16 Fashion Rules the Royal Family Lives By
The British royal family abides by a very specific—and strict—style guide. And though it must be tough to appear prim and proper all the time, the queen's handful of sartorial rules have kept the family looking posh and avoiding potentially embarrassing faux pas for 60-plus years. When should one wear their military garb? What else might clutches be good for, beyond carrying breath mints and lipstick? It's all in the (figurative) handbook! Below are 16 royal fashion do's and definite don'ts.
1. BRIGHT COLORS ARE A NECESSITY FOR THE QUEEN.
After all, she wants to be noticed. Throughout her 66-year reign, Queen Elizabeth II has sported monochromatic fuchsia, lime green, and canary yellow outfits from her wardrobe, which boasts every (yes, every!) color of the rainbow. The uniform is quite sensible, though: She wants to guarantee the public can see her through the crowd.
"She needs to stand out for people to be able to say, 'I saw the Queen,'" her daughter-in-law, Sophie, Countess of Wessex, explained in the 2016 documentary The Queen at 90. "Don't forget that when she turns up somewhere, crowds are two-, three-, four-, 10-, 15-deep, and someone wants to be able to say they saw a bit of the queen's hat as she went past."
2. HATS FOR WOMEN ARE A MUST.
Royal etiquette requires one be worn by women to all official events. It's a stipulation that dates back to the 1950s, a time when women were starting to ditch their hats when going out in public. Though further modernization has eased up on the rule—Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton's perfect blowout is proof enough—the Queen insists the tradition be kept alive, especially at formal engagements like weddings and christenings. In fact, she rarely forgoes a headpiece, often trading a hat for a crown or headscarf.
The most important rule: Hats are discarded after 6 p.m., when it's time to break out the tiaras!
3. TIARAS ARE LIKE WEDDING RINGS.
Yes, only married women of the family get to don the jewels. That's because tiaras signify relationship status—and let curious bachelors know if a woman is off limits.
"It signals the crowning of love and the loss of innocence to marriage," Geoffrey Munn, the author of Tiaras: A History of Splendour, explained to Forbes. "The family tiara was worn by the bride and from that moment onwards it was the groom's jewelry she was expected to wear. It was a subliminal message that she had moved from her own family to another."
According to Munn, Princess Diana was the last royal to strictly adhere to the family jewels portion of the tradition—she came from the aristocracy and wore her family's Spencer tiara at her 1981 wedding to Prince Charles. Kate Middleton donned her first tiara, a Cartier halo piece borrowed from the Queen's collection, on her 2011 wedding day. And though it has yet to be confirmed, it is rumored that Meghan Markle will likely pay tribute to Prince Harry's mother by wearing one of the late Princess Diana's tiaras at her May 19 vows. As an American, odds of Markle having a "family tiara" are pretty low.
4. YOUNG PRINCES NEVER WEAR PANTS.
There are no dinosaur sweatpants in Prince George's closet. Like his father, Prince William, and his Uncle Harry, the 4-year-old heir—he's third in line to the throne—will only attend public events wearing smart shorts and never pants.
"Trousers are for older boys and men, whereas shorts on young boys is one of those silent markers that we have in England," British etiquette expert William Hanson told Harper's Bazaar. "A pair of trousers on a young boy is considered quite middle class—quite suburban. And no self-respecting aristo or royal would want to be considered suburban."
The tradition actually dates back to the 16th century and the practice of breeching, or when a tot grew out of gowns and moved on to, well, breeches. Adds Hanson, "The usual custom is that a boy graduated to trousers around 8 years old."
5. GLOVES ARE FOR PROTECTION.
Sure, they're fashionable. But gloves are also a safety measure favored by the Queen when attending an official engagement that requires her to shake hands with a lot of people. The accessory—which the royal glove maker says are almost always either black or white and made out of cotton and nylon—prevents the spread of germs.
One notable exception to the rule was Princess Diana, who preferred to actually hold the hands of those she met during public visits. She wasn't dubbed the people's princess for nothing!
6. ALWAYS HAVE A BLACK ENSEMBLE ON-HAND.
You'll rarely see a royal wearing black, but while traveling outside the country, they are required to pack a full black outfit in case of emergency. This is so that, if a family member dies, they'll arrive back in England dressed appropriately, since they will certainly be photographed when departing the plane.
Queen Elizabeth learned this lesson from experience. In 1952, then just a princess, she and her husband, then the Duke of Edinburgh, were in Kenya when she learned her father had passed. When she arrived back in Britain without appropriate clothing, she was forced to stay on the plane until a black outfit was delivered to her.
Still, outside of mourning, black is considered a major faux pas. You'll only see the hue worn on Remembrance Day, a memorial observed for those who have died in battle.
7. COATS MUST STAY ON.
Etiquette bars female members of the family from removing their outermost layer in public, viewing it as an "unladylike action." So, unfortunately, if the temperature suddenly spikes, Duchess Kate just has to sweat it out.
8. NAILS ARE TO BE KEPT SUBTLE.
Bright colors are saved only for the Queen's wardrobe. The rules state that fingernails must be a practical and natural shade, meaning the royal manicurists favor pale pinks and clear polishes. In fact, since 1989, the Queen has been faithfully using the Essie shade Ballet Slippers.
Kate Middleton, however, has found a loophole: The Duchess dares to wear red on her toes.
9. HANDBAGS AREN'T JUST FOR BELONGINGS.
It's not like she needs house keys! While the Queen is known to pack lipstick and reading glasses in her purse, she also uses her iconic Launer bags to send signals to her staff. For example, when she wants to leave a dinner, she sets the purse on top of the table, letting her aides know to wrap up in five minutes. Or, if she's in the middle of a dull conversation, she'll place her bag on the floor, giving a cue to her lady-in-waiting that she'd like to be rescued.
10. CLUTCHES ARE GOOD IN A BIND.
To avoid an embarrassing slip up, Princess Diana relied on her custom clutches to shield her chest while stepping out of cars, thus keeping paparazzi from getting their money shot.
"We used to laugh when we designed what she called her 'cleavage bags,'" Anya Hindmarch told The Telegraph of when Diana would buy her clutches. "[They were] little satin clutches which she would cover her cleavage with when she stepped out of cars."
Duchess Kate uses hers as a safety net. If she does not want to shake hands while on a visit, she will hold her bag in front of her with both hands, appearing too occupied to reach out. (The public is not allowed to touch a royal family member unless they make the first move.)
11. WEDGES ARE LOOKED DOWN ON.
At least, in the Queen's mind. They're not completely banned, but one palace insider told Vanity Fair wedged heels are not favored by the Queen and that "it's well known among the women in the family." Kate would often wear her beloved Stuart Weitzmans when her grandmother-in-law wasn't present, but it's been a few years since she's been out in a pair.
12. DON'T FORGET PANTYHOSE.
No bylaw explicitly states pantyhose are a must. But, it's an unspoken rule that the Queen expects—and enforces—female family members and their guests to wear tights to all public outings.
That being said, newcomer and resident rule breaker Meghan Markle skipped nude stockings during her November engagement photo call. She quickly learned her lesson, though. At Commonwealth Day at Westminster Abbey in March, the Suits actress slipped on a pair.
13. WEIGH DOWN HEMLINES.
Otherwise suffer a Marilyn moment. In her custom dresses, the Queen has small, lead curtain weights sewn inside her hemlines. Though they weigh less than an ounce each, they keep her skirts from flying up if there were to be a sudden gust of wind.
As a fan of billowy dresses, Kate Middleton has taken note of this tailored trick after several stiff breezes have threatened to show London (and likely France) a glimpse of her underpants.
14. MILITARY UNIFORMS ARE TO BE WORN AT THE MOST FORMAL EVENTS.
Since the 19th century, it has been customary for royals who have served in the armed forces or hold honorary military titles to wear their ceremonial uniforms at special, formal events, such as Remembrance Day, the Trooping the Colour, or any service honoring the British troops. The Queen's daughter, Princess Anne, who has 24 honorary military appointments, has been notable in wearing a military uniform to these formal events. According to Slate, it's thought that she may be the first royal woman to dress in military attire publicly since Elizabeth I in 1588.
At his 2011 vows, Prince William donned his red Colonel, Irish Guards uniform because he had recently been appointed to the position. After the ceremony, however, he changed into a double-breasted tuxedo for the reception.
Will Harry follow suit on his big day? Because he is no longer a serving officer, it's not required for him to wear his uniform. So he can choose between that or the slightly less formal morning dress, much like his father did—Prince Charles wore his naval commander uniform for his 1981 wedding at St. Paul's Cathedral, but chose morning dress for his 2005 civic ceremony with Camilla Parker Bowles, now the Duchess of Cornwall.
15. USE FASHION TO COMPLIMENT HOSTS WHILE TRAVELING ABROAD.
While traveling, the family will pay tribute to a country they are visiting by sporting the national color or by incorporating a meaningful emblem into their outfits. For example, the Queen has worn jade green while visiting Ireland, while Kate has worn a maple leaf brooch and hat on trips to Canada. During a trip to India, Kate sported a piece by a local designer, bringing them so much attention their website crashed hours later.
16. DENIM ISN'T FORBIDDEN, BUT IT'S NOT PREFERRED.
It's certainly not a go-to item in any royal closet. For more casual outings, women in the family tend to favor trousers, cardigans, and blazers, while men take to polo or button-down shirts and khaki pants. But the BBC interviewed an etiquette expert who explained that most of the time jeans are a no-go, "but if the duchess is outside walking the dogs for example, then jeans are fine."
Essentially, it's better to be overdressed than underdressed, so denim tends to be for private life only.