Princess perfect: Regal fashion throughout the decades

ROYALTY has set trends and led fashionable society for millennia.

In Elizabethan times, sumptuary laws even restricted the wearing of certain finery and fabrics to royalty alone. Modern princesses are no exception to this sphere of influence, with contemporary media making modern monarchy the subject of constant style scrutiny. With the ability to raise a designer or brand’s profile (and their sales) with one simple wardrobe choice, the princess as fashion plate is a potent force. Protocol may insist that a princess pays for all her purchases but the value of a royal endorsement is incalculable.

With the imminent release of two films with royal leading ladies, Grace of Monaco starring Nicole Kidman and Diana starring Naomi Watts , the role and the wardrobe of the modern princess is set for reviewed examination. The recent birth of Prince George to Kate and William, and the invasive level of analysis and comment on her figure, diet and wardrobe prior to and immediately after the birth displayed the immense pressure as well as privilege attached to the role of princess. (The birth certificate for the new Prince revealed that Kate can use the title of Duchess or Princess at her discretion, as she was cited as Princess William of Wales on this document). Kate has displayed a very assured sense of her own style since the start of her royal relationship — she is naturally a classic, conservative yet elegant dresser who favours shapely tailoring, pretty knee length dresses, her beloved mid-heeled LK Bennett shoes and a good belt to emphasise her willowy waist. She confidently mixes designers such as Erdem, Burberry, Issa and Amanda Wakeley with High Street labels Reiss, Whistles, Hobbs and Zara. She always looks relaxed in her clothes and they never dominate her. Her wedding dress, her most striking style success to date, was reflective of her streamlined taste and was directly inspired by the dress of another equally elegant royal muse, Grace Kelly.


The first modern princess to bring heightened levels of allure to her role, Grace Kelly injected immaculate Hollywood glamour (as well as a dowry of $2m) into the Monagesque dynasty on her marriage to Prince Rainier in 1956. Prior to her marriage Grace had enjoyed stellar success as Hollywood’s queen of icy perfection, in Alfred Hitchcock’s seminal films, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window and To Catch A Thief, filmed in the south of France. She met Rainier at the Cannes Film festival in 1955 and a year later on her engagement to him, Hitchcock had quipped that he was “very happy that Grace has found herself such a good part.” In a case of life imitating art, Kelly’s exquisite wedding dress was designed by Helen Rose, the costume designer who created her last movie costume, the lilac evening dress from High Society.

Kelly’s own signature style was sophisticated, WASP elegance, favouring cinched waists, bare shoulders and pale pastels accessorised with furs, pearls, sunglasses, ladylike gloves and Hermès handbags. The large Hermès bag which bears her name was re-christened in her honour after she used one to conceal her pregnancy by positioning it diplomatically in front of her bump. Her beauty was so polished and serene that it looked best in simple unadorned style — frills, vivid colour and prints were a distraction to her perfect bone structure and poise. An impressive 34-24-35, Grace highlighted her measurements with clothes that accentuated her slim shape, wide belts being a favourite device to frame her tiny waist. Tailoring was a major part of her look in an era when quality clothes were painstakingly sculpted, twisted, and tucked into a structure that fitted exquisitely and improved the look of the body underneath.

Once she took on royal duties, her style became more demure; based around cardigans draped over her shoulders, Chanel bouclé skirt suits and double-breasted coats. The sweeping necklines that displayed her beautiful décolletage were retired and her fabulous long legs concealed as royal protocol dictated her dress.

Despite the image of exquisite surreal perfection, Grace had a wicked sense of humour that offset her patrician beauty. In 1981, Lady Diana (who had just become engaged to Prince Charles) met Princess Grace at a charity event. She reportedly asked her advice about marrying a royal. “Don’t worry, dear,” Grace is said to have told her with a smile, “it will get worse.” For both princesses, the happy ever after of fairytale was truncated in a fatal car-crash after marriages that proved less than perfect. While externally both looked the image of soignée style, their private lives were often full of disappointment and invasive press scrutiny. By her early 40s Grace was largely living apart from Rainier and feeling confined by the limits of her tiny kingdom and royal role while Diana was divorced by her mid-30s after her marriage to Charles ended in public recrimination and mutual hostility.


Diana Spencer, on her first public appearance showed little indication of the striking style icon she would become. Initially an unassured 19 year old who didn’t possess many clothes or much self-awareness (that tabloid photograph of the sun streaming through her skirt to reveal her striking long legs), she soon began to realise the potent role of image in defining her role as royal consort.

Unfortunately for her the early part of her royal life was played out in the ‘80s, an era defined by excessive ornamentation, as typified by her over-the-top Emmanuel wedding dress with its 25 foot train. “Dynasty Di” is a slightly cruel but accurate summation of this period — all her clothes were padded, ruffled, frilled and adorned to such an extent that they sometimes overshadowed and aged the youthful princess. Early embarrassments such as the sunlit legs and low neckline of her first evening dress taught her to adopt a more conservative royal wardrobe. As she entered her 30s and the fashion of the ‘90s took on a more minimal look, Diana came into her own and evolved a signature style that favoured tailored blazers, sleek dresses and minimal make-up. After her separation and eventual divorce from Charles, she bloomed and adopted a sexier more contemporary wardrobe with designers such as Versace and Dior injecting glamour and sensuality into her clothing. Diana’s life changes were reflected in her outfits: most notably the infamous Revenge dress, a short black damask costume worn on the day of Charles’s admission of his adultery. It was an emblem of her newfound independence and defined her as a beautiful strong woman, not the sad victim of adultery. It was a sartorial “finger” to her cheating spouse.

Diana was blessed with the height and posture of a natural clothes horse. Susan Maxwell, who wrote an illustrated biography of Diana in 1982, declared: ‘For the first time, the Royal Family had in their ranks a woman whose age, size, coiffure and taste reflected the mass of the market. Because she was beautiful, others wanted to look like her’. Her enduring status as a style icon and cultural phenomenon is underscored by the phenomenal prices that her clothes now fetch at auction, the most recent collection netting over £800,000. As Diana observed “Being a princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”, but at least the wardrobe perks offer some compensation. Now that Kate has taken up the title of princess, the hope is that the title will confer more happiness on her than her stylish predecessors.


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