underscored by choosing ultra-girly pink for particularly masculine moments, like this visit to the Parachute Regiment in 1990.
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For her tour to the Middle East in 1979, the Queen commissioned a wardrobe of turbans and long dresses to conform to the modest dress codes of the countries she visited – but she stayed true to her love for bold colours.
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Always brilliant at dressing to a theme, Her Majesty cheered up a nation in the midst of Covid-19 gloom in December 2020 with this ‘Christmas red’ look, accessorised with a jolly candy cane scarf.
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This ‘Harlequin’ gown is one of the most famous evening dresses the Queen ever wore, loved for its vibrant pattern. Its designer, Karl Rehse, said he was ‘overwhelmed’ by the reaction to his creation.
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The Queen was seen wearing trousers in public only a handful of times. This silk shirt and cream slacks combination – worn on safari in Zambia – proves that she wore them just as elegantly as her usual knee-length frocks.
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Created by Angela Kelly as a ‘calming’ outfit for a day visiting different religious groups in Northern Ireland, this look was inspired by vases in the corridors of Windsor Castle and became a tribute to one of the UK’s great craft exports.
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Still mourning the recent death of her husband, in June 2021 the Queen wore a pared-back mauve look instead of her usual rainbow brights for a dialled-down Trooping the Colour parade.
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From the baker boy cap to the quirky print, this ensemble – designed to match the sailors she was inspecting – is one of the most fun the Queen ever wore – and showed that she was never afraid to experiment with something outside the box.
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‘Darling, you look wonderful,’ King Juan Carlos of Spain told the Queen when he saw her wearing this outfit by a new pair of designers she had decided to trial. That compliment meant that Karl Rehse and John Anderson became instant favourites.
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This pale blue gown was the first design created for Elizabeth II by Stewart Parvin, the man described as ‘the most streetwise dressmaker ever to have designed for the Queen’. There was a powercut on the night she wore it, and it was said to have glimmered beautifully in the candlelight of the dinner she attended.
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Simple but super-chic, this hot pink silk shift worn to host President Nixon at Buckingham Palace in 1969 still looks the epitome of sophistication today and was about as mini as the Queen ever went.
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The Queen’s beautifully classic wedding dress was designed by Norman Hartnell, who took Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ painting as his starting point. A symbol of post-war optimism, it took 350 dressmakers seven weeks to create and has inspired many more brides since, including the Duchess of Cambridge.
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When 19 year-old Princess Elizabeth was photographed by Cecil Beaton after the Second World War, her thrifty side was already on display. Instead of wearing a brand new gown for the occasion, she was dressed in a hand-me-down from her mother’s collection.
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The grandest gown the Queen ever wore, Norman Hartnell’s magnificent coronation design was so heavy Her Majesty compared it to wearing a radiator. The dress painstakingly incorporated floral emblems from every country the Queen would reign over, from English roses to Canadian maple leaves.
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The Queen arguably never looked chicer than when she was in her riding gear – see this 1988 look, from the meticulously tied headscarf to the tailored tweed jacket and elegant jodhpurs, it’s perfection.
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The oversized collar of this grass green coat means it still looks stylish now – and proved to be the perfect backdrop for one of the Queen’s vast collection of precious brooches. This sapphire, diamond and pearl piece was inherited from her jewel-adoring grandmother, Queen Mary.
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Elizabeth was in Kenya when her father died and had no black mourning clothes to change into, so an outfit had to be rushed onto the plane when she arrived back in London. She added a diamond brooch which had been given to her while on tour with her parents five years before – a sign of happy memories at a very sad time.
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Yellow! Polka dots! Gucci-esque loafers! Turban! This 1975 look, worn on tour in Mexico, has it all.
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Most mother-daughter style moments might stretch to a coordinating print or matchy-matchy dress, but in Vienna in 1969, the Queen and Princess Anne went a step further, both stepping out in sleeveless A-line gowns accessorised with oodles of priceless jewels.
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We very rarely heard the Queen express an opinion but there was feverish speculation about her opinion of US President Trump when he visited the UK in 2019, only fuelled by Her Majesty’s decision to wear a suite of jewellery made from Burmese rubies, given to her to ward off evil.
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You might not think that glamorous 1930s film stars would be on the Queen’s style moodboard, but Angela Kelly confirmed that this striking wrap silver gown worn for 2012’s Royal Variety performance was inspired by that era’s glittering fashions.
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The pretty bow-adorned pink dress worn by Princess Elizabeth for her engagement announcement in 1947 wouldn’t look out of place on a Miu Miu catwalk today. In fact, it was a re-wear and had already been seen on a tour to South Africa earlier that year.
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New and old collided in this evening look from a visit to Canada in 1976. The Queen wore her favourite Girls of Great Britain and Ireland tiara with a fashion-forward graphic print gown.
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With the fabulous cape and tonal blush pink silk scarf, this look could be straight out of a fashion shoot. In fact, it was the Queen’s outfit for the Royal Windsor Horse show in 1979.
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She was renowned for her love of hats, but one of the Queen’s most striking headwear moments was when she wore a hairnet decorated with bows to the Chelsea Flower Show in 1996.
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Timeless, upbeat and feminine, the Queen wore florals in every decade of her life, but some of her most charming botanical looks came in her ’90s, like this silk shift worn, very appropriately, at the Eden Project in 2021.
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Elizabeth II’s 1950s eveningwear was unfailingly spectacular. A case in point is this sumptuous royal blue velvet gown worn in the Netherlands in 1958 which would still wow on the Oscars red carpet today.
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It was rare to be able to copy the Queen, but when she developed a penchant for cotton dresses by British label Horrockses in the 1950s, women across Britain, Australia and New Zealand were able to get the look themselves.