Fashioning a reign

90 Years of Style from the Queen’s Wardrobe

It’s been a while between posts, but people – I’ve been in Europe! And yes, I went to this exhibition.

Ok, so I’m not actually a royalist but I do have respect for Queen Elizabeth as, unlike our current crop of self (serving!) made ‘celebrities’ she did not seek this role but it has completely dominated her life. So now we have that sorted, I want to share with you my experience of visiting Buck Pal recently to see the new exhibition, Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from the Queen’s Wardrobe.

Sadly, there were no photographs allowed inside the jaw dropping lavish State Rooms that housed the excellent and extensive exhibition. So I’m unable to share visuals but can describe what I saw. But there’s this wonderful thing called the internet…

Primarily, I was struck by how petite the Queen is, certainly throughout her young and middle years. She’s never been tall – 5 foot, 4 inches in fact – which is a very fine height in my personal opinion! But it was her tiny, tiny waist that astounded me. As far as I could gather from studying numerous garments, she seemed to maintain that into her middle years. We rarely see such a waist these days, unless a person is extremely thin. And a note for my fellow image consultants reading this, although the Queen’s actual dress size is a secret, her hip is reasonably high.

Another thing that struck me was how powerful her personal presence is – her vitality, intelligent eyes and big open smile is very engaging. I say this because many of her garments looked lifeless, heavy and staid on the mannequins, and as someone who frequents fashion exhibitions, I have seen numerous clothes without bodies in them! However when I saw the Queen wearing the garments  in the accompanying photos and footage, they were transformed! They stopped looking heavy or staid. A testament to good and personalised design.

Her 1960s evening dresses were my favourites. Elegant, unfussy shapes, fitted bodices and more jewelled embroidery than I have ever seen! And there are so many… I was also impressed by the range of colours the Queen wears – this is often, but not always, so she is visually dominant. There was only one black dress in the collection, and that was designed for meeting the Pope at the Vatican, as is tradition for a Head of State.

I also realised that these fabulous outfits we are accustomed to seeing the Queen wearing may not actually belong to her as they are a required part of a diplomatic exchange. The Queen doesn’t select the styles herself, other than her preferred one of several sketches – though there is more scope for  garment personalisation for non-state events. Instead, these carefully designed sartorial communication creations are all orchestrated by Angela Kelly, the Queen’s personal dresser.

Many of the Queen’s designs reflected or acknowledged a host country’s national colour or traditional emblems. For example, we may wonder why the Queen chooses to wear a dress in a particular vivid green until we learn that that very green is represented in a certain national flag of a nation she was visiting. Australia cops that bright wattle yellow unfortunately, whereas blossom motifs were sewn into a gown worn during the first state visit to China and a design reflecting the Olympic Rings was worn in Montreal in 1976.

After visiting the exhibition I took the opportunity to read about how the Queen’s wardrobe is designed and likened it to the process to designing costume for film. The occasion, backdrop colours, amount of activity required, local protocols and character are all considered prior to even drawing up the preliminary sketches. Even the hats are designed to help achieve maximum visibility so elements such as brim shape and size are carefully considered. The projects are then tendered for by invited designers well in advance of an actual event taking place – hence the classic, rather than fashion, aesthetic to the Queen’s wardrobe.

Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from the Queen's Wardrobe