"I have to be seen to be believed," Queen Elizabeth II once said, according to biographer Sally Bedell Smith (via The New York Times). Her Majesty could have been referring to her need for public engagements in order to build rapport with the people in Britain and overseas, but the quote applies just as well to her sartorial choices. She has a well-known flair for bright candy colors and dramatic headpieces, but according to her daughter-in-law Sophie, the lesser-known reason behind the queen’s wardrobe choices is to help members of the public to spot her through crowds (via PopSugar).
Her Majesty’s special occasion attire and accessories are similarly striking. When a new monarch inherits the throne, she inherits the responsibilities of upholding tradition not just through her rule but also through her regalia. The queen inherited access to the sparkling crown jewels that have been in her family for centuries, the ceremonial capes and accoutrements customary for royal events, and the expectation to meet certain standards in magnificence and modesty. Some of her most lavish looks are strictly traditional, while others reflect the trends of their time. Still, each carries an opulence that has to be seen to be believed.
Queen Elizabeth II’s wedding dress was a sight to behold
On Nov. 20, 1947, two years after the end of World War II, Princess Elizabeth married Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten. Britain was still reeling from the darkness of the previous years, but the royal wedding was, according to Time, "the first great celebration of the postwar era."
According to the Royal Collection Trust, top couturier Norman Hartnell’s design for Elizabeth’s wedding dress was approved in August of 1947, just three months before the wedding took place. Good Housekeeping reported that 350 women worked on the dress over a span of seven weeks. Inspired by Botticelli’s Primavera, the dress had hand-embroidered, pearl-encrusted flowers blooming all over it. More than 10,000 seed pearls spangled the dress atop silk spun by silkworms from China, since Japan and Italy were Britain’s enemies during the war.
The dress was especially luxurious in the postwar era due to the 15 feet of silk and tulle that made up its train, as fabric was still rationed in Britain at the time. The royal family was not exempt from wartime rationing, so the princess paid for her wedding dress with rationing coupons — although, per the New York Post, the British government gave her 200 extra coupons to help.
Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation gown took eight months to complete
In the summer of 1953, a 25-year-old Princess Elizabeth was to be crowned the Queen of England, so she enlisted couturier Norman Hartnell — who had previously designed her wedding dress — to create a coronation dress fit for a queen. According to Harper’s Bazaar, the dress took eight months to make, including time for Hartnell to research the sartorial traditions of previous coronations, to create and present nine designs for the queen-to-be, and to orchestrate the crafting of the gown in all of its detailed glory.
After conducting his research at a museum and a library in London, Hartnell retreated to Windsor Forest to start sketching. "My mind was teeming with heraldic and floral ideas," he recalled in his 1955 memoir Silver and Gold (via Harper’s Bazaar). "I thought of lilies, roses, marguerites and golden corn; I thought of altar cloths and sacred vestments; I thought of the sky, the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars and everything heavenly that might be embroidered upon a dress destined to be historic."
Hartnell’s eight months of hard work paid off, and the new queen was so pleased with the end result that she went on to wear the gown on six different occasions.
Queen Elizabeth II’s "wattle" gown helped strengthen ties to Australia
When Queen Elizabeth II voyaged to Australia for the first time in 1954, approximately 75 percent of the continent’s 9 million population "glimpsed her in person at least once," according to the National Museum of Australia. It’s fitting, then, that the young queen wore one of her most iconic looks to a state banquet in Sydney as a nod to the people of Australia (via The Australian Women’s Weekly).
Her "wattle dress" was a gold tulle gown adorned with golden wattles. Australia’s national flower is the golden wattle, so the dress was recognized as "unambiguously patriotic," per the National Museum of Australia. Sir Norman Hartnell designed the dress specifically for Her Majesty’s visit to Australia.
The dress was immortalized later that year when Australian artist William Dargie was commissioned to paint a portrait of the queen wearing it, which became known as the "wattle painting." The original portrait was given as a gift to the Australian Commonwealth; another was gifted to the queen for her personal collection; and a reproduction was later purchased by the National Museum of Australia, where it remains today.
Queen Elizabeth wore an asymmetrical gown and a Russian tiara in the Netherlands in 1958
Queen Elizabeth II wore yet another design by Sir Norman Hartnell to a state banquet on the first night of her 1958 visit to the Netherlands. As noted by the Royal Collection Trust, the evening gown showed off the best of its designer’s usual aesthetic: sparkling embellishments, detailed embroidery, and a full skirt. Constructed of muted aquamarine and champagne crinoline, it featured a fitted, structured bodice with a thick strap over one shoulder. At the waist, the gown billowed out into a voluptuous skirt interrupted by a diagonal swath of pale blue fabric. It was accentuated by unique embellished shapes and tiny jewels in colors to match the fabric throughout.
As if her gown weren’t opulent enough, the queen accessorized with an array of diamonds and pearls. Atop her head sat the Vladimir Tiara, which Town & Country reports is one of Her Majesty’s favorites. The tiara, which originally featured hanging pearls, belonged to Grand Duchess Vladimir of Russia before it was sold to Queen Elizabeth II’s grandmother Queen Mary. On certain occasions, Queen Elizabeth swaps out the pearls for her great-grandmother’s emeralds, but she appears to have opted for classic pearls for the 1958 banquet.
In 1963, Queen Elizabeth favored shimmering Norman Hartnell evening gowns
In 1963, Queen Elizabeth II appeared to adopt a glamorous evening uniform: bejewelled metallic Norman Hartnell gowns, white fur stoles, delicate evening purses with chain straps and clasp closures, and, of course, royal jewels.
In its Fashioning a Reign exhibition, the Royal Collection Trust showcased notable Norman Hartnell designs the queen wore in 1963. To the state opening of New Zealand’s Parliament on February 12, she wore an evening gown with a "scoop-necked bodice and a scissor-cut skirt" in "oyster duchesse satin" with "silver and gold embroidery in a geometric design." As seen in photos (via Today), she completed the look with a fur stole, a tiara, and an official sash decorated with brooches.
The following May, Queen Elizabeth wore a fitted evening gown of silk tulle, "vermicelli embroidery," and beaded diamond shapes to a banquet with the king and queen of Belgium. That same month, Her Majesty attended a British Red Cross film performance, wearing Hartnell’s 1960s interpretation of a 17th-century "robe de style." The gown featured a fitted, beaded, slightly off-the-shoulder bodice and a bouffant skirt in a golden yellow fabric, which the queen accessorized with a stole, delicate purse, gloves, sash, and sparkling jewels.
For her Silver Jubilee, the queen put her shiniest foot forward
In 1977, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Silver Jubilee, which marked 25 years since she took the throne as monarch. On May 31 of that year, The New York Times ran an article covering the gala in Covent Garden. "The Queen herself wore a white crepe gown trimmed with silver and crystal, the blue sash of the Order of the Garter and ruby and diamond earrings, a necklace and a tiara," read the publication. "It was difficult to remember that Britain is a country in deep economic trouble."
Her Majesty wore several lavish outfits that year, such as the embellished gowns she wore for her official portrait and the state opening of New Zealand’s Parliament in February, and she ended on a bright note. In Canada, the last stop on her international Silver Jubilee tour, she attended a state banquet in Quebec with then-Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, as noted by CBC. In a departure from the soft metallics she favored for special occasions in previous decades, the queen wore a seafoam green, gem-encrusted sheath dress and an especially regal tiara as she celebrated a quarter-century of her monarchy (and queenly glamour).
Queen Elizabeth dialed up the Hollywood drama during a 1983 visit with President Ronald Reagan
In February and March of 1983, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip took their first tour of California. According to the Los Angeles Times, the royals visited space shuttles and the Yosemite National Park and attended a ritzy dinner in Los Angeles with the likes of actor Michael Caine. They also took a stormy ride up to President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan’s hilltop ranch in a Chevy Suburban, which Her Majesty deemed "terribly exciting."
At an honorary dinner in San Francisco on March 3, the queen toasted the president’s warmth and the state’s "magnificent technological achievements," noting that Silicon Valley "has brought the world of yesterday’s science fiction into today’s home…" (via the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum).
In keeping with sci-fi style, Hollywood glamour, and the brightness of the Golden State, Her Majesty wore an uncharacteristically avant-garde metallic evening gown for the occasion. As seen in photos and video of the event, the soft-gold gown featured a dropped waist and dramatic ruffled and jewel-adorned sleeves topped with large bows at the shoulders, proving that even the queen of England herself was hip to the big shoulders of the ’80s.
Queen Elizabeth wore her evil-banishing Burmese Ruby Tiara on a 1992 visit to France
On June 9, 1992, Queen Elizabeth II attended a banquet at the Elysee Palace in Paris during a state visit to France. She wore a long-sleeved white gown spangled with floral-patterned embellishments of tiny pearls and gems and topped with diamond-encrusted brooches. Still, it was the queen’s jewels that truly dazzled: She wore her precious Burmese Ruby Tiara, along with a matching necklace and earrings.
According to WWD, the queen had the tiara made in 1973 using 96 rare rubies she received as a wedding gift from the people of Myanmar nearly three decades prior. The rubies are embedded among diamonds set in gold and silver, forming Tudor rose designs.
Gemologist Alexandra Mitchell estimated the tiara to be worth 7 million British pounds, the equivalent of approximately $9.5 million, per Express. In Burmese culture, the stones are reportedly believed to "ward off evil" and disease, so the tiara has been speculated to carry a secret meaning when worn by the queen. Her Majesty may have worn the jewelry to the 1992 banquet because the event took place in the midst of Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s highly scrutinized separation — or perhaps simply because of its glittering beauty.
The queen wore white fur and diamonds to the State Opening of Parliament in 2006
Through the decades, Queen Elizabeth II has worn some of her most lavish looks for the State Openings of Parliament each year. During each ceremony, members of Parliament wear red robes, but Her Majesty typically stands out from the red sea by wearing some of her most dazzling embellished gowns in shades of white and silver.
On Nov. 15, 2006, the queen arrived at the State Opening of Parliament in an embellished white gown, a white fur stole, white gloves, and her Diamond Diadem crown (via CBS News), which she has worn for her arrival at several state openings as well as in the procession to her 1953 coronation. According to Express, the crown was originally commissioned for the coronation of King George IV. Reflecting traditional British, Scottish, and Irish symbolism in the form of roses, thistles, and shamrocks, it features 1,333 diamonds and is more than 320 carats.
As is tradition, the queen’s stole and crown appeared to be replaced during the ceremony by her formal ermine Robe of the State and the Imperial State Crown, which features purple velvet and 2,868 diamonds in addition to precious rubies, sapphires, pearls, and emeralds.
On Royal Garter Day in 2011, the queen donned a velvet cape and hundreds of diamonds
Each June, Queen Elizabeth II, members of the royal family, and 24 selected knights participate in the Order of the Garter ceremony at Windsor Castle. Ceremonial attire plays a key role in the annual event: the queen, senior royals, and the knights and ladies in the procession wear "grand velvet robes, glistening insignia, and plumed hats," per Royal UK.
On Royal Garter Day in 2011, the queen stood among the knights and ladies and fellow senior royals, including Prince William and Prince Charles, per BBC News. The Order of the Garter procession was awash with matching midnight-blue velvet capes bearing Order of the Garter emblems on one side, red ribbons on the other, and white bows on each shoulder. Each member of the procession also donned a necklace bearing a large gold tassel, and a velvet hat adorned with a sizable white feather. Her Majesty typically stands out from crowds in opulent gowns or rainbow colors, but on this occasion, she was distinguished primarily by her Garter star brooch, which featured 838 brilliant diamonds.
Diamonds were the queen’s best friend during her 2012 Diamond Jubilee
In 2012, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, indicating 60 years on the throne. To mark the occasion, Her Majesty posed for an official portrait in the Centre Room at Buckingham Palace, as noted by Forbes. She donned a white silk dress adorned with lace, silver sequins, and a "scalloped edge" and designed by her royal dressmaker, Angela Kelly. In honor of her royal ancestors, the queen’s royal blue Garter Riband sash was decorated with brooches bearing images of her grandfather and her father — King George V and VI, respectively — alongside the brilliant Garter star.
Emphasizing the "diamond" in "Diamond Jubilee," Her Majesty brought out some of the most sparkling pieces of the royal family’s jewelry from the Royal Collection, including one of her most dazzling crowns, the State Diadem. She paired the crown with Queen Victoria’s collet necklace, known as the coronation necklace, which has been worn to coronations since 1902, per the Royal Collection Trust. The necklace’s drop pendant is the Lahore diamond, which is "one of the famous diamonds of the world," according to PBS. The outfit was later recreated for a wax figure of the queen, which lives at Madame Tussauds in London.
2012 was a year of celebrations and metallic gowns
The year 2012 was one of pomp and circumstance for Queen Elizabeth II. It was the year London hosted the Olympic Games, and that of Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee, which sparked several honorary events worth dressing up for.
In June, stars, including Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney, and Stevie Wonder, performed for the queen at a Diamond Jubilee tribute concert, as noted by the Mirror. Her Majesty wore a shimmering number by dressmaker Angela Kelly for the occasion. The gold, long-sleeved dress featured a swirling silver-and-gold pattern over one side of the chest, recalling the glamorous metallics the queen favored in the early ’60s. It’s no surprise, then, that the dress was fashioned from fabric that had been bought in 1961 and was "hauled out of storage from the palace stock room," according to The Liverpool Echo.
In November, as the whirlwind year drew to a close, the queen attended the annual Royal Variety Performance, wearing a silvery, bejeweled gown — also designed by Angela Kelly — and tiny silver shoes to match (via Daily Mail).
In a diamond tiara and a red cape, Queen Elizabeth looked straight out of a fairy tale in 2014
Every eight years, Queen Elizabeth II attends the Service of the Order of the Bath. According to BBC, "The Order of the Bath is an order of chivalry dating back to 1725." The traditional service honors the installation of new knights at Westminster Abbey, where Her Majesty makes "the presentation of gold and silver coins, a symbolic surrendering of worldly treasures."
On May 9, 2014, the queen’s appearance at the service prompted a PopSugar article aptly titled, "Look How Queen-y the Queen Was Today." In addition to a simple, long-sleeved, white dress and her typical silver heeled shoes and white gloves, Her Majesty wore striking royal regalia: ceremonial gold tassels, a diamond tiara from the Crown Amethyst Suite of Jewels, and a ruby-red velvet cape decorated with two traditional white shoulder bows. The cape featured a flowing train, which a uniformed young boy carried to keep it from touching the ground. It doesn’t get much more queen-y than that.
Queen Elizabeth II sparkled at the 2019 State Opening of Parliament
Queen Elizabeth II often pulls out the most swanky stops for the State Opening of Parliament, and the 2019 opening was no exception. The occasion calls for sumptuousness; even the Queen’s Speech, which is actually written by members of the British government, is presented to Her Majesty in a silk bag, as noted by Town & Country.
For the 65th state opening of Parliament in 2019, in addition to the traditional ermine Robe of State she wears to each Parliament opening, Her Majesty wore an embellished silk Angela Kelly gown that bore a striking resemblance to the one she wore for her Diamond Jubilee portrait back in 2012, complete with the coronation necklace and the Diamond Diadem she wore. Even so, the outfit drew headlines, as she did not wear the traditional — and very heavy — Imperial State Crown, per Harper’s Bazaar.