Fashion has changed a lot since the 1800s, and so has what the royals wear.
The style choices of the British royal family are always relevant to a conversation about fashion history. Those choices signal the standards of dress for society at a given time and reflect what society values. While the royals’ clothing certainly doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the wardrobe of the average Briton by any stretch of the imagination, the great influence they have means what they wear is a marker of change in fashion and culture. This is true even though royal fashion always remains more traditional and conservative in comparison to the average citizen’s style, which makes sense because the monarchy is centered around tradition, decorum, and image.
But as time has gone on, there have been various pushes for the royal family to become more modern. Prince Phillip was a big advocate for modernizing the royal family, even encouraging the televising and nationwide broadcast of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. And with William and Kate recently adopting a YouTube channel, the royals seem increasingly willing to embrace modern technologies and create an image that makes them feel more intimate and less like an outdated institution. Fashion has been a large part of that picture.
Queen Victoria (1819-1901)
Queen Victoria had the longest reign of any monarch to come before her at a staggering 64 years in power. And she was pretty influential, especially when you consider that there’s an entire era named for her reign. She often selected bell-shaped gowns to wear with a more fitted bodice. She placed great importance on always wearing gowns that were made in Britain, which is something the royal ladies of today still emulate.
After her husband Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria would never come out of her mourning clothes, choosing to wear black for the rest of her life, and not even deviating in the style of gown she wore. Her black dress and her white cap would essentially become her uniform following the death of her husband.
Princess Mary of Teck (1867-1953)
Princess Mary of Teck, and later Queen of England as the wife of King George V, showed how fashion changed after the start of World War I. Women began to wear their hair short, while hemlines came up higher in reflection of some of the freedom women gained after the war ended. Her shorter hair and shorter hemline were right in line with that change.
Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1900-2002)
Mother to the current queen of England, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon would start important traditions to be followed by those who came after her. The bridal bouquet being laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior is just one of them – she began it in honor of her own brother.
And when it came to fashion, she stuck to what she knew. Lady Elizabeth partnered with designer Madame Handley Seymour for most significant occasions. She preferred a very 1920s-esq, long, flowy silhouette to a more fitted skirt.
Queen Elizabeth II (1926- )
Queen Elizabeth II’s style is quite possibly the hardest of all the royal women to describe because her reign has been so long and her style choices have been influenced by the changing fashion of the decades as well as her age. The ‘40s saw a military influence to the queen’s wardrobe, the ‘50s a fuller skirt and kitten heels, and in recent years, big hats with skirt suit sets. If there are two constants, they’re her habit of wearing a coordinating brooch and her effort to dress in bright colors so that everyone who lines up to see her is able to spot her, even if they’re very far away. The fashion choices she makes are truly a reflection of her commitment to her duty and are thoughtfully chosen with her role as the Queen of the United Kingdom in mind.
Princess Diana (1961-1997)
It’s hard to put into words the great impact that Princess Diana had, not just on the British public, but on people worldwide. Perhaps the best way to illustrate it, is how, following her tragic death, 60 million flowers were sent to Kensington Palace in honor of her life.
Princess Diana’s style was truly iconic, and it shaped the fashions of her day as well as now. Whether it was the ruffles and frills she frequently wore in the early days of her marriage to Prince Charles or the padded shoulders she rocked in true ‘80s fashion, Princess Diana’s style helped to modernize the royal family. The way she dressed made her feel very relatable and contributed to her affectionately given nickname of the “People’s Princess.”
Kate Middleton (1982- )
Whether you call her the Duchess of Cambridge, Catherine, Kate Middleton, or simply Kate, she has done a great deal to help modernize the royal family. While Kate has faced her fair share of tabloid criticism, I think she’s generally beloved by the public and it’s easy to see why. She’s charming, a devoted mother, and has carried with her much of the same relatability and intimacy that Diana brought to the monarchy. (Plus, she’s just gorgeous!)
Meghan Markle (1981- )
While Meghan Markle may no longer carry the Her Royal Highness title after stepping down from her duties as a royal alongside Prince Harry, I think her influence on royal fashion is still worth mentioning. After all, what she wore was so followed that the media even came up with “The Meghan Effect” to describe how the products she wears often sell out after she’s spotted in them.
While her style as a royal was still traditional, it was often more modern than Kate’s, which you can see in her love for neutrals and shoulder-baring styles. And of course, it’s a bit more casual, hence the famous (or infamous, depending on who you’re talking to) messy bun.
Fashion has changed a lot, and that’s true even for the tradition-bound royal family. Their position of influence affects fashion just as much as it is influenced by fashion trends, and at no time more than now, when the digital nature of the world means people see the royal women (and what they’re wearing) more than ever before.
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