September 28, 2022

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Queen Elizabeth was a style icon and used her clothing to send a message: author

As It Happens6:45Queen Elizabeth was a style icon and used her clothing to send a message: author

Queen Elizabeth embraced fashion and used it send a powerful message, according to an author and fashion journalist.

“She said so much with her clothing without having to say anything at all,” said Elizabeth Holmes, the author of HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style.

Elizabeth, Canada’s head of state and the longest-reigning British monarch, died Thursday. She was 96.

Holmes pointed out that the “visual landscape” changed drastically during Elizabeth’s reign, from the explosion of photography, to the cable news era to the Instagram age. 

“The Queen experienced all of those. And fashion is such a big part of that,” said Holmes.

Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host host Nil Köksal.

A young boy wearing an Ottawa Senators hockey hat and jersey tries to hand Queen Elizabeth a hockey puck to sign, as she greets people following a tree planting ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Oct. 14, 2002. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

When I think of the Queen, I think of colour, certainly hats. Comfort, as well. What did you find so fascinating about her style?

I found the Queen’s style to be so singular and so specific to her. You know, she really developed her own sort of signature uniform, using colours and shapes. The same shape hat, the same shape coat, certainly, you know. A sensible black loafer and a black handbag. You can close your eyes and you can picture the Queen and what she’s wearing…. I think that’s really profound.

Queen Elizabeth, wearing a pale green hat and coat, meets with members of the public in 1973 during 1 of her 4 visits to London, Ont. (Submitted by Alicia Pleasance)

It wasn’t just that she liked bright colours and a monochromatic look. There’s a couple of layers to that, in that first, she could be spotted anywhere she was, right?

Yes, it was as much about function as it was about fashion. Her wardrobe was a working wardrobe, and all the clothes were designed to support her royal duties.

And I wonder, is it … so the crowd could see her, but also her security detail?

She was, you know, famously quite petite, too, and was often in a place where she was surrounded by a lot of people. So those colours served a real purpose.

Left to right: Queen Elizabeth, B.C. Lieutenant Governor Jack Nicholson, Margaret Trudeau and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau en route to Victoria, B.C., on May 3, 1971. (Bill Croke/The Canadian Press)

There are some who [would say] it wasn’t cutting edge necessarily, and they would go so far as to call it dowdy. But one British fashion editor recently called her a “badass” because of the colours she kept rocking through her 90s, all the way to 96.

She had her own sort of approach to power dressing, right? If you think about it, she became Queen at the age of 25. She was a young woman on a stage dominated by men, you know, the global leaders at the time. And the fact that she held onto her sort of feminine sense of style in the early years of her reign, and then came up with her own sort of style rules as she sort of settled in, I think, with the bright colours and the shapes.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip wave goodbye as they board their plane to New York at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on July 6, 2010. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

And then certainly in these last couple of decades, she has remained as visible, if not more, by choosing, you know, lemon yellow or neon green to wear in these big public moments. And … I think there’s something really significant about that style of dressing. She was meant to be seen right up until the end.

In your research for your book, I wonder if you looked at all at, you know, how difficult it can be in those kinds of roles. They’re very, very privileged, of course, and have access to all of the best things. But you have sort of a limited laneway to express your personality in many ways…. She couldn’t pull out a mini skirt and [an] off-the-shoulder top if she wanted to.

Exactly. I think that the guardrails … within royal fashion are really fascinating because, you know, members of the family are not, you know, typical celebrities choosing just a glamorous gown for a red carpet. They are seen over and over in a range of circumstances and they need to be seen as both fancy — worthy of the royal title — but also frugal, you know, responsible stewards of taxpayer money. And I think the Queen set that tone so beautifully and she showed that range.

We saw her … with her head scarves at a horse race. And then we saw her with her, you know, tiaras and dripping in jewels. And that’s a really difficult thing to pull off in a way that always felt true and authentic to her.

People ask me all the time, “Why do you care so much about royal fashion?” And I care because they care. And the Queen sets the stage for all of this. She put a lot of thought into her outfits and made royal fashion into something really meaningful.

Were you ever surprised by something the Queen wore?

I think what’s so interesting about her uniform that she has devised and her sort of familiar appearance, is that any sort of deviation from the usual gets a lot of attention.

There’s a time in 2008 that she wore knee-high boots to a hockey game. And just swapping out, you know, her sturdy-heeled loafers for a pair of knee-high boots was just a delightful thing to see. 

Queen Elizabeth during a state visit to Slovakia in October 2008. During her trip she wore high leather boots, which fashion journalist Elizabeth Holmes noted were a departure from her usual look. (Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images)

And is there one outfit that stands out to you as you think back on her life and legacy?

I think what’s perhaps most impressive is it’s not one outfit, it’s the formula. It’s the hat that she always wore: the same shape that was big enough to draw attention to her, but not hide her face.

It’s the same shape coat, the same shoe, the same bag, and the ways in which she played with that, whether it was, you know, a bright coral or a neon green. The brooches she wore.

We talk a lot in the style world about coming up with a signature look. And she did that to great effect. And I think having that sort of visual brand will be an important part of her legacy.


Interview with Elizabeth Holmes produced by Kate Swoger. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.