Queen Elizabeth II, who died Thursday at age 96 after reigning for more than 70 years, undoubtedly had a uniform. In her early years on the throne, in her 20s and 30s, the young queen was known to wear practical but elegant clothes. She wore gowns with clean lines and full skirts at formal events and artfully tailored skirt suits and dresses in the daytime, un-daring in the necklines and nipped in at the waists. And in her later years, of course, her taste for modest, traditional elegance distilled itself into what we now know as her usual public-facing outfit, which as many have pointed out, communicated the consistency and stability of the crown even as the United Kingdom evolved dramatically in the 20th and 21st centuries.
But the queen’s wardrobe was consistently imbued with deeper meanings, seen as conveying support or affection for other countries and communities, or even asserting power, when necessary. And because Elizabeth’s reign began in 1952, a time before women were regularly seen at the highest levels of government in the Western world, she helped set a standard in politics-adjacent womenswear.
Queen Elizabeth’s public-facing image was “smart on the whole, clean-cut, which I think was a very 1950s thing, really. Not much fuss,” says Philip Mansel, a fellow at the Institute of Historical Research in London, as well as the author of “Dressed to Rule,” a book about how rulers have controlled their public images.
The queen’s style at home varied slightly, Mansel notes: “In her last photograph, greeting Liz Truss, her last prime minister, she’s very simply dressed in a woolen skirt and woolen jersey and woolen jacket,” which, for a certain generation of English people, is “exactly like everybody’s aunt or mother.”
But in public, and in her later years especially, “I think she always wanted to be two things: reassuring and recognizable,” Mansel says. Being an instantly identifiable pillar of color was her way of “trying to reassure people, despite all the changes going on.”
Malcolm Barnard, the author of “Fashion as Communication,” wrote in an email to The Washington Post that this “kind of clothing exemplifies values that are homologous or that fit with what one might assume a ruling class’s values to be — those of resistance to change, a desire for continuity, the continuity of their dominant positions, for example.”
Indeed, Queen Elizabeth famously insisted on a rather formal dress code for royal events. Once, in 2002, she chastised a BBC cameraman at a Royal Ascot event for failing to wear a top hat and tails. The stylish-but-modest daytime dress code that Kate Middleton, Meghan Markle, Camilla Parker Bowles and others have followed strictly in their time as members of the royal family is a tradition that dates back to Elizabeth’s mother and grandmother, Mansel says.
The one person who tried to break the mold, Mansel adds, was Princess Diana. Her style, especially when she was married to now King Charles III, deviated subtly from the royal formula, sometimes incorporating more masculine or more girlish touches, like double-breasted military-style jackets and the occasional dropped-waist dress.
Nevertheless, Queen Elizabeth, who has been called “a link between the end of an empire and the beginning of a cosmopolitan liberal democracy,” helped cement the contemporary uniform for powerful women, proliferated in her time on the throne. Boxy, mid-length skirt suits are still seen in United States government buildings, and on women in politics throughout the Western world. And Mansel points out that Margaret Thatcher, the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister, wore “slightly formal clothes, slightly like the queen’s, and always a handbag.”
The queen also helped uphold the powerful tradition of “fashion diplomacy.” As Bethan Holt writes in the 2022 book “The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style,” the monarch has long been known to incorporate small, thoughtful touches that nod to the local culture when she travels. On the queen’s state visit to Ireland in 2011, Holt writes, when she was eager to repair relations with the neighboring nation, she wore a deep green wool-crepe coat and a corresponding green-printed silk dress upon arrival, and to a state dinner she wore a gown adorned with more than 2,000 tiny silk shamrocks.
At a dinner in Canada in 2010, the queen wore a white lace gown with Swarovski crystal maple leaves glittering across her shoulders. She wore a gown embroidered with California poppies to meet President Ronald Reagan in 1983, a gown with an emerald-and-white train like the Pakistani flag when she visited in 1961, and an outfit in shades of heather and thistle to show her affection for Scotland upon the formation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.
And as Mansel points out, she also occasionally chose colors that asserted her power. Upon meeting the cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the United Kingdom, she wore red to match the cardinal’s red garments: “To say she was just as holy and sacred, in her eyes.”
The queen’s particular habit of communicating through small details has flourished in the political world. Princess Diana wore a red polka-dot dress in Japan in 1986, a clear homage to the nation’s rising-sun flag. First lady Jill Biden wore a sunflower embroidered on a royal-blue dress in March of this year to signal support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. Madeleine Albright chose her pins strategically when she served as U.S. secretary of state. And in the United Kingdom, Brenda Hale, the president of the Supreme Court, made headlines when she wore a brooch in the shape of a spider to deliver her verdict concerning Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament in 2019. “Some of us recalled The Who’s song, ‘Boris The Spider,’” Barnard wrote, while others thought of Walter Scott’s ‘tangled web’ of lies and deceit in his 1808 poem ‘Marmion.’”
Of course, a separate tradition of fashion diplomacy has also flourished: wearing clothes designed by a member of a particular community as a sign of respect or support. When she visited India in 2009, first lady Michelle Obama wore a cream-colored strapless gown and a skirt designed by Indian American designers Naeem Khan and Rachel Roy, respectively. On a 2019 visit to the United Kingdom, Ivanka Trump wore ensembles by such British designers as Safiyaa, Burberry and Alessandra Rich. The tradition can be traced all the way back to Mary Todd Lincoln, who wore gowns designed by a formerly enslaved designer, Elizabeth Keckley.
Queen Elizabeth, by contrast, almost always wore the work of British designers, a tradition dating back to centuries-ago monarchs like King Louis XIV, who, Mansel notes, “was obsessed with launching the French fashion industry. So he wore French silk, French embroidery, French lace, above all, to do better than Venetian lace, and got the ladies of his court to do that.”
The queen did, after all, sit atop a monarchy known for its colonization and conquest, and her insistence on English-made designs could be seen as in alignment with the British Empire’s history of promoting its own supremacy.
Still, Mansel says, the queen’s clothes weren’t typically controversial. They were appreciated, both within and outside the United Kingdom. “A lot of French people liked her clothes,” for example, “because they weren’t French. They were different,” Mansel says. “They represented Britain.”