As the queen turns 90, Vogue has hailed her a style icon. Ciara Mc Donnell rates her outfits through the decades with former royal designer Paul Costelloe.
In her 63 years as Britain’s longest-serving monarch, Queen Elizabeth II has never put a shiny-shod foot wrong.
Soon to celebrate her 90th birthday, the Queen has redefined the meaning of style for a sovereign fashion.
Never ostentatious and always ultra- appropriate, Queen Elizabeth is instantly recognisable thanks to her colourful, classically-cut skirt suits, and matchy-matchy accessories.
Almost cartoonish in structure, her boxy silhouette works hard for its supper; arm holes are cut wider to allow for the royal wave to be made with ease, and fabrics will never crease, no matter the temperature.
To mark the 90th birthday milestone, three exhibitions will be staged across her three official residences, beginning on April 21 at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.
Fashioning a Reign will chart significant events in the queen’s life through an unprecedented collection of dress and accessories designed for these occasions, from childhood to the present day.
“Queen Elizabeth is a testament to knowing what works for you,” says Paul Costelloe, fashion designer extraordinaire.
He is in a good position to comment on the queen and her style, having acted as the late Princess Diana’s personal designer from 1982 to 1997.
Costelloe cites her staff, in particular Angela Kelly, as the cornerstone of Queen Elizabeth’s sartorial success.
Kelly has acted as both personal assistant and senior dresser to the queen since 2002.
While Norman Hartnell is responsible for honing and perfecting the queen’s signature style during the 1950s, it is Kelly who is the gatekeeper of her wardrobe.
“Both the queen and her stylist have very much kept to who she is, how she wants to be portrayed and it’s really been totally based on tailoring,” says Costelloe.
“She is a very small lady, about five foot three or near that. I met her once; she is tiny.”
Height notwithstanding, Queen Elizabeth’s approach to dressing provides a public service.
By dressing head to toe in a bright colour, she is providing a rainbow-hued focal point to whatever pomp or ceremony she is presiding over.
Block colours, pearl necklaces, and pristine white gloves are all hallmarks of her style.
Dolce & Gabanna were so inspired by her commitment to the cause that in 2008 they based an entire collection around her signature looks.
In the earlier decades of her reign, she favoured outfits that were embellished, but not bright and bold.
This more subdued style can be seen in the hourglass duchesse satin gowns and pretty day dresses she wore for public appearances.
“She was very pretty when she was young,” says Costelloe.
“She wore a lot of navy and pinafores and pleats — exactly the kind of design I like.
“This woman has probably seen more red carpets than all the Oscar nominees, ever,” says editor of Xposé Magazine, Deanna O’Connor.
“What I think is most admirable about her style is that she is always perfectly coordinated, occasion-appropriate and, of course, camera ready.
“Getting dressed knowing that the eyes of the world will be on you must be stressful at the best of times, but she has been in the spotlight all her life and she has it nailed.
"As a young woman, it might have been a little bit stuffy having to be a little more formal than most people.
“However, the payback is having access to the very best clothing and the dream dressing up box of the Crown Jewels. Who wouldn’t love that?”
Crown jewels aside, Queen Elizabeth has had access to the best creative minds when it comes to her wardrobe, and every single part of her look, from her sculptural hat to her boxy handbag, has been carefully curated to provide an appearance of power.
Her look speaks of leadership and traditional monarchy, rather than glitz or glamour.
Her daytime style screams working woman, making her seem approachable and personable.
Costelloe agrees that the queen’s status as a style icon is down to sticking to the basics.
“She would get 100 out of 100 from me, because of how she has achieved this discipline of wearing the same style for so long”.
Costelloe theorises that it was an awareness of what lay ahead for her in terms of the monarchy that solidified Elizabeth’s commitment to classical cuts and demure dresses.
“When you look at when Queen Elizabeth got married, she was always very conservative in her style, unlike her sister Margaret. She was definitely the less flamboyant of the two,” he says.
“She has controlled herself, you could say she is a control freak when it comes to her wardrobe.
“She probably watched her sister experiment with shorter hemlines and lower necklines, generally being a little more risqué.
"She played the opposite role, because she probably saw that the future of the royal family was going to be in her hands and prepared for that from a very young age.”
O’Connor believes that we see the queen’s personality in the colour of her clothing, rather than the style.
“In the 1950s, she wore some beautiful deep emerald-green outfits and gowns; it’s a colour that seemed to drop out of her wardrobe later on, as she went for a palette composed of what we could call springtime shades, softer and more flattering to ageing skin.”
Costelloe concurs. “She changes the palette of her look, but never the style. She favours soft colours, and that suits her, because of her age.
"She likes mid-tones and pastels, which are kind to her complexion. Because she has great skin, she carries these colours off well. You have to admire her.”
Queen Elizabeth’s choice of colour ensures that her somewhat dated approach to dressing is always on point.
“I love how she has worked yellow — often quite a difficult colour to wear — into her wardrobe,” says O’Connor.
“From a vibrant canary yellow, which as a young woman gave striking contrast to her dark hair, and now, soft pastel shades which work with her pale skin and white hair, it works superbly on her, and she wears it with aplomb.”
While she is a clear fan of subtle embellishment (the embroidery on her coronation gown took 3,500 hours of stitch-work to achieve), she is not overt in standing out with prints or daring cuts.
“Prints have never figured largely in her repertoire,” agrees O’Connor.
“Indeed, when you see a photo of her wearing print it almost seems jarring.
"She knows what suits her and sticks to it: A hemline below the knee, a long coordinating jacket over a dress or separates, and a very particular shape of hat, a wide cylinder with a high crown. Not forgetting of course, a sensible heel.”
As she reaches her ninth decade, the fashion community will not be expecting Queen Elizabeth to throw an Argyll-clad clanger into the style mix.
The queen defines the concept of discreet glamour, and has earned the right to cheerily wave to her subjects in larger-than-life rainbow-coloured skirt suits.
Her fearlessness when it comes to colour has allowed her to keep her look fresh over the years, without compromising on a style that she knows and loves.
No person can put it better than Costelloe when it comes to identifying the reason for her success.
“Her look is smart, elegant, safe and non-controversial, and that’s the reason that her style has been such a success story.”
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