Hats are one of the most distinctive things that the Queen wears and, though she may never have sought to distinguish herself with choices at the more avant garde end of the spectrum, the Queen’s hats play an important functional and decorative part in her wardrobe. As part of its 90th birthday tribute to the Queen, London’s Fashion and Textile Museum hosted a talk by curator and historian, Beatrice Behlen about the evolution of the Queen’s style in headwear. Beatrice is Senior Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts at the Museum of London but has also curated collections at Kensington Palace. Beatrice also revealed the important considerations for any milliner in working for the Queen.
From her earliest childhood, the Queen has been surrounded by hats. Her grandmother, Queen Mary favoured the toque – larger than a pillbox with a turned-back brim. In photographs she presents a picture of lavish Edwardian style – draped layers of lace, strings of pearls and veiling. The Queen Mother seems much more to have been influenced by changing fashions. Her cloches of the 1920s were succeeded by capelines in the 1930s and then caps or berets with a more military feel in the 1940s. As time went on she also developed the feminine touches that came to define her style in her later years – veiling, feathers, pastel colours and flowers.
The talk also revealed some of the functional considerations for the royal milliner. The hat has to work as part of an ensemble, so the milliner must work with the designer and perhaps with other accessory makers too – Norman Hartnell, one of the most famous couturiers to the Queen often worked with the milliner Claude Saint-Cyr and shoemaker Rayne. There are certain codes to observe: for example, the Queen rarely wears black, except for Remembrance Day, funerals and for meeting the Pope. Hats must also serve the functional purpose of ensuring that the Queen remains highly visible, so lighter colours and smaller-brimmed or brimless hats work best. Then there are the practicalities we all face – coping with wind and rain.
As she reached maturity and developed her personal style, the Queen favoured a succession of milliners. One of the earliest, in the 1940s, was Aage Thaarup, a milliner with a flamboyant style who made hats for the Queen Mother as well as for films. Notable commissions for the Queen included the feather-trimmed tricorn she wore for her first Trooping of the Colour in 1951. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Queen’s hats tended to become smaller, some little more than a headpiece or flowers combined with a veil. By the 1970s, the Queen was working with a new milliner. Simone Mirman had worked with Schiaparelli and, unsurprisingly, produced very exuberant designs, often inspired by nature – flowers or even sometimes mushrooms. There were also intensely elegant designs like the black scarf-style hat worn for the Duke of Windsor’s funeral in 1972.
In the 1980s, Freddie Fox was supplying pillbox styles which gradually evolved into the 1990s to include small brims or incorporate scarf-style elements into the design. Other milliners working with the Queen in the 1990s were Philip Somerville, Marie O’Regan and Graham Smith, some also working with Princess Diana. Coming right up to date, today one of the milliners most associated with the Queen is Rachel Trevor-Morgan, who gained her royal warrant in 2014.
The picture that emerged of the Queen’s evolving millinery style is one of practicality, influenced by, but not slave to, fashion. Her millinery is designed alongside her ensembles to observe royal protocols as well as practical need. In short, though she may not possess the sheer fashion force of the younger members of the royal family (the Duchess of Cambridge perhaps pre-eminent here), the Queen has always displayed a style that is entirely her own, never appearing to be overwhelmed or upstaged by an outfit. Perhaps she is the perfect milliner’s client.