Fashion with regality

...60 years of play-it-safe pastels. Is royal synonymous with fashion icon?

by Georgia Shaw
60 years of the Queen’s reign: the Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012 were marked by 1000 boats sailing in the Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant, a Diamond Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace and a formal carriage procession from Westminster Hall to St Paul’s cathedral. So far, so royal. Through the Queen's sixty years as head of state, her life can be mapped as a timeline of public and private occasions and with them a collection of suitably styled outfits.

A dissection of the Queen’s clothes for her public engagements tells a strategic story. Her Majesty’s meticulously planned wardrobe, designed in part by the Savile Row tailor Hardy Amies, typically incorporates duchesse satin, pearl and sequin embroidery and looped bugle beads. Beyond this luxury, her clothes have helped her cultivate a carefully calibrated presence. Like her royal forebears, she’s created an armour to communicate her status. Her outfits are coloured to be clearly visible in large crowds and often incorporate the colours of the nation’s flag she is visiting on Commonwealth tours. Clothes within a royal context begin to play a more pivotal purpose.

Consider Princess Diana’s transformation from doe-eyed wife of Prince Charles to troubled lioness divorcée posing an undeniable threat to the reputation of an austere British Royal Family. Her 1990s wardrobe of skirt suits by day and seductive sweet heart neckline velvet gowns by night, spread across the pages of weekly glossies enhanced the romanticised the image of a tortured princess. With this tactical shift, her clothes created what the Royal Family were capable of: a modern likeability communicated with clarity.

Fast forward two decades, it’s now impossible to talk about royal fashion without referencing the inoffensive Kate Middleton in several shades of beige and draped rayon. While her fashion statements are executed with easy (high street) accessibility, the style journey for other members of the international cast of royal families has taken eclectic and colourful turns. The idea of a royal family in a contemporary setting feels lifted from the pages of children’s fairy stories. Maintaining these established roles, in reality, demands a form of costume. However, the rules of royal dressing appear constricted to an awkward, old-fashioned sense of occasion like a stuffy summer wedding with its floral fascinators and matching accessories. While rare royal birds have spread their wing others have so beautifully failed making for thrilling fashion voyeurism on a regal scale.

The colours of Crown Princess Máxima of the Netherland’s wardrobe are taken straight from a box of Ladurée macaroons with soft sugary hues and blushing pinks in foamy layers. At a recent gala at The Hague, three generations of the Dutch royal family including the Princess’ mother-in-law Queen Beatrix and her sister Princess Margriet arrived as fussy Dutch tulips wearing ruffles, heavy beading and satin like pantomime Ugly Sisters. Holland, the fashion birth place of Viktor & Rolf with their subtle femininity, also exhibited the worst affectations of formal royal dressing swerving dangerously outside the parameters of good taste.

Pastels swept through the Spring/Summer 2012 catwalks like a cool breeze on a hot day. This soft colour palette has for several decades been championed by HRH Princess Benedikte of Denmark. Her enthusiasm should be admired but her styling decisions avoided. Frosty blues, mint greens, corals and some unexpected dip dyeing have created a royal wardrobe like a sugary confectionery counter. Her look took a distinct acid turn with an outfit for King Constantine of Greece's recent 70th Birthday Party stepping out in fizzy sherbet yellow and turquoise stripes.

Where others have failed, 83 year old Queen Fabiola of Belgium continues to break new ground. Her contemporaries such as Grace Kelly drew attention for their society weddings to European royalty but it was Queen Fabiola who was dressed by Cristóbal Balenciaga, founder of the Spanish fashion house, on her wedding day. In the autumn of her fashion life, the Queen remains a striking vision of perpetual purple rinse and matching lilac lounge suits like an e-fit for eccentrity. Her unaffected style and 52 years on the throne have made her royal fashion’s grand dame.

For many the Jubilee meant nothing more than the rolling out of a summer weekend, but for others the monarchy continues to play a role in shaping our national identity communicated in part by how they look. With the dwindling influence of the royal family establishment across the world, it is easy to view these luxuriated people as caricatures of their national characteristics valued for pure entertainment purposes. Royal dressing may easily be mocked but its unhindered sense of occasion and celebration matched with the eccentricity of unlimited budgets and awkwardly incorporated national colours makes for pure fashion gold.