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Three royal women and their dresses

  • 5 July 2011
  • From the section Magazine
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Duchess of Cambridge in Canada; Queen Elizabeth in Australia in 1954; Princess Diana in New Zealand, 1983

All eyes have been on the Duchess of Cambridge's outfits on her first overseas tour as a royal wife. Do queens and princesses let their clothes do the talking?

Can a dress say a thousand words? It does when the wearer is filmed and photographed from all angles by public and press pack alike - and makes no public speeches.

It's diplomacy by dress, practised by royal women on tour. So what hidden messages can be found in their touring wardrobes?

Subtle tribute to host nation

The Queen's clothes always pay homage to her host country, with national colours or emblems worked into her outfits.

And Princess Diana's favourite couturier Catherine Walker visited the embassies of upcoming destinations for inspiration.

Kate Middleton and the Queen, both in maple leaf brooches and red and white hats
The royal approach with a maple leaf brooch

So in Canada, the duchess - nee Catherine Middleton - has worn a hat adorned with maple leaves, the Queen's diamond maple leaf brooch, and not one, but two dresses by the designer Erdem Moralioglu.

These lacy blue frocks nod to home and to host.

Erdem is the new darling of British fashion, a favourite of both Sarah Brown and Samantha Cameron when championing the industry.

But the London-based graduate of the Royal College of Art is Canadian, born in Quebec to a Turkish father and British mother.

"A smart touch, to reference the historic links between Britain and Canada in a contemporary way," said fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley in the Guardian.

You CAN wear this yourself

Queen Elizabeth in a cotton dress in Tonga, 1953; Princess Diana wears Jan van Velden in Australia, 1983; Catherine wears Issa in Canada
Off-the-peg for the Queen, designer for Diana and for Catherine

As well as designer threads like the Issa wrap-dress pictured right, the duchess's touring wardrobe also includes her favourite High Street labels.

It is a stretch to call high-end chains like Reiss an austerity choice. But such outfits help make her look accessible and less "princess-like" than her predecessors, says Dennis Nothdruft, curator of the Fashion and Textile Museum.

Wearing clothes within reach of ordinary women is a popular royal tactic. The Queen packed cotton dresses from specialist wholesaler Horrockses for her six-month tour of the Commonwealth in 1953-4.

Her elegant floral dresses proved a hit, says Christine Boydell, author of Horrockses Fashions: Off-the-Peg Style in the 40s and 50s.

"There was a lot of press coverage of her outfits, with headlines like 'You can wear the Queen's dress'," says Boydell - just like when Kate wears a High Street brand, but 1950s women would have sewed their own versions.

"Horrockses dresses were quite expensive for the average person to buy at £4 to £7 each, the equivalent of £80 to £130 today. I suspect she may have been given them. The company knew the value of good publicity, and also dressed actresses such as Vivien Leigh."

Princess Diana, by contrast, spent much of her first tour - to Australia and New Zealand in 1983 - in bespoke dresses.

The most photographed woman in the world, the 21-year-old championed young British designers. Not least because they could add hidden engineering to the flimsiest of dresses to protect her modesty.

Diana - in a Donald Campbell dress - with Charles and baby William in New Zealand
A showcase of 80s design - and modesty preserved

But these didn't find universal favour.

Some Australian women disliked her "dowdily long" hem-lines - complaints echoed when she visited Canada later that year.

Before a return visit in 1985, a reporter from Brisbane's Courier-Mail asked if her outfits would be less frumpy.

"Her clothes have to be practical and also modest, skirts that don't blow up in the air," a Buckingham Palace spokesman retorted. "She says that the wind is her enemy."

Glamorous gowns for evening

The Queen in mauve at a State Ball in Australia, 1954; Princess Diana in a cream Gina Frattini gown, 1983; and Kate Middleton in a Jenny Packham dress in London

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have yet to don evening wear on tour. That chance will come at a black tie event in Los Angeles on Saturday - a Bafta-hosted "Brits to Watch" gala, so her dress is likely to be by a UK designer. (Update: she wore a lilac chiffon Alexander McQueen gown - the British fashion house behind her wedding dress.)

Exhibition of Queen's dresses worn on tours of the Commonwealth
Norman Hartnell designed many of her tour gowns

The Queen's ball gowns also did the talking on her 1950s Commonwealth tour. The new queen chose the highly fashionable New Look silhouette to emphasise her status and glamour, says Nothdruft - all wasp waists and full skirts.

Diana's outfits served a different purpose, says Nothdruft. A recent bride and new mother to baby William, she projected a softer side of the royal family.

"Diana had a much more fairytale look with a princess-like aura. Her designers set out to create that image for her."

Or, as her favourite designer Catherine Walker wrote in her autobiography, "It was about beauty and dreams."

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