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Queen Elizabeth II’s Fashion Changed Drastically Over Her 70-Year Reign

(Photo Credit: Pool/Anwar Hussein Collection/WireImage)
(Photo Credit: Pool/Anwar Hussein Collection/WireImage)

From luxurious silk gowns to scarves and wellies, Queen Elizabeth II’s style changed a lot during her 70-year reign. The Queen specially crafted her unique style to help her win over a crowd, and even communicate a secret language! In more recent times we often saw the Queen in colorful garbs to match every occasion. That style evolved over the decades. Let’s take a look back at the Queen’s fashion during her 70+ year reign.

An unexpected princess

Teenage Princess Elizabeth poses while reading a book.
Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II, as a teenager at Windsor Castle, circa 1940. (Photo Credit: © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images).

Originally, Elizabeth was never meant to be a Queen – nor was her father meant to be a King. Her uncle became King Edward VIII in 1936 but abdicated the throne just months later, at which time Elizabeth’s father was thrust into power as King – a role he never anticipated he would have. Elizabeth was 10 years old when her father was coronated.

Even as a child, Elizabeth was known to be dignified and stern while her younger sister Margaret was the fun one – which was reflected in how they dressed. In true royal style, the princesses were schooled by a governess at Buckingham Palace – studying the essentials like literature and math, but also many vital lessons for future monarchs.

From ballgowns to bunkers

Princess Elizabeth in uniform for the Auxiliary Transport Service during World War Two.
Princess Elizabeth as Junior Commander in the ATS inspecting The Motor Transport Training Centre during World War Two. (Photo Credit: NCJ Archive/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images).

The young Princess Elizabeth was 13 years old when war broke out in Europe in 1939. Overnight, she and countless other children in England grew into adults who yearned to protect their country. Throughout the war, Elizabeth and her sister Margaret tended to victory gardens and observed rationing.

When the princess turned 18 in 1944, she enlisted in the Auxiliary Transport Service, the women’s division of the British military. Her father King George insisted that she would be given no special rank or treatment. Elizabeth learned how to be a mechanic, tending to army vehicles and ambulances – a skill she supposedly maintained throughout her 70-year reign.

The Royal Wedding

Queen Mary's Fringe Tiara worn by Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth II (then Princess Elizabeth) wearing Queen Mary’s Fringe Tiara on her wedding day to Prince Philip, 1947. (Photo Credit: Hulton Archive/ Stringer/ Getty Images).

Much of Queen Elizabeth’s style, especially as a young woman, was influenced by her experience coming of age during World War Two. As a teenager, her life as a Princess became less opulent and more practical – and her wedding gown perfectly encapsulates both these aspects. The dress, designed by British couturier Norman Hartnell, was made from Duchesse satin purchased with clothing ration coupons.

Hartnell claims that Botticelli’s painting “Primavera” – symbolizing the coming of spring-inspired his design. The spring theme was especially fitting for a nation that had just emerged from the war, making the Royal Wedding a symbol of peacetime and hope.

A lavish coronation

Coronation portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip pose after the Queen’s Coronation, 02 June 1953. (Photo Credit: AFP via Getty Images).

Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation marked the beginning of a new era for England and the rest of the Commonwealth, but it also signaled the start of a new life for the young queen. Hartnell once again was tasked with designing the coronation gown for the Queen. His design included a luxurious silk material embellished with intricate beadwork which included the four flowers representing the four nations of the United Kingdom.

The Imperial Robe was worn over the Queen’s shoulders during the coronation ceremony. The robe weighs 15lbs, is over six meters long, and is trimmed with beautiful Canadian ermine fur. The robe took 3,500 hours and 12 seamstresses to complete.

Norman Hartnell – The king of royal fashion

Left: Photograph of Norman Hartnell. Right: An evening gown worn by Queen Elizabeth
Left: British fashion designer Norman Hartnell studying new sketches, 1964. (Photo Credit: McCabe/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images). Right: A pale blue and gold evening dress by Sir Norman Hartnell, worn by the Queen in 1958 on display at Buckingham Palace. (Photo Credit: Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

If we had to name the most prolific Royal fashion designer throughout the Queen’s 70-year reign, no one would come close to Norman Hartnell. Hartnell clothed Elizabeth for nearly all of her most important moments, even before she was Queen. Her 1947 wedding gown, coronation gown, and countless other stunning dresses in the Queen’s wardrobe were all designed by Hartnell.

Hartnell also designed clothing for the glamourous Hollywood stars of the ’50s and ’60s, including Elizabeth Taylor and Vivien Leigh.

The Queen, up close and personal

Queen Elizabeth II wears a yellow dress and beaded hat while visiting Australia.
Queen Elizabeth II visits the Town Hall in Sydney during her tour of Australia, May 1970. (Photo Credit: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

During a royal visit to Australia in 1970, the Queen wore a yellow frock with a stunning beaded headpiece while making history as the first-ever British monarch to break tradition and “walkabout” the crowds of admirers. Now a common practice for working Royal family members, walkabouts allow the Royals to meet with their subjects in close proximity.

The Queen almost always wore yellow while visiting Australia, a nod to one of the country’s official colors.

Royalty off duty

Queen Elizabeth wears a raincoat and scarf.
Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Horse Show, circa 1989. (Photo Credit: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

The Queen had her off-duty uniform down to a science. Whether she was attending an outdoor event, taking the corgis for a walk, or riding one of her eight horses – you could always find her in a silk headscarf, khaki-colored raincoat, and – depending on the rainy English weather –  a pair of black wellies.

What was she thinking?

Queen Elizabeth II sports a colorful sequin outfit
Queen Elizabeth II attends the Royal Variety Performance at the Birmingham Hippodrome on November 29, 1999. (Photo Credit: Indigo/Getty Images).

The Queen turned heads in a brightly colored sequin ensemble in 1999. The array of neon colors, gold handbag, and bright pink lipstick seemed outside the Queen’s comfort zone.

Even if the gown didn’t land Queen Elizabeth in the night’s best-dressed category, it was amazing to see even the primmest of ladies take a fashion risk! This event was the first and last time the eye-catching gown saw the light of day – the Queen later favored classic monocolored dresses.

“You have to be seen to be believed”

Queen Elizabeth arrives at an event in Wales in a bright pink ensemble.
The Queen arrives in Cardiff, Wales in 2001. (Photo Credit: Barry Batchelor/PA Images via Getty Images).

As the Queen matured, her sense of style became increasingly simple. At nearly every public event since the early 2000s, you could bet the Queen would be sporting a monochromatic ensemble complete with a coat-dress, gloves, and matching hat. According to the Queen herself, she chose to wear bright colors and solid fabrics to be more visible to her fans and royal subjects.

One royal expert even shared one of the Queen’s favorite fashion mottos: “You have to be seen to be believed.”

Will and Kate’s Royal Wedding

Queen Elizabeth II wore a yellow ensemble to the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.
Queen Elizabeth ll attend the Royal Wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton in 2011. (Photo Credit: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images).

The Queen sported a cheerful yellow ensemble for the wedding of her grandson Prince William and Kate Middleton. Angela Kelly, the Queen’s clothing designer, created the hat and matching coat dress. She adorned the outfit with the Queen Mary Lover’s Knot brooch.

Made in the 19th-century, the Lovers Knot was acquired by Queen Mary in 1932 alongside a matching diamond sautoir, earrings, and a choker that Kate Middleton now wears as a bracelet.

Faux fur, faux pas

Queen Elizabeth wears a beige-colored outfit with faux fur accents.
Queen Elizabeth II departs after attending Sunday church service in 2019. (Photo Credit: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images).

In 2019, a spokesperson for the Queen announced that for the first time in history, a British monarch will give up fur for a more ethical alternative. Angela Kelly, one of the Queen’s favorite clothing designers, shared that any new clothing made for the Queen would use faux fur – a win for animal activists everywhere!

Let’s not forget that purse

Three pictures show Queen Elizabeth sporting the same purse in 2015, 1981, and 2021.
The Queen’s iconic Launer purse through the years. Left: 2015 (Photo Credit: Jonathan Brady – WPA Pool /Getty Images). Middle: 1981 (Photo Credit: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images). Right: 2021 (Photo Credit: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images).

The Queen’s most iconic accessory wasn’t a tiara or eccentric hat, it was actually her iconic collection of over 200 Launer handbags! Not only did these bags help keep essentials like lipstick and reading glasses nearby, but the Queen also used her bags to secretly communicate with staff at social events.

If Queen Elizabeth moved the bag from her left arm to her right while chatting with someone, it meant she wanted to end the conversation and move on to the next thing. Placing the bag on the floor meant she needed to be saved from an uncomfortable interaction immediately while placing it on the table during a meal meant she wanted to wrap up the event within five minutes – we guess the secret was let out of the bag!

She was still fabulous at 96

The Queen wears a aquamarine outfits and a newly commissioned brooch to mark her Platinum Jubilee.
Queen Elizabeth II prepares to touch the Commonwealth Nations Globe to start the lighting of the Principal Beacon as part of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations on June 2, 2022, in Windsor, England. (Photo Credit: Steve Parsons-Pool/Getty Images).

To mark her 70 years as monarch, Queen Elizabeth II commissioned a special brooch that made an appearance at the Commonwealth Nations Globe lighting ceremony as part of her Platinum Jubilee celebrations. The brooch consists of a stunning 18-carat white gold and platinum setting, embedded with 97 brilliant-cut diamonds and seven larger, fancy-cut diamonds.

More from us: Eight of Queen Elizabeth II’s Most Viral Moments from Her 70-Year Reign

The design is a circular shape that featured four important flowers to the Queen. The rose represents England, the thistle represents Scotland, the shamrock represents Ireland, the daffodils represent Wales, and finally lilies of the valley – a touching nod to her favorite flowers which were featured in her coronation bouquet 7o years ago.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

The Digital Dust Podcast