Untold Stories Behind Queen Elizabeth's Most Memorable Looks

In an exclusive excerpt from her new book, The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style, author Bethan Holt shares the stories behind some of Queen Elizabeth's most memorable looks.

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70 Years of the Queen's Style

The Queen: 7- Years of Majestic Style

"The Queen shows us how she feels through her clothing," says Bethan Holt, author of the new book, The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style. "Once you delve beneath the surface a little bit, you can see what an incredible amount of research and thought has gone into creating her iconic looks."

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A Princess Becomes a Queen: 1953

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After years of loyal service, the Queen honoured designer Norman Hartnell with a unique commission – creating her coronation gown. "My mind was teeming with heraldic and floral ideas… everything heavenly that might be embroidered upon such a dress," Hartnell wrote. It was decided that instead of only incorporating emblems of the different nations of the United Kingdom, the gown's embroidery should represent all of the territories over which the Queen would now reign, an idea that would result in an intricate, scalloped pattern and shimmering palette of greens, pink and yellows achieved using silk threads, pearls, diamonds, amethysts, crystals and sequins. It took nine weeks, six embroiderers and 3,000 hours to complete. To create the full-skirted shape, the dress was lined in taffeta and padded with three layers of horsehair crinoline, which made it incredibly warm and heavy – the Queen later said that it was akin to wearing a radiator.

03 of 10

On Tour: 1953

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Looking back at pictures of the Queen from the 1950s with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia though, she looks just as impeccably elegant as Norman Hartnell described, beginning to shape a look that was at once striking and sophisticated but still appropriate to her role. When Christian Dior showed a collection with skirts 40 cm/16 inches from the ground and tops without corsetry ahead of Elizabeth II's long-planned Commonwealth tour in 1953, the Daily Sketch newspaper declared that there would be "no Dior hemline rubbish for the Queen when she goes on her Commonwealth tour." Hartnell and [Hardy] Amies created between 100 and 150 outfits between them for the tour, which would see the Queen visit Bermuda, Jamaica, Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, the Cocos Islands, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Aden (now part of Yemen), Uganda, Malta and Gibraltar. The reality of this tour was gruelling. Elizabeth and Philip left their small children at home for six months, and on the Australian leg of the journey, the party travelled an average of 370 km/230 miles each day. But the images that survive from the voyage look romantically glamorous; the beautifully dressed young queen and her handsome husband against all manner of exciting backdrops.

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Royal Diplomacy: 1979

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Throughout her reign, the Queen and other members of the Royal family have been deployed on "charm offensives" to strategically important countries. Her Majesty's trip to the Middle East in 1979 was designed to enhance relations with nations that formed one of the UK's most significant export markets and were its source of oil. Against this high-stakes backdrop, it was important for the Queen's clothing to be pitch perfect and adhere to the area's custom of modest dressing. The double act of Hardy Amies and Frederick Fox created a series of covered-up looks for Her Majesty. The Queen's long dresses did not go to waste after this tour – they were shortened and worn by the Queen at Royal Ascot.

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Key Moment in History: 1969

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The investiture of Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales was a moment that symbolized one of the central challenges of the Queen's reign: how to meld history with modernity. On this occasion, fashion played a vital role in achieving this finest of balances. Norman Hartnell created a strikingly simple pale yellow shift dress and coat with stand-up collar in a recognizably 60's style, while milliner Simone Mirman crafted an unusual Tudor-style cap covered entirely in pearls and bugle beads. "That was a huge labour of love because everything was done by hand; it took hours and hours and hours," remembers Mirman's daughter Sophie. Hartnell called it the Queen's "medieval helmet." while Cecil Beaton wrote a letter of congratulations, saying that the hat was "absolutely perfect for the setting."

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A Royal Wedding: 2011

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Optimism and joy radiated from the outfit worn by the Queen to the wedding of the future king, Prince William, and his university sweetheart, Catherine Middleton. After a 10-year romance, Her Majesty's choice of colour and details seemed to symbolize the hope that this union gave for the future of the monarchy. Angela Kelly, the Queen's dresser, created the primrose yellow dress, matching coat and rose-adorned hat. She added beading and tucks around the neckline to create a sun-ray effect. Later that year, Her Majesty repurposed her wedding look as a diplomatic fashion statement when she wore the dress to church in Australia – where yellow is the national colour.

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Style Influencer: 1952

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The first decade of Her Majesty's reign was a time filled with experimental and trendsetting evening wear. Just months after ascending the throne, in October 1952, the Queen caused a sensation when she arrived at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square for a royal viewing of the musical comedy Because You're Mine. Pictures of a glamorous Elizabeth II wearing Norman Hartnell's black and white blazer-style gown appeared in almost every magazine and newspaper the following day, with manufacturers rushing to make copies of the dress as quickly as possible. Even those on a budget could emulate Her Majesty after a paper pattern was produced. The dress, dubbed the "Magpie," was never worn again.

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High Glamour: 1999

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There was a witty touch to many of the evening looks worn by the Queen during the '80s and '90s. In November 1999, the Queen wore one of her most famous evening dresses of all time at the Royal Variety Performance in Birmingham. Dubbed the "Harlequin" dress, a gold chevron-striped skirt was topped with a sequinned, diamond-patterned bodice. The dress's creator Karl-Ludwig Rehse told the Daily Telegraph that he was "overwhelmed" by the reaction to his design. "People seemed to be thrilled at how she looked. She was stunning," he said. "She's like all ladies, she'll go for something new. She's fun to work with and very knowledgeable about fabrics. She knows how the clothes have to behave – how they have to move."

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The Fashion Muse: 1988

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[In February 2021] Ian Griffiths at Max Mara paid tribute to the Queen with his autumn/winter 2021–2022 show, basing his designs on Elizabeth II's off-duty ensembles. "I think the Queen is the ne plus ultra of authentic British style, and what I love about that style is that, despite any notions we might have about class divisions, it's a completely democratic look," he explains. "In lockdown, I wore my walking boots, waxed jacket, quilted gilet, Tattersall check shirt and tweed cap every day, and it struck me on our daily dog walks that I wasn't alone: just about everyone else was wearing variations on the same look. It looks good on anyone, but no one does it better than the Queen." Why do these outfits resonate? "She looks completely at ease in what she's wearing, unselfconscious and nonchalant," he observes, "and I've always thought that's the key to looking good."

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Safari Chic: 1979

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Like many women, Elizabeth had her first taste of wearing trousers during the Second World War, when she donned them in her job as a mechanic with the Auxillary Territorial Service, not as a fashion statement but as part of her practical khaki uniform. Sightings of the Queen in trousers were few and far between, however, as she preferred to maintain the romantic view of the monarchy forged by her mother with her Norman Hartnell gowns and rose-tinted Cecil Beaton portraits. Aside from a visit to a mine in Fife in 1958, where she gamely wore a protective boiler suit, the Queen wasn't pictured wearing trousers again until 1970 when she and Prince Philip took part in a re-enactment of Captain Cook's landing in New Zealand to mark the 200th anniversary of his historic achievement. Nine years later, the sovereign was seen wearing trousers again on safari in Zambia. Here, she looked elegant in beige pants and a gold, crimson and blue patterned cream silk blouse, finished off with a pair of sunglasses.

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