June 5, 2012

Queen Elizabeth... fashionista?

The Queen and Prince Phillip in 1951 - Photo: Getty

'Though avowedly not a fashionista, Her Majesty is fluent in the language of clothes.'

The Queen, we are told, is not much interested in fashion. But fashion is interested in the Queen. Azzedine Alaia, perhaps the most independently minded of designers alive today, was one of the first to spot her qualities as a style maven. He had a picture of her pinned to his inspiration board years ago. The first time I saw it, fluttering among the shots of Hollywood royalty and billets doux from the studiedly hip likes of Sofia Coppola, I assumed it must be an ironic wink. Her Majesty's bright A-line dresses and coats couldn't be further from Alaia's precision-contoured curves. But no, he genuinely admired her dignity and consistency. Many designers have subsequently paid homage, either overtly or obliquely, from Vivienne Westwood's crowns and sceptres, to Jean Paul Gaultier, Henry Holland and Dolce & Gabbana. Agyness Deyn, who met the Queen recently and pronounced her "really cool", cites her as a style influence. It's the demure nature of the Queen's outfits that seems to get them every time.
Yet the one time the Queen overtly set a fashion trend was in 1951, when she caused a sensation with a circular felt square-dancing skirt on an informal evening during a state visit to Ottawa. In her 1977 book The Women We Wanted To Look Like , fashion writer Brigid Keenan wrote that "everyone wanted one… my elder sister, who was a dab hand with a needle, set up in business most successfully making felt skirts for her girl friends".

The power of royal patronage. As the decades passed, the Queen had to detach herself from the sartorial spirit of the times, partly because by 1966 she was 40, an age at which many women back then gave up on fashion and partly because the sartorial spirit became increasingly casual.
Transcending fashion, in any case, is what a monarch needs to do. Trends have a habit of looking ridiculous 10 years on. Something that was never that fashionable to begin with gives a photograph much more longevity.
Just as Elizabeth I did with her red wigs, white lead war-paint and shock-and-awe jewelled dresses, Elizabeth II had to construct a queenly uniform. Arguably, in an era that requires its monarchs to be a role model, yet one of us, the current Queen had the more complex task.
Shrewdly, she has always given the impression of not fussing overly about her appearance. That's a very British requirement. If one can combine it with always looking immaculately appropriate, thereby evading the celebrity magazines' circles of shame, one's subjects will be most appreciative.
Though avowedly not a fashionista, she's fluent in the language of clothes. From the moment she commissioned Cecil Beaton to take the official portraits of her with the newborn Prince Charles (a beguiling blend of tender intimacy and the regal tranquillity), Elizabeth showed she was perfectly in command of the message. In another life, she would have made a great spin doctor. Or maybe even a designer.