Queen Elizabeth, who died on Thursday, aged 96, may not have invented the concept of royal dressing—Victoria had her over-decoration, Elizabeth I loved her “virgin” white gowns—but she certainly redefined it. The monarch championed the art of communicating through clothing long before Instagram accounts breathlessly curated the outfits of successors like Meghan Markle and Kate Middleton.
From World War II-era austerity to her anything-but-frugal jewels, Elizabeth captured the public’s attention, and spoke to their fantasies, through her sumptuous wardrobe.
She didn’t do it all alone, of course: at the start of her reign in the mid century, Elizabeth employed royal courtiers like Norman Hartnell and Hardy Amies, to set the tone for her style. Hartnell designed her 1947 wedding dress, made of duchesse satin purchased with ration coupons.
The war played an indelible role in young Elizabeth’s sense of style; as a teenage princess, she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, a women’s branch of the British Army. Her militaristic skirt suits helped shape an image that would define the rest of her life: dutiful, service-oriented, and maybe a bit serious.
Her reign, which began in 1952, coincided with a pivotal moment in fashion. Christian Dior had debuted his “New Look”—cinched waists, full skirts—five years earlier, and glamour began to creep back into a fashion industry that had been nearly decimated by the war. Hartnell spent eight months creating her gown for the occasion, which featured intricate embroidery of Commonwealth emblems, pearls, sequins, and crystals. He even sewed a four-leafed clover on the left side of her skirt for good luck.
The queen was so fond of the gown that she didn’t let it rest in the archives. She wore it on six other public occasions, lest we forget that Kate Middleton did not originate the idea of “recycling” royal clothing.
Into the early ’60s, the queen followed trends. She gamely tried on pillbox hats and sweetheart neckline gowns. But she made sure to inject her outfits with her signature sense of color—lemon yellow, baby pink, and turquoise. More than sixty years later, her daughter-in-law Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, would say Elizabeth’s love of brights comes from a desire to be seen in a crowd. “She needs to stand out for people to be able to say, ‘I saw the Queen,’” Sophie said. The queen apparently once admitted that, “I can’t wear beige because then nobody would know who I am.”
When meeting Marilyn Monroe in 1956 during a film premiere, the Queen managed to shine brighter than the actress’ va-va-voom metallic dress. Such is the power of a blinding tiara and jewels.
Elizabeth—and those who dressed her—had an eye for timeless styles that spoke of regality and elegance. When standing next to Jackie Kennedy (no clothing slouch herself) during a 1961 appearance, Elizabeth sported a tulle gown by Hartnell, its voluminous skirt the stuff of high-fashion fantasies to this day.
As the 1960s segued to the ’70s and Elizabeth entered her forties, the Queen perfected the look that would define the second half of her monarchy: a vivid, maybe pastel coat dress, heels, a handbag, and pantyhose—one would never see a bare-legged Queen.
The queen didn’t abandon trends altogether as she aged. When she met Jimmy Carter in 1977, she wore a very California-cool caftan, but trussed it up with white opera gloves, pearls, and dangling diamond earrings as only a Queen can. She matched Nancy Reagan’s over-the-top wardrobe with one of her own, wearing the megawatt Cambridge Lover’s Knot tiara during a visit to San Francisco with the First Lady and the brilliant Jardine Star brooch while knitting the president in 1989.
Her particularities became the stuff of tabloid gold: Elizabeth reportedly found garish nail polish distasteful, so she goes for the “safe” shade of Essie’s “Ballet Slippers,” a pale pink her hairdresser reportedly ordered for her back in 1989.
The Queen reportedly preferred skirts over pants, though Diana, Meghan Markle, and Kate Middleton all pushed back on that boundary from time to time. She has the final say over all royal wedding dresses, many of which borrowed from her own closet. Princess Beatrice opted for a loaned taffeta and organza gown by Hartnell that was reworked to fit her by the Queen’s dressmakers Angela Kelly and Stewart Parvin back in 2020.
Meghan Markle picked her own Givenchy frock, but borrowed a diamond and platinum tiara bandeau from Elizabeth for her nuptials in 2019. And Kate Middleton wore a 1936 Cartier tiara from her big day, courtesy her grandmother-in-law.
It makes sense that a Queen with such a carefully crafted, easily recognizable sense of dressing would be a stickler on some fronts; Elizabeth infamously preached a royal style Bible that others respected… sort of. She reportedly hated wedge heels. Though Kate Middleton has stepped out in them, it was never around the queen.
And if Elizabeth moved her purse from one hand to another? Well, that supposedly meant—in the nicest way—the Queen was signaling to her handlers that she wished for whatever conversation she was caught in to end, according to royal historian Hugh Vickers, who relayed this nugget to People in 2011.
A note on hemlines: after Kate Middleton was photographed numerous times in 2011 battling gusts of winds blowing up her skirt, Stuart Parvin told The Daily Mail he sewed weights in the form of curtain accessories into the Queen’s skirts to ensure this never happened to Her Majesty. Jenny Packham, a favorite designer of Kate’s, reportedly got angry letters from fans of the Queen suggesting she do the same for the Duchess of Cambridge.
And when one is Queen there are certain sartorial perks. Parvin—who, luckily for all of us, seems terrible at keeping secrets—let it slip in 2017 that the Elizabeth employs a staff member whose sole job is to break in her shoes.
“The staff member wears a pair of beige cotton ankle socks while doing so, and must only walk on the carpet during the ‘breaking in’ period,” The Evening Standard reported. Parvin told the paper, “The shoes have to be immediately comfortable… she does get someone to wear them. The Queen can never say ‘I’m uncomfortable, I can’t walk any more.’ “She has the right to have someone wear them in.”
Perhaps her most poignant public appearances also happened to be one of her last. At the funeral of Prince Philip, who died in April 2021 at the age of 99, the Queen wore her Richmond Brooch, one of her brightest, which was gifted to her grandmother in 1893. It lit up her all-black outfit.
Despite the ceremony’s lack of spectacle due to the pandemic, Queen Elizabeth made sure to wear tradition on her sleeve. It was a fitting display of her method of dressing: every outfit makes a statement, and with history written through her wardrobe.
It was unsurprising that the maxims guiding all her fashion choices were on clearest display at her Platinum Jubilee in June, and the headline-grabbing balcony appearances at Buckingham Palace; her final wave to the masses saw her accept the cheers of the crowds in brightest green.
In her final appearances before the camera, the colors softened, first in Edinburgh a few weeks later.
And finally, there was the queen at Balmoral, appointing Liz Truss as Britain’s next prime minister; as a final image of her this is perhaps the most moving of all. She is dressed in her most comfortable Scottish holiday clothes—tartan skirt and a cardigan–at home in front of the fire. No need for bright colors that day, and still smiling.