She caused a sensation wearing neon at 90, but the Queen has never shied away from colour – nor from making a statement through her clothes. Sali Hughes salutes the rainbow royal.
Red: The Queen is keen on tweeds and bouclés in crimson, cherry and burgundy. Sadly the occasional slash of red lipstick has been retired.
My earliest memory is of sitting in a high chair in the street, semi-stuck to its Linoleum seat by the rubber pants over my terry cotton nappy, surrounded by grown-ups and children in paper crowns, while I was fed some unidentifiable goo from a plastic spoon. I didn’t realise until later that I, along with the rest of my South Wales valleys community, and the whole of Britain, had been celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee.
Blue: Royal blue on the monarch is a no-brainer, but she has showcased the whole spectrum, from turquoise to teal, sapphire to navy.
The next time I saw the Queen, I knew it. I was six years old and at another street party wearing a homemade bonnet, fashioned from a disposable buffet plate and red, white and blue crepe paper. We were watching the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer on a television that was connected to an extension lead and wheeled into a relative’s back garden. As the carriages arrived and commentators speculated impatiently on the bride’s frock, I couldn’t take my eyes off the middle-aged monarch in turquoise pleats and a floral hat that even my own nan might consider ‘a bit old’. I thought her marvellous, hypnotic, enchanting. And so began my lifelong obsession with the Queen.
Orange: This is a handy colour for international events because it appears on few flags, and there’s no hue too bold for HRH.
The Queen is driven by duty, which informs her wardrobe choices and every other decision. She wears bright colours because she believes it’s her duty to be seen by the people who’ve waited, wet and cold, behind barriers for hours at a time. She prefers three-quarter-length sleeves because she believes it is her duty to wave at well-wishers for several hours unimpeded. At international events, she chooses colours that imply no allegiance to a single flag, because she believes it is her duty to be neutral and respectful to all nations. She wears a single corrective shoulder pad because she believes the monarch should stand straight before her subjects. Everything must be hemmed with curtain weights to avoid the vulgarity and humiliation of what we now refer to as ‘up-skirting’.
Yellow: The Queen loves the sunshine shade for spring, when she embellishes it with pops of blue.
Clothing is not simply for Elizabeth II herself but for the monarchy, and must uphold its standards. The Queen’s job is to be smaller than the throne and she has always understood this perfectly. The Queen’s style remains relevant from a cultural standpoint and consequently still very much shifts stock. In 2016, during her 90th birthday celebrations, the neon-green suit she wore to the Trooping the Colour parade launched a trending Twitter hashtag #neonAt90. It is also claimed that in the following days, sales of neon-coloured clothing and accessories rose by 137 per cent. Five years earlier, after her Majesty had carried a beige Launer handbag into Westminster Abbey for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, Selfridges sold out of all Launer bags almost instantly. here, but especially overseas, the Queen’s wardrobe choices convey a sense of quality, endurance and quiet luxury. In fact, her lack of interest in fashion for its own sake works in her favour.
Green: It’s the colour of her classic countrywear but HM isn’t afraid of more look-at-me tones, from neon lime to chartreuse.
And yet the Queen most certainly knows what works. her love of colour-blocking – wearing a single colour – is born from practicality. She understands that her job is to be seen and, at just five foot four, she needs all the help she can get. A designer’s attempt to modernise her wardrobe for her 1970 Canadian tour, where she wore slacks, was unsuccessful: they haven’t made an on-duty appearance since. She prefers dresses to skirts because they’re more comfortable and she has no time to tuck in and straighten up when exiting a car. She won’t wear green to grassy venues, dark colours against dark upholstery, or a heel higher than two and a quarter inches.
Pink: From blancmange to bubblegum, salmon to cerise, Her Majesty sports – and suits – every shade, but fuchsia seems to be a favourite.
Behind every famous clothes horse, there is invariably a tastemaker or stylist and the Queen is no exception, though her official dresser, Angela Kelly, downplays her role. Angela’s CV is modest but her influence and expertise huge. The Queen discovered the Liverpudlian – more than 40 years her junior – while she worked as housekeeper to the British Ambassador to Germany and quickly offered her a job. Angela rose swiftly through the ranks to become the Queen’s personal dresser and now, along with her team, selects, maintains and archives her clothing, shoes and accessories – even designing and making much of it herself (milliner Rachel Trevor-Morgan and designer Stewart Parvin are among the Queen’s favourites outside the palace). It was at Angela’s suggestion that her employer joined forces with the British Fashion Council in 2018 to found the Queen Elizabeth II Award for British Design, resulting in the Queen’s first ever appearance at London Fashion Week. Who can forget the photograph of her sitting front row at Richard Quinn with US Vogue editor Anna Wintour who, marvellous though she is, did not remove her sunglasses while conversing with the Queen? (Call me old-fashioned, but who keeps on their shades while speaking to any woman in her 90s, royal or not?)
Purple: Elizabeth has been seen in this regal colour more often in recent years and is a lover of lavender, lilac, magenta and violet.
Significantly, the award was founded ‘to recognise emerging British fashion talent, to provide a legacy of support for the industry in recognition of the role fashion has played throughout the Queen’s reign and continues to play in diplomacy, culture and communication’. I think this crystallises why the Queen’s style is so impressive to me. What she cannot say with words she conveys with clothes. Truly, her quiet, devastating trolling through fashion could inspire an assassin. For example, the coded handbag positioning for signalling to staff that some dignitary is now rather quacking on – allegedly she places it on the floor if she wants to remain conversing for no more than five minutes. The European-inspired blue and yellow she wore to parliament immediately after Brexit. The polite silk head-covering for bombing around in a Land Rover with a mortified Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia having to sit next to a female driver for the first time in his life. Wearing a Barack and Michelle Obama-gifted brooch for a meeting with Donald Trump, where he arrived 12 minutes late and blocked his hostess’s pathway so that she had to scuttle around him.
We will, of course, never know what is calculated and what is a delicious coincidence, because our Queen never complains, never explains. And that, to me, is her great appeal.
This is an edited extract from Our Rainbow Queen by Sali Hughes, published by Square Peg on 30 May, price £9.99. To order a copy for £7.99 until 2 June visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 844 571 0640. P&P is free on orders over £15.