Elizabeth II is the very image of a queen
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, right, and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, watch a fashion show at De Montfort University in Leicester, England. When it comes to fashion, Queen Elizabeth II is the defining image of royalty.
Queen Elizabeth II arrives for an event with The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 5th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, at the Caledonian Club in London on May 30.
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Though it is something the Red Queen might have said, it was actually uttered by Elizabeth II. "I have to be seen to be believed," the queen of England remarked, according to her most recent biographer, Sally Bedell Smith. Far from being a goofball tautology, that declaration is a shrewd assessment of monarchy management in an era when image rules supreme.
It was in the 1953 Order of Coronation that England's newly crowned ruler was referred to as "Queen Elizabeth, Your Undoubted Queen." Over the decades that followed -- which culminated last week in her diamond jubilee celebrations -- that undoubted queen diligently fulfilled a role she considered fateful. She simultaneously forged the definitive image of a monarch at a time when most monarchies were reduced to ceremonial nothingness or else had gone kaput.
Not the least of the accomplishments of Elizabeth II, in other words, is that she is the queen but is also the defining image of one.
And how, after all, is a queen supposed to look?
It is a question unlikely to have troubled her predecessors, women like Elizabeth I -- whose portraits depict the Virgin Queen as a velvet-clad semi-divinity, cloaks threaded with gold filament and barnacled with pearls, the ivory egg of her head nestled in a ruff of extravagant lace -- or the Queen Empress Victoria, whose appearance, to swipe Lewis Carroll's description of his Red Queen, invariably called to mind the "concentrated essence of all governesses."
The current queen's canniest tutor in brand management was likely her mother, said Andrew Bolton, a curator at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From the time she married George VI, the plump and pretty Queen Elizabeth, queen consort and later queen mother, carefully crafted an image that conformed to the saccharine beauty ideals best portrayed by the 19th-century portraitist Franz Xaver Winterhalter, a favorite of her husband.
Guided by the photographer Cecil Beaton and the dressmaker Norman Hartnell, she refined a style that varied little throughout her long life. (She died in 2002, at age 101.) Romantic, anachronistic (part Glinda the Good Witch, part Scarlett O'Hara), her hyperfeminine manner set her apart from the steely, modern chic of royal relatives like Marina, Duchess of Kent, and her clotheshorse-in-law, the Duchess of Windsor.
"The queen mother's clothes were a reaction to the intense fashionability of the duke and duchess of Windsor, whose style was about modernity and a modern royalty," Mr. Bolton said.
Looking at Queen Elizabeth II, it would be easy enough to conclude that she lacks any interest in fashion. But that, Mr. Bolton said, would be a mistake. "She is not particularly interested in high fashion, but she is particular about clothes and interested in things that make her absolutely identifiable as queen."
Like any star performer in an age dominated by the photographic image, the young queen needed an easily identifiable signature, something that instantly conjured the wearer: Elvis' jumpsuit, Michael Jackson's glove. The formula she arrived at, aided first by the dressmakers Mr. Hartnell and Hardy Amies and more recently by Angela Kelly, was of a series of simple shapes and color blocks. The pastel rectangle of her customary coat and the bright disk of a matching hat, the black oblong of her handbag and the generic low-heeled pumps are almost Warholian in their Pop simplicity. The outfit would say the queen even if the queen wasn't in the outfit.
"The way she looks is instantly recognizable," said Sam Shahid, a branding expert behind labels such as Calvin Klein, who, bypassing Big Ben and other cliches of Britishness when photographing an England-themed Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, cast a Queen Elizabeth II look-alike instead. "Even the kids know who she is. You could show just the suit and it would still be her. You almost don't need the face."
Unlike Jacqueline Kennedy, who deliberately distanced herself from the matronly style of former first ladies, helping to conjure up the seductive visual mood of John F. Kennedy's Camelot, there is little hard evidence that Queen Elizabeth II consciously set about fashioning a "look."
Yet her clothes make clear, said Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the queen's understanding of her ongoing lifelong "performance," and it doesn't take a semiotician to read in her presentation a clear portrayal of upper-class distaste for novelty and gimmick, a resistance to foreign ideas, a reassuring matronly solidity.
Her clothes also, like those of circus performers and rock stars, are designed for specific functionality, since unlike the legions of commoners toiling at factories or desk jobs, the queen mainly works standing up, is routinely observed at full length and, small as she is, is required to stand out in a crowd.
"If she's coming out of Parliament in New Zealand, you have to be able to see that figure in a lemon coat and hat from far away," said Hugo Vickers, the biographer of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.
Charged or cursed with illuminating the dullest ribbon-cutting with the luster of her presence, the queen, said Ms. Smith, the author of "Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch," has thus evolved a flair for making an entrance -- that flash of Easter egg color -- and an instinct for avoiding any wardrobe malfunction. If you cannot find a photograph of this much-photographed woman with her skirt inadvertently flying up, that is because those skirts are weighted. The armholes of her coats and jackets are cut generously to facilitate the famous windshield-wiper wave.
"It's not that it's not authentic, but there's a theatrical component to the way she looks, and she's very aware of it," Ms. Smith said, adding that before each of the numerous foreign tours and state visits the queen has made during her long reign, a research team has been dispatched to do reconnaissance on national symbols, birds and flowers, podium backdrops, and even cultural superstitions "about a color that's verboten in that place." The queen's sense of occasion is "almost military," Ms. Smith added, since "from a very early age she was extremely conscious of what kinds of things to wear in what circumstance."
Yet however much the disciplined monarch in public, in private the undoubted queen has an unexpected streak of vanity. "She dresses much better in private than public," Mr. Vickers said. "She wears lots and lots of jewels and really dazzles. She sparkles away like mad."
First Published June 10, 2012 12:00 am