In 1863, shortly after her marriage to the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria warned her daughter-in-law Princess Alexandra against 'too much dressing or smartness'. This statement accurately sums up the royal family's attitude towards fashion. This is not to say that fashion isn't important, on the contrary, there have been many fashionable royals; some setting their own trends. The same Princess Alexandra set a trend for choker necklaces, because she was trying to cover a scar on her neck. When rheumatic fever left her with a permanent limp, it briefly became fashionable amongst society to do the ‘Alexandra limp’. Later, Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent's fondness for blue, became known as: Marina Blue. More recently, the term 'Camilla chic' has been coined to describe Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall's growing sense of style.
In Queen Victoria’s day, the preference was for British designers, in support of the British fashion industry, to dress royal ladies. Queen Victoria did her part in helping the lagging lace industry by choosing Honiton lace for her wedding dress and the heirloom-christening gown. Patronizing British designers is still encouraged but occasionally, during a royal tour, a compliment will be paid to a designer from the host country; as in the case of Diana, Princess of Wales when she arrived for a tour of France dressed head to toe in Chanel.
When a tour takes place, care is taken not to offend by ensuring that hemlines as well as outfit colors respect the customs of the host country. For public events, bright colors are chosen so that the royal lady stands out and hemlines are weighted to protect royal dignity. Black is rarely worn as it is considered a mourning color. In 1938, just before a tour of France, Queen Elizabeth's mother died and instead of wearing black, she choose to wear white; an alternate mourning color. This choice was a resounding success and is referred to as the White Wardrobe.
Accessories are just as important. Lately, hats have become a focal point, with some imaginative choices made by guests at the wedding of Charles and Camilla. Shortly after her marriage, Diana's choice of wearing hats revitalized the British milinery industry. Diana and Sarah, Duchess of York were lauded for their use of costume jewellry and it would be extremely rare to see the Queen without gloves, pearls, a priceless brooch and a handbag. It has been reported that she uses her handbags to send signals to her staff, by switching from one arm to another, when someone is taking up too much of her time!
Despite the emphasis on practicality and function, and long after trends have moved on, some royal ladies adopt a personal sartorial style. Queen Mary never strayed from wearing turban style hats and dresses that did not go above the ankle; Vogue magazine described her distinctive style as ‘magnificence that transcended fashion’. In her later years, the Queen Mother was famous for wearing pastel colours, white shoes, and upturned hats with feathers; almost identical as the years went by. Over the years the Queen has remained consistent in her appearance. Despite the occasional nod towards fashion with sleeve and skirt length, the Queen is not a fashion plate, nor has she ever set out to be.
The royal family is one of the best examples of flying the flag for the British fashion industry. Along the way they have set trends, and highlighted unknown designers. And, although some members of the royal family may regard fashion as part of the job, it cannot be denied that it plays an important role in maintaining public interest.
© Marilyn Braun 2006
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