Over her seven decades on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II understood the power of visuals. The first British monarch to have a televised coronation, she watched the world turn its attention from the radio to the TV set, and by the time she died this month at 96, having celebrated her Platinum Jubilee just a few months earlier, she — well, the royal family — had an Instagram account and a YouTube channel.
As she presided over a shrinking empire, projecting stability and continuity was arguably her most essential job as sovereign. From her hairstyle to her handbags, her kerchiefs to her corgis, her pearls to her profile, every visual signifier was a means of communication for a monarch who famously had little to say — at least in public. Here’s a look at the symbols Elizabeth leveraged during her historic reign, and what she used them to say.
The crown beneath the crown
Elizabeth was nothing if not steadfast in her devotion to her country and the style in which she chose to express it, but of all the consistent imagery she created throughout her long life, her carefully sculpted hairstyle might have been the most reliable of all.
From the time she was a girl pictured in black and white on the lawn through her stint in the Auxiliary Territorial Service and then her marriage, coronation and 70 years of rule, through decades of bobs, bouffants, hippie hair and helmet heads, it never really changed: an inch or two shorter or longer here, maybe; slightly more bouffant there; allowed to go white in the 1990s, sure. But otherwise her ’do — chin-length, brushed back at the crown, set in soft curls at either temple and framing her jawline — was the visual equivalent of death and taxes: a rock of reliability in an uncertain world. And like so much about the queen, it was a highly considered choice.
Perfectly and deliberately symmetrical, so that she looked the same from either side and in every portrait; moulded to fit snugly under a crown or one of her many hats and scarves, her coif was tended to for over two decades by hairdresser Ian Carmichael, who visited Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle twice a week until the coronavirus pandemic (when Angela Kelly, the queen’s personal assistant and senior dresser, took over) to make sure there was not a strand out of place. That was just how she rolled.
— Text Vanessa Friedman/ Pic Dan Kitwood/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
‘She never felt dressed without her bag’
“She told me she never felt dressed without her bag,” Gerald Bodmer said of Elizabeth. Bodmer, 90, is the CEO of Launer, a British manufacturer of luxury leather goods favoured by the queen for her most ever-present accessories: her handbags. (According to Town & Country, her first Launer bag was a gift from her mother decades ago.)
The bags were sturdy, unflashy and constant to an almost metaphorical degree. One of her favourites, Bodmer said, was the Traviata, a trapezoidal bag made of suede-lined calfskin with a single top strap; the queen sported it in both black leather and the slightly more fanciful black patent leather. It retails for about $2,800. She crashed the Launer website after carrying a cream-coloured Lisa — a boxier handbag with two straps — at the 2011 wedding of William and Catherine, now the Prince and Princess of Wales.
The queen was also known for customizing the bags to her liking, preferring longer-than-standard straps. In recent years, Launer took steps to make them lighter for the queen, removing excess materials from the interior for easier carrying, Bodmer said. “Right to the end of her life, she was carrying a handbag, even when using a walking stick,” he said. “You can’t have a more loyal customer, can you?”
— Text Madison Malone Kircher/ -PixTim Graham Photo Library, via Getty Images
A physical barrier between Sovereign and Subject
Elizabeth was known for her restraint. She rarely showed excitement or worry (“Keep calm and carry on,” etc.). She also rarely showed her hands.
The queen almost always wore gloves in public, whether white dress gloves or black leather ones. She waved from balconies and carriages in them, and shook hands in private receiving lines and at public walkabouts with fully sheathed fingers.
“Gloves were a physical barrier between the queen and her subjects,” said Elizabeth Holmes, author of ‘HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style’. “They projected a certain separation between a monarch and the people.”
Amid a pandemic, it doesn’t seem like the worst idea, particularly when part of your job is to extend your hand to strangers so they can curtsy to you. But her gloves weren’t just a modern practicality — they were a commitment to the past, according to Tina Brown, author of ‘The Palace Papers’. “The queen came from an era where gloves were the norm, and they added a formal finish to everything she wore,” Brown said.
A notable break from the royal tradition of gloves came in 1987, when Diana, then the Princess of Wales, shook hands with AIDS patients without gloves. Diana’s bare skin became a symbol of humanity and compassion and offered a contrast to the remoteness conveyed by the gloved hand that the world was at that point extending to people with HIV.
— Text Katherine Rosman/Pic Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
Her signature necklace (give or take a strand)
Long before there was Instagram, there was Elizabeth, keeping a careful eye and a (usually) steady grip on the brand of her ancestors’ startup, the Firm. She was, essentially, its chief influencer, and she seemed to know that consistent visuals were vital to building a brand identity.
One item that could reliably be seen framing the lower portion of an Elizabeth close-up (no filter necessary) was a pearl necklace — sometimes a double strand, but usually a triple. In portraits, on official state visits, after services at Westminster Abbey, the pearls were there: formal but not fancy, lustrous in glow but not ostentatious in sparkle.
When members of the royal family travelled to Buckingham Palace last week to receive the queen’s coffin as it arrived from Scotland, pearls emerged as an item of poignant homage. Cameras captured Catherine riding in a car toward the palace with a sad, tired gaze cast out the window and a triple-strand pearl necklace draped below her neck.
According to Holmes, pearls are a way for anyone to honour the queen. “The pearls don’t have to be real, they don’t have to be expensive — you can do it, too,” she said. “I think we will see more of it.”
— Text Katherine Rosman/ Pix from left, Chris Jackson/Getty Images, Associated Press, Paul Hackett/Reuters
HER LAND ROVERS
My other car is a Gold State Coach
Peering over the wheel of a Land Rover, perhaps the make most closely associated with her reign, the queen offered a master class in loyalty to a quintessentially British brand as well as the occasional glimpse, through an untinted window, of her moments of independence.
While the queen’s official duties often kept her in prim pumps in the rear seat of a Daimler limousine, in her personal life she charted her own rugged excursions around the Sandringham and Balmoral estates from the driver’s seat of a Land Rover Defender. The boxy utility vehicles, which have four-wheel drive and the ground clearance to crawl over rocks and ford streams, matched the unfussy capability of a monarch who trained in driving and maintaining military vehicles with the Auxiliary Territorial Service at the end of World War II.
“It embodied everything that was British tradition: solid, reliable, not particularly showy or extravagant,” Patrick Collins, research and inquiries officer at the National Motor Museum Trust in Britain, said of the Rover brand. In 1953, when Land Rover was only 5 years old, the queen rode in a Series 1 on her first royal tour after her coronation; last year, she drove herself to the Royal Windsor Horse Show in a third-generation Range Rover.
As her reign entered the internet era, widely circulated images of Elizabeth looking unamused behind the wheel of a hulking Range Rover earned her a new crown: meme queen. With captions like “current mood” and “they see me ruling, they hating,” pictures of the royal vehicles contributed to an impression that the queen was someone who kept her eyes on the road, and the haters in the rear-view.
— Text Callie Holtermann/Pic Max Mumby/Indigo, via Getty Images
‘They humanized her’
When Clay Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for The Chattanooga Times Free Press, was brainstorming ideas for how best to address and mark the death of Elizabeth, he initially considered drawing her gloves or a fancy hat. Then he settled on the one characteristic that he felt most connected him to the monarch: a shared love of dogs. In the queen’s case, a love of her corgis, specifically.
In a heart-rending image that was widely shared on social media and international television, Bennett drew an unattended corgi — the end of its leash fallen to the ground — with the dog’s neck turned, looking for its person. The caption reads simply, ‘Queen Elizabeth II 1926-2022’. “I wanted to draw a corgi as a symbol of the UK,” Bennett said in an interview.
Elizabeth was an 18-year-old princess when she received her first beloved corgi, Susan, the progenitor of all her corgis (and dorgis, after a dachshund made its way into the lineage) to come. In the years and decades since, the queen was frequently photographed walking the grounds of one castle or another with her corgis, the most loyal of her loyal subjects.
The queen was rarely witnessed publicly meting out affection or familial care. But when she walked with her corgis, she provided a touchstone for people all over the world to connect with the most remote and private of global leaders.
“They humanized her,” said Holmes. “But they also allowed her to be human.”
— Text Katherine Rosman/Pic Associated Press
HER WALKING STICKS
An emblem of ‘strength, and not frailty’
Last year, while attending a service at Westminster Abbey, Elizabeth used a walking stick publicly for the first time in 17 years. (She was last seen using a walking stick after having knee surgery in 2003.)
From then on, a walking stick regularly made an appearance in the monarch’s hand.
Among the most recognizable were one that belonged to her husband, Prince Philip, and another that was a gift from the British army in honour of her Platinum Jubilee.
“It was quite a plain, simple type of stick, but sometimes the simple ones are the most elegant,” said Dennis Wall of Ulverston, England, a former hobbyist whose handmade stick was selected from among nine others commissioned by the army for the queen.
In addition to representing the queen’s dedication to her responsibilities as head of the Church of England and the British Armed Forces, the sticks were also symbols of her staying power, said Erin Delaney, a professor at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law who researches the British Constitution.
“There is something about fidelity, and that kind of long service and relationship, that speaks to strength, and not frailty,” she said.
The queen’s willingness to publicly use a walking stick also made her an emblem of women’s empowerment and what it means to “age gracefully”, said Maria Claver, director of the gerontology program at California State University, Long Beach.
“Queen Elizabeth is an example of grace,” Claver said. “The fact that she has been so active in her role as queen, and that she has shown up, I think that helps people see that this is what aging could be like.”
— Text Isabella Paoletto/Pool photo by Arthur Edwards
Elizabeth II, street-style icon? Ask Bieber
When singer Justin Bieber was photographed wearing a headscarf knotted under his chin at a concert in November, the internet threw one of its periodic tantrums. Accusations that he had appropriated the hijab or mocked Islam were hurled at him from around the world. It did not help that it was far from the first time Bieber was busted for a cultural misstep. (Remember his cornrows?)
What seemed oddest about the brouhaha was that the Canadian-born singer may not, in fact, have been mimicking the hijab so much as following a street-style trend whose unlikely originator was the British monarch. For decades, Elizabeth was routinely photographed during downtime — mounted on horseback, hiking at her 50,000-acre Scottish estate or picnicking with her family — with a headscarf knotted under her chin. The queen favoured scarves that tended to be artfully patterned classic silk squares from French luxury-goods house Hermès.
While few could have anticipated that urban guys would take up a style worn without controversy by middle-aged ladies to protect their hair that is exactly what happened. Over the past several years, young men in cities everywhere appeared with Hermès chin-tied headscarves worn granny-style. Did they intend any disrespect to the hijab? Were they flouting gender norms? Or were they aping Elizabeth? We will probably never know. When it comes to influences, both fashion and Bieber are eternally and blissfully happy in their ignorance.
— Text Guy Trebay/Pix from left; Julian Finney/Getty Images, Chris Jackson/Getty Images, Pool photo by Andrew Milligan
‘Her choice of brooch was never random’
In the early 1950s, when the queen acceded to the throne, brooches were a fashionable piece of jewellery that became a part of her formula for dressing. “It was always in the same position above the heart,” said Marion Fasel, a jewellery historian. And although they’ve “pretty much fallen out of favour,” Fasel said, the queen was certainly no trend follower, as brooches remained a fixture of her wardrobe for decades.
There is a story behind how each brooch in her extensive collection came into the queen’s possession, and she wore each one with intention.
“Her choice of brooch was never random,” said Bethan Holt, author of ‘The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style’. “They would be selected for the added meaning they would bring to the moment.”
Elizabeth often received brooches as gifts from world leaders, and she wore them while attending events hosted by those leaders’ countries as a sign of friendship and loyalty. Other times, she wore a brooch commemorating a loved one who had given it to her. She also used their colours to convey a message, as she did with her other fashion choices.
For her first public appearance after the death of Philip, for instance, she wore a gold Andrew Grima brooch encrusted with diamonds and rubies that Philip had given her. And during a visit from President Donald Trump in 2018, she wore a brooch that had been given to her by former President Barack Obama.
— Text Sadiba Hasan/Pix from left; Pool photo by Chris Jackson, Pool photo by Steve Parsons, Chris Jackson/Getty Images
A rainbow reign
Nothing that the queen wore was a mistake. Everything was forensically and meticulously planned according to occasion, duty, hosts, guests, custom and formality — including her bold choice of colour palette.
“She wore bright colours because she believed it was her duty to be seen by the people who waited, wet and cold, behind barriers for hours at a time,” wrote Sali Hughes, author of ‘Our Rainbow Queen’, a book divided into colour-blocked chapters that chart the assorted hues Elizabeth would wear from head to toe, allowing her to stand out in a crowd.
And so over the seven decades of her rule, there she was, come rain or shine. Visiting a school or a hospital or a world leader, sporting tailored coats, dresses and skirt suits (never trousers) in lemon yellows and letterbox reds, dusky pinks and royal purples and — famously, for her 90th birthday — a deliciously vivid neon green. Kelly, the queen’s senior dresser, explained in 2019 that given Britain’s regular showers, the queen even had a collection of clear umbrellas with a range of different colour trims to match her outfits. After all, when it came to her wardrobe, nothing was left to chance — or dictated by passing trends.
“The queen and queen mother do not want to be fashion setters,” said Norman Hartnell, the British couturier who designed of the queen’s coronation gown. “That’s left to other people with less important work to do.”
— Text Elizabeth Paton/Pix from left, pool photo by Adrian Dennis, Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images, Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
For 70 years, seen, and believed
For all the queen’s carefully chosen totems of power, it was perhaps one she couldn’t choose — her face — that bonded her most deeply with her public. And she knew it. “I have to be seen to be believed,” the queen reportedly said, recognizing that her image itself was currency — and not just on currency, as she became the first monarch to appear on British bank notes, in 1960.
The stoic three-quarter portrait precipitated a series of updated likenesses throughout the years, featuring nearly identical angling but with a gradually pronounced smile. (The last portrait, still in use, was created for the 1990 5-pound note by Roger Withington, when the queen was 64.)
The first stamp bearing the queen’s image, based on her first official portraits, by photographer Dorothy Wilding, was issued in 1952, but it is her left-facing profile by Arnold Machin that has remained frozen in time since its release June 5, 1967. “It is thought that this design is the most reproduced work of art in history,” according to Buckingham Palace, with over 200 billion copies made.
Consistency might have been key in ensuring dominion over the Commonwealth, but it was the evolution of the queen’s likeness that ultimately humanized her. As a modern monarch growing up before the camera, she maintained a rare place in the public imagination, and fashionable photographers such as Norman Parkinson, Lord Snowdon (the queen’s onetime brother-in-law) and, perhaps most significantly, Cecil Beaton helped burnish and brand it.
As with all successful brands, the opportunities for product were endless (and sometimes egregious). This year, the Platinum Jubilee occasioned the release of a collectible Queen Elizabeth II Barbie doll, limited-edition bottles of Moët & Chandon, and even a jaunty white Swatch watch bearing a cartoon queen and one of her corgis. Recognition at a glance.
— Text Jeremy Allen/Pic Oliver Dietze/DPA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
-New York Times