Queen Elizabeth II pictured during a visit to Liverpool, England. Shaun Jeffers/Shutterstock.com
If you’re a member of the British Royal family, sartorial style matters. When Princess Charlotte was christened earlier this month, certain media outlets—predictably—gushed over the outfits worn by the female royals in attendance.
It was also noted that the baby’s brother, Prince George, was pictured wearing a red-and-white outfit that was almost identical to that worn by his father, the Duke of Cambridge, to hospital after the birth of his younger brother Harry more than 30 years earlier.
This, as Oscar Rickett writes in the Guardian, is telling. The royals, he argues, send a message with the clothing they wear, “styl[ing] their babies in Victorian fancy dress to remind us of a simpler, easier, less modern world—one where the class structure was immutable.”
On recently released photos of George cuddling his sister, which closely resemble those of Prince Charles and Princess Anne 65 years ago, he says: “The underlying theme was one of continuity: ‘One day, loyal subjects, I too will rule you.’”
“Continuity is key: the photos tell us that the royal family has, and always will, be with us,” he adds.
But the royals, in general, are not usually seen recycling their clothing. So when Queen Elizabeth II, as she often does, wears an outfit twice, it means something.
The historian Sir Roy Strong calls her the “make do and mend Queen,” saying she has never been afraid to re-wear clothing. He says that she was shaped by growing up during World War II, when Britain was forced to embrace food rationing and austerity.
“That’s something that has stayed with the Queen all her life, and I think that’s partly why she likes Kate, who’s not afraid to wear the same dress twice, and is so patently not in the ‘spend, spend, spend’ mould,” he writes.
Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, is also known for regularly wearing a dress more than once, an event so memorable it is frequently remarked upon by the press. Last year, she was spotted wearing a ballgown for the third time, and in May 2012 wore a pink coatdress twice in two weeks. She also shares clothing with her family members, and reportedly refused to hire a personal dresser on account that it would be wasteful.
I am by no means a supporter of or apologist for the royal family. As an Australian (and also a British citizen) I am a committed republican. The idea that one can be born to reign over others is, in my opinion, grotesque and outdated. I eagerly await the day when Australia finally cuts its ties with the monarchy and installs a democratically-elected president as the country’s head of state. I also (probably naively) hope for the day when we are no longer subjected to media coverage of the minutiae of the royals’ lives.
Yet I see value in the fact that the Queen and a future queen, with all the riches and privilege their positions entail, are willing to recycle their public outfits. Of course, most of us mere mortals wear our clothing time and time again—but this is something that many celebrities spurn. How many of us would do the same if we had their advantages?
And with the boom of fast fashion, which has been shown to deeply harmful to both people and the environment, it is worth taking note of their fashion habits. Particularly those of the Queen, who supports British brands (no child labor or sweatshops to see here) and is borderline frugal when it comes to hats and shoes, choosing quality over quantity to ensure they last—sometimes for decades.
Her handbags are all made by one luxury label, Launer. According to the company’s director, Gerald Bodmer, they usually only supply one or two regal handbags a year as “the Queen isn’t over the top about these things.”
Although costing hundreds of pounds each, the bags are all hand cut and assembled in Britain—a painstaking process that can take up to 10 days—and are said to last 30 years.
And as for the Queen’s shoes? Shoemaker David Hyatt, who works for British label Anello & Davide, tells the Daily Mail that she likes to keep her range of options limited.
“Her court shoes are calf leather in black, beige or navy, with a 2¼ inch heel and the option of another ¼ inch on the sole for use on grass. There are three different designs for evening shoes—in satin, silver and gold,” he says.
“We supply one or two pairs a year and occasionally renew the tops and re-heel them. The Queen doesn’t waste money. She’s no Imelda Marcos.”
She has also been wearing the same design of black patent leather flats for no less than 50 years.
Sure, they cost £1,000 ($1,500) and are crafted by hand by a team of four, but she wears the same pair for years and years then gets them re-heeled when they become worn.
And her personal dressers use a combination of both new and old fabrics when designing an outfit, including fabrics given to her when she was a princess, according to the Buckingham Palace website.
Okay, so we don’t all have access to a team of dresses or catalog of fancy fabrics gifted to us by international diplomats and dignitaries. But if one of the wealthiest and most visible women in the world is willing to use materials that have been languishing in the bottom of her closet for decades, chooses relatively simple shoes and bags, and re-wears outfits, shouldn’t we all be trying harder?
Americans now throw out between 70 and 80 pounds of textiles each year. Most of this ends up in landfill, where it will take centuries to break down. The average woman in the U.S. now owns $550 of unworn clothing, and British women now have four times as many clothes in their closets as they did in 1980. At least the Queen’s old outfits will eventually be displayed for posterity.
I’m not advocating for shoppers to start spending two weeks’ wages on a pair of shoes or to employ a personal tailor. I’m certainly not saying we should all aspire to the Queen’s lifestyle or wardrobe.
Yet there’s something to be said for thinking carefully about what we buy, something the Queen is said to do, instead of being swallowed up by mindless consumption. And being fashion-conscious should not, and does not need to, come at the price of being ethically conscious. Buy secondhand, seek out Fairtrade or locally-made clothing, and even try upcycling the new must-have item yourself from an old dress. I am hopeful that the tide is beginning to turn, as more of us are starting to recognize the need for ethical fashion. We all need to do more.
Holly Robertson is the Editor-in-Chief of Glammonitor.