Just two days before her death, Queen Elizabeth II was photographed at Balmoral Castle in what would be her last official engagement. The 96-year-old monarch dressed in her country-casual look to meet Liz Truss, her 15th prime minister, and stood before a blazing fire in a grey cardigan and pleated skirt.
It was a depiction that was more dear, sweet grandmother than shining sovereign. And it was not meant to be the final image of Her Majesty. This was, after all, the woman who had spent seven decades on the throne — and even longer in the public eye — embracing the power of fashion and the messages that clothes could send. Buckingham Palace on Sunday released a previously unseen portrait, just in time to fill Monday’s front pages and steer her visual legacy to its preferred place.
The photograph, taken a few months earlier to commemorate her platinum jubilee, features the Queen in a light-blue dress against a gold-patterned background. The most noticeable feature is her smile, true and strong, accessorised with three strands of pearls and a pair of aquamarine brooches given to her by her parents on her 18th birthday. Here, she is not weighed down by the glamour and burden of the full sovereign regalia, nor is she wearing a ball gown and a tiara, as she was in so many early photographs that resurfaced after her passing. This is a picture of Elizabeth II the stately steward, offering a softer, steadier idea of power.
And it is in that spirit that her family dressed for her farewell. Ten days of mourning attire, and all of it correct without being flashy. Perhaps the most talked-about fashion moment was seven-year-old Princess Charlotte wearing a hat for the first time in an official capacity, the wide brim and bow tails reminiscent of the storybook character Madeline.
Since the Queen’s death on September 8, the wives of Windsor have stuck to black with a hat-to-heel thoroughness that would have made Queen Victoria proud.
But the gentlemen, particularly the newest occupant of the throne and the pair next in line, diverged ever so slightly with their chosen hues. King Charles III made his debut appearance as sovereign, just one day after his mother’s death, in a suit that had royal watchers wondering whether it was black or not. Prince William gave a more conclusive answer to that question while standing next to the all-black ensembles of his wife, Catherine — definitely navy blue. The same went for nine-year-old Prince George, who stood out at his great-grandmother’s funeral in a navy suit.
The heirs’ departure went mostly without comment, but former prime minister David Cameron was not so lucky. The media, from The Telegraph to Twitter, took him to task for his outfit at the Accession Council on September 10. “The former prime minister wore a navy suit and light-blue shirt for the sombre meeting of the Accession Council,” read a piece in The Telegraph, “despite the nation being in a period of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II, who died on Thursday aged 96.”
Does navy blue’s entry into the mourning fashion equation signal a new, more casual chapter for the famously formal royal family? It very well could — it’s a theme that seems to work well into King Charles’s stated hopes for a slimmed-down, sustainable monarchy.
But even the senior royal who gets the most attention for her fashion, Catherine, the new Princess of Wales, kept her clothing rather understated these past 10 days. She relied on her long-standing trio of trusted British brands: Alexander McQueen, Catherine Walker and Jenny Packham.
Within the confines of all black, the princess used silhouettes and styling to show a range, building from the simple long-sleeved dress for the first Windsor walkabout to a rather stately full-skirted coat dress and large, veiled hat for the state funeral. In between, she re-wore a pair of Catherine Walker pieces, two striking coats — one military-inspired, the other with an oversize bow — first seen on, respectively, Remembrance Day in 2020 and Prince Philip’s funeral last year.
Another way that Catherine made the mourning period feel more familiar was to wear black versions of previously seen styles. Her dress for Monday’s state funeral appeared to be a remake of a white Alexander McQueen dress she had worn twice before, including on the balcony of Buckingham Palace back in June to celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee.
Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, embraced a similar approach to her funeral attire. Her black cape dress looked like a near-match to a navy Stella McCartney style she wore in 2018 to celebrate the Queen’s 92nd birthday. And Meghan’s hat appeared to be the same style as the one she chose for the service of thanksgiving during the monarch’s jubilee celebrations. Seeing these similar styles, once worn in celebration and now rendered in black for mourning, served as a poignant final note.
Both women relied heavily on pearls, a favourite of Queen Elizabeth’s. Along with three strands of pearls at two different engagements, Catherine wore the Queen’s pearl earrings and choker for Monday’s funeral — the same combination she had on at Prince Philip’s service in 2021. Meghan wore a pair of pearl earrings that had been gifted to her by the Queen in 2018. Young Charlotte got the jewellery tribute memo too, sporting a small diamond horseshoe brooch that was a gift from the Queen.
Amid the sea of black clothes flowing into Westminster Abbey on Monday for the funeral service, you had to look closely at the details to discern further nods. Queen Consort Camilla chose a heart-shaped brooch and carried a Launer handbag, the Queen’s most-seen bag. Sophie, Countess of Wessex, wore a bespoke Suzannah London coat-dress embroidered with Lily of the Valley, thought to be the Queen’s favourite flower. Her daughter and avid equestrian (much to the delight of her grandmother) Lady Louise Windsor wore a delicate necklace in the shape of a horse’s head.
There was nothing understated about the decorations atop the Queen’s coffin throughout the funeral proceedings. As the procession emerged from Westminster Hall on Monday, the coffin was draped in the royal standard and topped with the glittering Imperial State Crown as it had been all week.
However, the white bouquet that had featured prominently during the lying-in-state had been replaced with a bright pink and deep burgundy assortment. The thoughtful compilation, created at the request of the new king and cut from gardens of the royal residences, included rosemary, English oak and myrtle that had been cut from a plant grown from myrtle in the Queen’s wedding bouquet.
The flowers served as a beacon as the procession made its way through the crowded streets of London and, later, through Windsor towards the castle. At St George’s Chapel, the crown, sceptre and orb were removed from the coffin and placed on the altar. But the vibrant bouquet remained, a fitting final adornment for a woman who lived to be seen.
Elizabeth Holmes is the author of ‘HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style’ (Celadon Books, 2020)
Find out about our latest stories first — follow @financialtimesfashion on Instagram