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Sir Norman Hartnell, pale blue silk faille evening gown worn at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, during the State Visit of King Olav of Norway in 1962. ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST / © HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2016

90 years of royal couture

Sam Bennett explores three new exhibitions hosted by the Royal Collection Trust, talking to Caroline de Guitaut about HMQ’s style, workload and dedication
Ian Thomas, black silk velvet and taffeta dress worn by Her Majesty The Queen in 1980 to meet Pope John Paul II at the Vatican. ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST / © HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2016

"No-one is writing rules"

If the wardrobe from my lifetime was the subject of an exhibition, my siblings might make an appearance with the view of reclaiming items I’ve acquired from them over the years, but obviously no-one else would – as I imagine would be the case with most of us.


The simple reason being: we are not the Queen.

Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen’s Wardrobe consists of three exhibitions that document the outfits worn by HMQ during her life, the first of these opened at the Palace of Holyroodhouse on her 90th birthday, and runs there until 16th October.

It was from Holyrood that the exhibition’s curator, Caroline de Guitaut, spoke to me.

Fashioning a Reign was her idea. It’s a way of, in her own words, “bringing to life the most memorable occasions in the Queen’s life and reign.”

Royal Collection Trust curator Caroline de Guitaut in the exhibition at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. ROYAL COLLECTION TRUST / © HER MAJESTY QUEEN ELIZABETH II 2016


The second and third legs of Caroline’s initiative take place at Buckingham Palace (23rd July-2nd October) and Windsor Castle (17th September-8th January). The locations have guided the curator in terms of which of the 150 outfits used appear at which royal venues. At Holyrood, for example, you can find what Elizabeth II wore for the opening of the new Scottish Parliament in 1999 as well as off-duty numbers donned at Balmoral. Quite a bit further down the country at Windsor, what she has worn to Ascot features.

“It has a relevance to people who live in each area but at the same time each exhibition appeals to a wider audience who might be visiting because there are just exquisite examples of couture on display,” Caroline says.

I asked Caroline about HMQ’s dress code; I didn’t know if the opening of a library warranted rubber heels to symbolise quiet or if there was a collection of Sudoku marked gloves for those events that are frankly too boring for anyone to even fake interest.

“Her style is something she’s created herself and it’s very much her own,” she tells me. “No-one is writing rules. Basically what she is doing is wearing things that are practical and appropriate for the occasion. In this country, at daytime official engagements, she always appears wearing a hat – and millinery is a very important feature of all these exhibitions. She then wears a coordinating outfit, she appears in a nice vivid colour, it doesn’t have to be a bright colour, it could be pale as long as it’s something that reads very well from a distance. In the evening, for dinners, banquets or receptions, she’ll wear a long evening dress often with lovely sparkly embroidery.

“There’s no code, it’s just what’s appropriate to the occasion and it’s very carefully thought through.”

It’s probably the level of thought that differs the Queen from the rest of us who feel we too dress for occasions.

“Her clothes incorporate subtle messages,” reveals Caroline, who has worked on exhibitions of the Queen’s clothes for over a decade. “Often you can have embroideries which are emblems of a particular country that she will wear when she visits it – such as maple leaves when she goes to Canada. Or you’ll have an outfit which is the national colour for the country she’s visiting. She’ll also follow religious protocol; she’ll remove her shoes if she goes into a mosque and she’ll cover her head and wear black when she visits the pope at the Vatican.

“You and I would be careful about what we wear but I think because she’s Head of State it has to be absolutely perfect.”

I used to think of the Queen’s job as one of the easiest out there, but I recently reconsidered. “Can you imagine,” someone said to me, “your nan doing all that traveling, performing all those duties, standing outside for hours as it pisses down?”

The truth is I can’t – and my grandmother is a good few years younger than HMQ.

“She’s got a huge amount of energy,” Caroline states of the monarch, “she doesn’t get a day off, you can never stop being Head of State, she has official papers to look at every single day, it’s a never ending task. To think that she’s dedicated her entire life to doing that…it’s quite remarkable and I have a huge amount of admiration for her.”

The three separate exhibitions Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen's Wardrobe are at:

Palace of Holyroodhouse, until 16th October 2016

The Summer Opening of the State Rooms, Buckingham Palace, 23rd July-2nd October 2016

Windsor Castle, 17th September 2016-8th January 2017



- Sam Bennett



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