Images of royalty are everywhere - but what do we really want our royals to look like today?
The previews of the exhibition of Diana’s clothes, set to open soon at Kensington Palace, aren’t just a walk down memory lane. They’ve raised important points about modern royalty. One theme has really struck me. It’s the comments, from designers who dressed Diana, about her sense of royal image. They mention that Diana didn’t just know what she wanted to wear, she knew what people wanted her to look like and a big consideration of any outfit she picked was whether it matched the princess expectation. She knew her hosts had an idea of how royalty appeared and part of her dress code was to make sure they got what they hoped for.
That princess expectation is still with us. In fact, in 2017, it may be an ever bigger part of royal life than ever before. In an age where every young, female royal is hailed as a fashion icon before she’s even got her choice of heels out of the regal car, the role of image in how we perceive royalty is growing stronger by the day.
It’s a hard one. Young royals today are as much fashion icons as the biggest movie stars. In fact, we see more of them on a day to day basis, their appearances in the style sections of blogs and magazines aren’t restricted to premieres or awards ceremonies. The royals are out all weathers, at all kinds of events. In some ways, the royal women of Europe, especially the younger ones, have become a style statement all of their own.
I’m not going to go into the whole message versus mascara debate here. I’m totally on side with listening to the important stuff ahead of looking at the clothes. I just think that royalty, now, is so image led that the clothes say something even if the person wearing them doesn’t want them to. And that’s what Diana got, that’s what the princess expectation is all about. It’s knowing that people think you should look a certain way.
But what is that way? It’s a hard one. Royalty used to be all suits and hats but for a new generation those days are gone. Thank goodness. No one wants to see thirtysomethings with minds of their own dressed according to other people’s rules. But other people’s expectations are a different thing.
We do expect our royals now to be fashionable, to be stylish, to be on trend, to be worth copying. Royal clothes have changed from something we admire from afar to something that’s analysed before the first bouquet of flowers has even been presented. But how do we expect those aspirations to match an image of royalty?
There’s also the expectation of appropriateness, of seeing this stylish wish list transformed into the perfect match for the event the royal in question is attending. Engagements are changing with more out and about and into the thick of the action. If the last part of the 20th century was all about the walkabout, the first part of the 21st is about seeing the royals join in. But we want them to look like they are royals while they do it, and fashionable ones at that. It’s a new level of expectation.
You might say it's none of our business what people wear. And you'd be right. It isn't. Independent women with minds of their own should dress as they please, that's that. But part of the dilemma facing royal women is that image has always been a huge part of what makes royalty work. Think of the Hans Holbein PR portraits of the Tudors, or Katherine Parr, known to us as the survivor among Henry VIII's wives who was famous in her own lifetime for her passion for fashion. Then there's Victoria whose choice of widow's weeds created an image of a woman in mourning that was much easier for male politicians to deal with than a female leader with enough spirit to sink a ship. Dressing to royal expectations has always been part of the job. But getting it right now is tricky. Modern royalty is under an unending spotlight but is still expected to look the part on certain occasions. How do you mix the royal role with personal preference when it comes to clothes?
We know when it doesn’t work, when it’s too young or old, too informal, too much like what we all might wear. Because after all, we do want our royals to be slightly different, to have that glitter that comes with a golden lifestyle. No, we don’t want tiaras at every turn but there is still an expectation there that a royal has come to call. The designers talking about Diana now say she believed people wanted to see the styled hair, the daytime jewels, the smart clothes – she looked at it that they had a dream of what their brush with royalty would be like and that’s what she aspired to.
How that’s achieved in 2017 is a tricky one. We’d groan if we were suddenly faced with endless rewears but then no one wants a new dress, worn once and never seen again at every appearance. We want personality and a unique take on fashion but nothing too out there, that’s for the celebs. A stylish selection can get an event for an unnoticed cause attention across the world. Too much style, and the clothes are all anyone will talk about. Those who really make it work today are still, perhaps, the ones who understand the royal expectation of them at the events they attend. Diana’s theory still holds true.