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History of Royal Fashion

History of Royal Fashion

Written by Hannah Mae Webster

The first real queen of style was Elizabeth I. She crafted her look to cement her identity as the “Virgin Queen," with all its implications of youthful innocence. And, importantly, she didn't enforce the sumptuary laws barring her subjects from borrowing her style, meaning she spawned many imitators. When she landed on the throne in 1558 at age twenty-five, during a period of political instability, Elizabeth was conservative in her dress, getting a feel for what would mollify the populace and what would enchant them. During her reign her style changed: she transitioned from simple cone-shaped skirts and embroidered sleeves to gowns with deep, revealing décolletage and farthingales (hoop skirts) accentuating her hips.

Elizabeth was, perhaps, the first fashionable redhead, and the ladies of England dyed their locks to match. She was also, by many accounts, extremely vain, and went to great lengths to avoid looking old. As she aged, she dyed her hair yellow or red to thicken and brighten it. Another of her tricks was a white makeup called “ceruse" which masked her wrinkles and made her appear delicately untouched by the sun. A mix of white lead and vinegar, ceruse certainly did give her face a fashionable pallor but was also extremely toxic. Her most significant fashion PR move was requiring all official portraits of her to be painted from a pre-established pattern-which became known as "The Mask of Youth". It served her purposes well: her image as a flame-haired, pale-faced young queen remains iconic today.

Half a century after Elizabeth's reign, Louis XIV ascended the throne in France. He believed in the divine right of kings to power, and he dressed the part. Louis was a fan of large wigs and flashy jewelry, but his most notable achievements were in footwear. This may be partly because he liked to flaunt his legs, which he considered an asset. But there was also Louis's height; though there's no consensus, many historians suggest he was around five foot five, and high heels were an appealing choice for a diminutive monarch with a towering presence. During Louis's reign, he popularized everything from mules to stacked heels. Louis had an official shoemaker, Nicolas Lestage. At the time, there was a law requiring that shoemakers stamp their shoes with the mark of their shop-and so the brand name of Nicolas Lestage became incredibly well known, the forerunner to today's Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahniks.

Another of Louis's influential decrees regarding footwear was that the heels of upper-class men's shoes had to be red. Of course we see contemporary echoes of that in Louboutins, a modern status marker. Louis's proclivity for dramatic and trend-setting fashions wasn't inherited by his immediate heir, but it was taken to a new level of provocation by his great-grandson Louis XVI's queen, Marie Antoinette.

In 1770, at the age of fourteen, Marie Antoinette traveled to France from Austria to marry Louis XVI. At the time, the French queen's role was to bear an heir to the throne—little more. She usually wasn't a love match. Kings often kept mistresses who received generous allowances, dressed extravagantly, and in many ways outstripped the queen's power. But not Louis XVI. For the first seven years of his marriage to Marie Antoinette – four before they ascended the throne, and three after – their unions remained unconsummated. Rumors about this unconventional marriage spread through France, and threatened to undermine Marie Antoinette's claim to the throne. And so she asserted her dominance in another way: namely, fashion.

One of her first acts of sartorial rebellion came on the back of a horse. In her copious free time, Marie Antoinette became an accomplished rider and did away with the skirts typically worn by women on horseback, adopting men's slender breeches. And rather than riding side-saddle, which was considered ladylike, she chose to straddle her horse. 

But not all of Marie Antoinette's style decisions were quite so practical. Like the pouf, a towering construction made from wire and woven into the wearer's own hair with cloth, gauze, and horsehair, and then powdered white. This was then decorated with various symbolic items like small ships, animals, feathers, fruits, and flowers. Marie Antoinette was responsible for popularizing the pouf with style-conscious Frenchwomen (much to the dismay of operagoers, who at one point petitioned to have the three-foot-tall headpieces banned from opera houses). Unlike her forebears, she didn't stay hidden away in Versailles; instead, she would make regular appearances in Paris to debut fashions, and in so doing introduced them to the public. Before long, the illustrations in French fashion plates and almanacs almost all resembled the queen.

In another influential move, Marie Antoinette allowed her purveyors to keep their shops in Paris rather than just tending to her, as was the custom. This made it easy for them to keep tabs on trends as well as for Marie Antoinette to set them; she’d commission a dress or a hairstyle, and clients desperate to resemble the stylish queen would line up to buy it. Marie Antoinette explicitly okayed this, with a requisite two-week wait time before one of her signature looks could be sold to the public at large. Exclusivity gone, regular people began to look much like the queen. But Marie Antoinette didn't just inspire the proletariat to dress like the bourgeoisie: controversially, she also inspired the nobility to dress like peasants. The country-girl attire that she wore at her palace annex, the Petit Trianon, triggered upper-class women to don the gaulle, a simple white dress made from muslin.

After the French Revolution, royal fashion was not what it once was: without ultimate power, royals had to adopt personas a little more in touch with their subjects. But that didn't mean they failed to inspire them. The nineteenth-century saw a slew of fashionable royals, from Napoleon's wife, Eugénie de Montijo, who revived the hoops skirts and corsets of the Rococo era; to Sisi, the sylphic Austrian queen with the punishing beauty regime; to Queen Victoria, who popularized the white wedding.

By the twentieth century, modern life brought some scandal into the lives of the British royal family. Wallis Simpson, a divorced American socialite, was the center of controversy when Edward VIII abdicated the throne to wed her in 1937; she reinforced her place by his side by dressing in impeccable style.

More importantly, by the 1950s royals no longer sat solo on the pedestal of public admiration: they shared it with all of Hollywood. The picture truly blurred when Grace Kelly, a silver-screen icon, married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. The new princess favoured classic looks, such as tailored Chanel dresses. Hers was a reserved glamour. Her two trademarks were sunglasses and the Hermès bag that she used to hide her pregnancy; it was so associated with her that it became known as the Kelly bag.

It was not until the 1980s that people truly related to a princess in Diana, Princess of Wales. After marrying Prince Charles in 1981, she stepped into a spotlight that was often harsh, but she was almost universally loved. Initially she wore a lot of gowns that were stereotypically "princessy," with full skirts and romantic styling, many made by Bellville Sassoon. 

But it wasn't until later, after her calamitous divorce from Charles, that she really defined her look: a short bob, simple lines, and clean tailoring – and a lot of sexy Versace numbers that showcased her athletic figure. Her look defined the aesthetic for a confident single woman, and she wore it until that fatal crash in the Parisian tunnel.

Now, when the institution of the monarchy is waning, it's perhaps unsurprising that we have a royal who embraces mass fashion and, by doing so, legitimizes it as glamorous. Before marrying Prince William in 2011, Kate Middleton lived a relatively middle-class life, and so was well acquainted with high-street shops. To the surprise of some, she continued to wear those affordable looks after entering public life. It was a wise move: it is easier for the monarchy to appear in touch with the people when it looks just like them. But Kate also inspires admiration for how she styles herself; on her, Top Shop comes off as elegant. Ever since women began to mimic Elizabeth I's red tresses, the sartorial line between royals and the rest has been blurring. Kate is the one to make it finally disappear.

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