The clothes Queen Elizabeth II carefully chose were captured in countless photographs and have been cherished in the memories of those that met her.
The sartorial decisions she made during her reign were informed, crafted by her favourite designers and left behind a legendary fashion history.
In her latter years, it was zingy block-coloured outfits and matching, brimmed hats that came to define her consistent style identity — both recognisable in a crowd and when broadcast around the globe.
With her black patent Anello & Davide loafers, distinctive black Launer handbag, a brooch and gloves, she found a formula that benefitted her role as monarch. Her headpieces allowed her to be easily spotted, but were small enough so her face remained visible. Whether she was waving from Buckingham Palace’s balcony in a neon green dress coat for 2016’s Trooping the Colour or arriving in horse and carriage in sunshine yellow for Royal Ascot in 2019, the intention was to be visible to as many as possible which was achieved without sacrificing style.
And while the outfits became a recognisable, rainbow-style procession of coats in the last decades, her look has evolved a great deal over time.
Throughout her life, she adopted the styles of the day but avoided committing to trends, and relied heavily on custom looks by a stronghold of her trusted dressmakers. Sir Norman Hartnell was one favourite, and designed for the monarch for over 40 years. The man behind her wedding dress was regarded for his “sense of theatre”, use of extravagant fabrics and jewelled embroidery. He would send sketches to the Queen and samples to approve, and she would instruct him to send her compliments to the seamstresses, saying: “Tell your girls, their work is fabulous.”
To wed Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1947 she wore a gown of ivory duchesse satin, embroidered with 10,000 seed pearls. In 1953, Hartnell was also trusted to make her Coronation gown in its gilded splendour.
The importance of diplomatic nods in her outfits cannot be overlooked. In Hartnell’s memoir, he revealed the complications which these could sometimes cause. In the case of Coronation dress, it was weaving in Wales’ emblem of leeks in glamorous style.
“In the end, by using lovely silks and sprinkling it with the dew of diamonds, we were able to transform the earthy leek into a vision of Cinderella charm and worthy of mingling with her sisters Rose and Mimosa in a brilliant Royal Assembly, and fit to embellish the dress of a queen,” he wrote.
The 1950s saw her style status blossom, with cinch-waist dresses emulating Christian Dior’s New Look.
Her dream team was Hartnell, who would make glamorous gowns in silk and tulle for evening events, and fellow couturier Sir Hardy Amies who was an expert in beautifully tailored, full-skirted day-wear suits.
Amies designed for the Queen from 1951 until his death in 2003 and paid great attention to detail, even creating gowns to complement the buildings where events were being held.
For a 1965 state banquet in West Germany, the designer made a bodice for the Queen with silver embroidery inspired by the rococo grandeur of Schloss Bruehl, a former archbishop’s palace where the dinner was held.
At this time, if the Queen chose to wear ready to wear pieces from the high street – often from respected British label Horrockses in the 1950s – the styles would instantly sell out. It is a precedent that has continued with younger members of royal family today.
By the 1960s, the Queen had eschewed the New Look in favour of shift dresses, coats and petal-covered hats. She also wore fur on many occasions over the years, choosing a leopard-skin coat for a day at the races in 1962, and a mink trimmed coat and hat on the sober occasion she visited Aberfan, Wales, after the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip in 1966.
In 2019, however, it was announced she would withdraw her support for wearing real fur. “If Her Majesty is due to attend an engagement in particularly cold weather, from 2019 onwards fake fur will be used to make sure she stays warm,” wrote Angela Kelly, who was the Queen’s senior dresser since 2002, in her memoir. She also revealed the mink trim had been removed from one of her favourite overcoats.
In the 1970s, she turned to trendy geometric or bold prints for daywear, and softer lines and flowing chiffon outfits designed by Ian Thomas, a former assistant to Hartnell, for evenings, before she dipped a toe into the shoulder-pads and pussy-bow blouse fad of the 1980s.
Others who designed for the Queen include John Anderson, who worked for the monarch between 1988 and 1996, and German tailor Karl-Ludwig Rehse from 1988.
In later years, the Queen’s outfits simplified and settled into a staple style which continued into her older age, but this was not without its exceptions. Specifically in 1999, she committed to a high stakes, red carpet statement in a harlequin dress with a head turning, multi-coloured sequin top and gradient yellow shade silk skirt to the Royal Variety Performance. It was designed by Rehse, who afterwards said: “She’s like all ladies, she’ll go for something new. People seemed to be thrilled at how she looked. She was stunning.”
From 2000, it was couturier Stewart Parvin who became a go-to for her Majesty, a man best known for making elegance in simplicity. He was approached by personal assistant and senior dresser Kelly before the Golden Jubilee, with the aim of building a more contemporary edge into monarch’s wardrobe.
He said of the Queen in 2012: “I see beautiful, wealthy young women looking in the mirror and all they see is their faults. The Queen looks squarely in the mirror and she likes what she sees. She has a confidence that transcends beauty – that’s the most fascinating thing with her.”
Kelly, who is a designer in her own right, also became the Queen’s prioritised choice for day and evening wear, and helped bring some pomp and glamour to the head of state in her later years. She was not afraid to make a feature of dazzling Swarovski crystals and re-used gowns, removing decorations and adding new ones.
“The Queen loves clothes and is a real expert on fabrics,” she once said. “It’s not been a question of me teaching the Queen – it’s been the other way round.”
And it was Kelly who dressed the Queen in a duck egg blue tweed dress and jacket, embellished with tiny aquamarine Swarovski crystals, as she sat in the front row at London Fashion Week, watching a Richard Quinn catwalk show beside US Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour in 2018.
There was another side to Queen Elizabeth II’s wardrobe which has stayed constant for the majority of her 96 years: her countryside wardrobe. It is often quoted she was happiest at her homes Balmoral Castle, Scotland, and The Sandringham Estate, in Norfolk.
For horse riding and outdoor pursuits, she relied on trusty long wax coats, tartan skirts and quilted jackets – but it was her array of headscarves that became the most recognisable symbol of her out-of-town look.
So often, these accessorize the moments Queen Elizabeth II looked her happiest. Be that watching The Royal Windsor Horse Show or arriving at King’s Lynn railway station to spend Christmas with her family in Norfolk, she wore them with a beaming smile and silk knot tied under her chin.
Scroll the gallery above for Queen Elizabeth’s greatest ever fashion moments