On the Runway: Inside Queen Elizabeth II’s Wardrobe

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On the Runway

By ELIZABETH PATON

LONDON — The ball gown, cinched at the waist with capped sleeves and a heart-shaped neckline, practically glows thanks to the multitude of pearls, crystals and sequins embroidered using gold and silver silk threads onto the ivory duchesse satin over eight painstaking months.

A step closer, and it becomes apparent that the embellishments trace a gleaming outline of English roses, Scottish thistles, Welsh leeks and Irish thistles on the fold on the stiff skirt — where they mingle with Canadian maple leaves, New Zealand silver ferns, Australian wattles and South African protea.

Forget a trouser suit or sky-high stiletto. Female leaders in search of a sartorial model need look no further than this gown: power dressing at its most literal.

It was wearing this dress, with her nation’s history stitched atop her hemline, that Queen Elizabeth II took to the British throne in 1953, sending a message from the monarchy via her appearance that was broadcast to millions all over the world watching the moment on TV.

The coronation gown, designed by the British couturier Sir Norman Hartnell at the height of post-World War II austerity, is the centerpiece of an exhibition that opened last month at Buckingham Palace: “Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style From the Queen’s Wardrobe.”

The show runs through Oct. 2. It is part of a series of events being held across Britain this year in celebration of the queen’s 90th birthday, and has turned five gilded staterooms into some of the world’s largest and most lavish temporary wardrobes.

The second installment of a three-part exhibition of the queen’s clothes and the roles they have played in enabling her to carry out her responsibilities as the head of state, head of the armed forces and head of the Commonwealth, it showcases more than 150 looks, and is the largest display of the queen’s dress in history. It explores not only her personal style, but also the various strategies that have shaped the working uniform of one of the most photographed women in history.

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Such as her preference for a bright block-color number and matching bold headpiece. “The queen has always been aware that she needs to stand out from the crowd, and it is for this reason that millinery has always played an important role in her wardrobe,” said Caroline de Guitaut, the curator at the Royal Collection Trust who organized the exhibitions.

One gallery features 62 of the queen’s favorite hats, ranging from the turbanlike styles favored in the 1970s to Bretons and pillbox numbers, as well as wide-brimmed top hats worn more recently.

The hats “enable people who want to catch a glimpse of her to spot her immediately,” Ms. de Guitaut said. “Almost every hat she wears is strategic, ensuring her face is fully visible but also framed in a range of styles over the years that were often considered very avant-garde for their day.”

Though the queen has remained loyal to the British fashion industry and its designers all her life, when it comes to the 265 official overseas visits she has made during her reign, her ensembles reflect fabrics fit for the local climates. And, where appropriate, the colors and insignia of a host nation, acting as subtle yet prominent diplomatic tools.

For a state visit to Ethiopia in 1965, for example, the queen wore a green Hartnell dress with the Insignia of the Order of Ethiopia; for a 1974 visit to Australia, she chose a mimosa-yellow silk-chiffon dress embellished with sprigs of wattle designed by Ian Thomas.

And in 1965, when she became the first British head of state to visit Germany after World War II, she wore a turquoise organza silk gown by the tailor Hardy Amies, who used silver thread and beading for embroidery across the bodice inspired by the Rococo interiors of the Schloss Brühl palaces.

Indeed, while designers have looked to the queen for inspiration — Ralph Lauren has lapped up her fondness for tweeds over the years, and in his latest collection Alessandro Michele at Gucci paid homage to her devotion to a floral kerchief head scarf and oversize rimless spectacles when tending to matters on her estates — she herself seems to value sartorial international outreach above trend.

“The queen and queen mother do not want to be fashion setters,” Hartnell once said. A former theater costume designer, he created state gowns for the queen until his death in 1979. “That’s left to other people with less important work to do.”

Although trousers are far and few between (the Auxiliary Territorial Service uniform of overalls and a cap worn when she was serving as a car mechanic during World War II being a rare exception), practical considerations also come into play in the queen’s wardrobe, particularly in her military regalia.

The scarlet red and brocade tunic she wears as colonel in chief of the Grenadier Guards is cut away from the waist to allow her to ride sidesaddle, for example, and the mantle of the Order of the British Empire has a zipped-up overdress (selected by the queen from designs contributed by students from the Royal College of Art).

“I have to be seen to be believed,” the queen famously said, and just how she did that is clear in this exhibition. Ball gowns, car coats, wide-brimmed hats and brooches have been her armory. Being seen, after all, is what makes monarchy real.

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