Obituary | For 70 years of her reign, Queen Elizabeth II was an icon of stoicism, as much as fashion
Queen Elizabeth, unmistakable monarch. Photo: Getty Images
Two days before she died at age 96, Queen Elizabeth II received British prime minister Liz Truss at the rather remote Balmoral Castle—her summer residence in Scotland—to appoint the Conservative Party’s choice as the new PM, after the long-awaited resignation of Boris Johnson. The Queen must have been unwell then. Her doctors had deemed her “unfit to return to London due to ill health”, according to media reports (the appointment of a new PM, her fifteenth that day, would normally take place in Buckingham Palace). Palace officials had described what ailed her since the end of last year as “episodic mobility problems”. Yet she made the (likely considerable) effort to perform what would become her last official duty.
That afternoon, in the drawing room of the Castle, standing in front of a crackling fireplace, she was simply attired in what has been described as her “country style”, rather than her usual brightly-coloured coat-dress for other public engagements. The Queen wore a simple, pocketless, round-neck grey cardigan over a similarly-hued shirt. The skirt was knife-pleated, with hem below-the-knee, and in a wool Scottish tartan of grey too. She wore single-pearl drop earrings, a strand of pearls on her neck, and what could be her wedding ring on her left hand. She also wore glasses. As she was indoors in her own home (Balmoral Castle is, in fact, a private estate), she dispensed with her usual brimmed hat, but kept on her Anello & Davide shoes with the equivalent of a horse bit on top. What was curious (and drew online chatter) was her black Launer handbag: why did she need to carry one in her residence?
The last photo of Queen Elizabeth, in Balmoral Castle on 7 September. Photo: Getty Images
Queen Elizabeth was thought to be “most-prolific couture client in the world”. That is hardly surprising as the monarch would have clothes custom-made for her rather than have her spend an after out doing something as uninteresting as shopping. Reportedly, she has “thousands of clothes” stored (and probably indexed) in Buckingham Palace, where in 2016, it staged the exhibition Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen’s Wardrobe. Despite her easy access to clothes and the best people who make them, she was never a follower of fashion as we have come to understand the term. It has been said that royalty do not pursue trends or set them, a line of thought that would have been totally at odds with the preoccupation of the last Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, a veritable Queen of Fashion. Or, if we stick to British history, the earlier “Virgin Queen”, Elizabeth I, who was known to “dress to impress”. For Queen Elizabeth, the ideal is to strike a balance. And through the years, especially in her middle age and later, she did find a comfortable credo or, in less imaginative language, uniform.
What she wore that truly captured the public’s imagination began when she wowed the world in 1947 as a 21-year-old bride of her cousin Prince Philip of Greece. Her gown, designed by the British designer Norman Hartnell, was not quite a confection that would be expected of a princess bride. Rather, hers was in a rather conservative silhouette, made from ivory silk duchess satin purchased with ration coupons (which, at that time was also hard to get as it was not long after World War II) and decorated with 10,000 seed pearls (imported from the US, not, of course, Japan). The sum, despite whatever limitations of the time, was worthy of a Westminster Abbey wedding and the first television broadcast of a royal nuptial day.
The then Princess Elizabeth’s wedding dress when she married Prince Philip of Greece. Photo: Getty Images
But the wedding dress of the Princess would be overshadowed by the coronation dress of a Queen—her crowing in 1953, six years after the independence of India from British rule and the partition that led to the formation of Pakistan. Also designed by Norman Hartnell, the dress conformed to specifications requested by the new monarch, who had known, after wearing her bridal gown, quite exactly what she wanted: a dress in white, made from duchess satin again, and of a shape that did not unnecessarily accentuate her body, but that was regal, even “religious”, as some reports indicated. But despite a “brief”, Mr Hartnell was clear that he was going to create a dress that would be a masterpiece and one to be remembered.
Unlike what she wore for her wedding, the coronation gown had short sleeves and a seemingly lower sweetheart neckline. And the hand embroidery was grander, with floral emblems of every country of the United Kingdom, as well as those of the Commonwealth Nations (she was inclusive even before inclusive rings so stridently today), and flowers and other plants, such as wheat ears and olive branches, forming an orderly composition that was suitably ornate and stately. The dress was on display as part of the Platinum Jubilee: The Queen’s Coronation exhibition at Windsor Castle. As the curator Caroline de Guitaut told People, “it’s probably one of the most important dresses made in the 20th century—certainly a great piece of British design.”
The Queen posing in her coronation gown. Photo: Getty Images
Establishing a working wardrobe, The Queen in Stockholm in 1956, Photo: Getty Images
As she settled into her role as Queen, she began fine-tuning her dress choices and creating a wardrobe that would be suitable for her official duties. Just as her public life was tightly choreographed, her public style was solidly coordinated. Her clothes had to stand out from the crowd as the monarch who mingles with her subjects, even before she adopted the bright colours of her later years. “I have to be seen to be believed,” she once said. In the 2016 documentary, The Queen at 90, daughter-in-law, Sophie, Countess of Wessex, explained: “She needs to stand out for people to be able to say ‘I saw the Queen.’ Don’t forget that when she turns up somewhere, the crowds are two, three, four, 10, 15 deep, and someone wants to be able to say they saw a bit of the Queen’s hat as she went past.”
Even after leaving the post-war austerity quite behind her, she would wear rather practical clothes, but not dull. Before she embraced the colours now associated with her, she rather enjoyed prints (they reached, expectedly, quite a busy height in the ’70s). She wore mainly dresses (hardly ever do you see her in pants, although, according to one British report, she was photographed wearing pants in public “fewer than 10 times in the last 70 years”) in the ’70s and ’80s, before the coat dresses that started to dominate her attire for public appearances in the ’90s and that allowed the colours she used—mostly brights—to pop on and magnify an otherwise rather diminutive frame. It is tempting to say that she landed on the threshold of auntie-frumpiness, but even if she did occasionally knocked on its door, she did not cross to the other side.
The Queen visiting Toa Payoh when she was in Singapore in 1972. Photo: NYSP
Following her death, it emerged that the Queen was the “most well-travelled monarch in History”, chalking up over 117 (the figure varies depending on the reports) official visits overseas since her coronation in 1953, according to The Telegraph, who called her the ”Million-Mile Queen”. Other reports say that she took the most trips in the ’70s, amounting to 73 to 48 different countries. Interestingly, the Queen does not need a British passport for her travels outside the UK. According to the official web site of the British Royal Family, royal.uk, “as a British passport is issued in the name of Her Majesty, it is unnecessary for The Queen to possess one.” Her travel wardrobe, which apparently provided for three outfit changes a day (including hats and accessories), was assembled not just to communicate her taste when abroad, but also to weave in diplomatic messages, as well as cultural nods to the lands she visited. Practical considerations were taken into account too. According to CNN, her designers added weights to the hem of her dresses and skirts, for example, so that she needn’t have resist unpredictable gusty conditions.
She came to Asia several times. Out of the 54 independent countries that make up the Commonwealth, eight are in Asia (five in South Asia and three in South-East Asia), with six that are republics and two monarchies (Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam). The Queen’s trips to the largest continent in the world began in 1954, two years after her accession, with a trip to Sri Lanka. In 1986, she was the “first-ever” British monarch to visit China, where in Beijing she met Deng Xiaoping (邓小平), and where she reaffirmed that Britain will return Hong Kong to Chinese rule. That happened in July 1997. It was seen as the end of the British Empire. The Queen did not attend the handover ceremony, but Prince Charles—now King Charles III—did.
The Queen and Lee Kuan Yew at a state banquet held in her honour during a 1989 visit. Photo: Getty Images
The Queen with PM Lee Hsien Loong in 2006. Photo Chew Seng Kim/ST
Queen Elizabeth II first visited Southeast Asia in the leap year of 1972, with stops in Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, and Singapore. She came to our island twice more, in 1986 and 2006. Probably briefed on our terrible heat and humidity, she wore mostly lightweight dresses during her times here. In her hitherto famous visit to the Housing Development Board’s second public housing estate Toa Payoh in 1972, she wore a pale, bluish dress with circular mirco-dots that appeared to be in repeated shapes of the chrysanthemum. The sleeve of the dress ended with a slight puff below her elbow. From there, the rest of her arms were covered in white gloves, which formed a continuous chromatic line with her Launer handbag—also in white. It must have been amusing for the residents of Toa Payoh to see someone so dressed up. In fact, those accompanying her were too, including members of the families whose flats she visited. We had to remind ourselves this was a different age. On another day, at the Botanic Gardens, where she was presented with an orchid named after her, the Dendrobium Elizabeth, the Sovereign went without sleeves in a low-waist dress that had quite a hint of the 1920s. But her white gloves remained.
In 1986—her second visit to the Lion City—she showed that regal could work in an equatorial land with no history of queenly resplendence. At the Istana state banquet held in her honour, she wore a gold gown in what could have been silk brocade, with a wide, gossamer flounce across her shoulder. There was, of course, the customary bling of crown and necklace. When she returned to our shores in 2006, which would be her final visit to Asia, the Queen’s by then familiar single-colour (dress that matched the hat) attire was the predominant look. One bright green dress paired with a jaunty marabou-ed hat in identical colours is probably the one most associated with her time on our island. “I have watched Singapore’s development with admiration,” the queen said during the Istana gala. “Although only 40 years old (then), your country already has a deserved reputation as a centre of excellence in Asia.” Indisputably, Queen Elizabeth II, too, had a deserved reputation, and kept in herself a centre of excellence.