Ahead of the coronation of King Charles III, Jean Seaton examines the relationship between the monarchy and fashion. This piece is taken from UK in a Changing Europe’s new report, ‘The British Monarchy’, co-published with the Constitution Unit.
Dress matters. Projecting power, legitimacy, authority, and communicating clear messages has always been intertwined with what people wear. Putin’s western suits and Zelensky’s combat fatigues are carefully choreographed representations of power. The rich, who dress to display taste and wealth, usually do so to a secluded club of other rich people. In Iran, the brave and wild abandonment of the hijab is about accumulating opposition and assembling power. What women wear is at the centre of revolt.
Monarchs, in comparison to heads of state, have a wider canvas of action and dress. But that dress matters even more important for them, since they do not wear clothes quite as themselves but as what they represent: the nation and the constitution. In the sixteenth century Elizabeth I used splendid dresses along with court appearance, rituals, and painting to disseminate the image of the allseeing ‘virgin’ Queen. In the seventeenth, Charles I was very good at projecting an astonishingly cultured image – though less good at ruling or indeed surviving. And in the age of constitutional monarchs, who hold less power, costume is complicated.
Of course, they also have jewels, with attendant arguments in the case of the 2023 coronation about Britain’s colonial past. When President Trump came to the UK, the Queen dazzled in diamonds, and laid on lines of scarlet uniformed guardsmen to impress. She could not express her own views, but sometimes she eloquently let the dress do the talking. When Trump came to tea, she wore a broach given to her by his predecessor Barack Obama, whom she is known to have liked. And as the UK left the EU, her majesty wore a fine blue hat adorned with yellow roses. It was just a hat. But it could be interpreted as quite a poignant gesture.
In 2011 she wore vivid green in Ireland as she came close to an apology for the UK’s role in the conflict, and that, with her lines in Gaelic, brought a palpable shiver of appreciation. That coat and hat shifted politics. It may be of course that the range of the late Queen’s dress eloquence was broader than any subsequent royalty we shall see, not least because of the length of her reign which saw her transition from a young beauty to a best dressed nonagenarian.
The key elements of dress for a constitutional monarch are to wear the right thing, that expresses the right feeling, to the right event, with courtesy, respect and wit. Dress is interactive, it affects the wearer and the viewer – and viewer’s reaction reflects back to the wearer. So, in this sense what the monarch wears (like much of monarchical power) is both mysterious and personal. It enables them to be themselves while acting in public. Visual judgements are swift and very hard to reverse as well.
In the time of social media, when instant opinions are forged, image-making and the visual are important politically and commercially. It is no coincidence that in the Conservative leadership race in 2022 it was the most prolific users of Instagram, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, who led the pack. Rishi Sunak and that parody of dressing up that was Liz Truss had cultivated their images for years.
The British monarchy know they have to adapt to this environment. Josephine Ross, from Vogue magazine, said royal dress “is not about looking sexy, not about looking fashionable, not about themselves exactly”. It amplifies attention and interest in what it does and what it represents.
Securing and holding a place in the imagination of the citizenry of the nation and the world is now a brutal battlefield. Catching public focus on anything is bewilderingly hard when attention is so monetised, when there is so much to see and do. How do you leverage attention? The battles over and for royal dresses are like, but not the same as, the battles for control of image that are waged by celebrities and politicians. The Victorian chronicler of the British constitution, Walter Bagehot, said ‘a Constitutional monarchy has a comprehensible element for the vacant many, as well as complex laws and notions for the inquiring few.’ This is a wide range, and so the monarch catching our attention is also recruiting – perhaps sympathy in the face of hostility – but at least attention from a wider group of the population. It may sometimes be flippant, but the monarchy is a glue that holds the nation together.
Whether this survives in the future is an increasingly tough question to answer. In this way dress is a vital reserve power. The capacity to do other things depends on winning the dressing game. The roles that the monarch and the now smaller Royal Family around him fulfil are wide: to encourage charities and help business, convene talent and recognise the less powerful, hold fast the line of the constitution, be an image of the nation abroad, and attend carefully to delicate moments. This is true for the males (all those uniforms, elegant suits, and well considered casuals) but more true for the females where dress has so much more scope and variety. Royalty now also have to blend high fashion and couture with off-the-peg fashion: balancing being utterly different and exactly the same as their publics. Monarchs need to be real people to be respected. The palace successfully sued Grazia magazine for digitally altering Kate Middleton’s shape on their front cover, a blow on behalf of normal women. The feminisation of monarchies (the welfare monarchy, the caring monarchy) is matched by the imperative to be a dressing monarchy. Half the public is female. Bagehot noted that this half of the human race ‘care fifty times more for a marriage than a ministry. A princely marriage is the brilliant edition of a universal fact, and as such, it rivets mankind.’ So, I would suggest, does a good dress. One aspect of dressing is about relating to half of the public in ways they enjoy.
The power to lead if not fashion, then social change, through clothes has been significant. Early in the late Queen’s reign, when she was often a lone woman among a crowd of dark-suited men, she wore very feminine lacy dresses. She was always working when she was seen in public, and evolved the first truly feminine uniform for working women that was not merely a mimic of male clothes. The American designer, Nina McLemore, who specialises in dressing professional women, said the royalty dresses to emphasise predictability, confidence, continuity and trust and that the Queen’s clothes reflected that.
There is a commercial side to this as well. British fashion has been influential in the last 50 years and some of this success is down to the exposure given by dressing royalty. It is a vital part of soft power: the capacity to get inside people’s heads, while making room for their own values and interests. Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, designed by Sarah Burton went worldwide. Perfectly pitched glamour and beauty change other people’s perception of the nation, as personified by Princess Diana. The perfect apparel for the moment is a thing of beauty, but also of power and influence.
By Jean Seaton, Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster and the Official Historian of the BBC.
This piece is one in a series of articles taken from UK in a Changing Europe’s new report, ‘The British Monarchy’, co-published with the Constitution Unit.