Demos Daily: Tantrums and Tiaras

Once this is over, it’s not immediately obvious how we’ll look back on this time. There will be grief, certainly, for those we’ve lost, and gratitude to those who’ve been on the front line.  We’ll likely think of those who’ve held us together as a nation, and up there will be the Queen.  Whether you support the monarchy or not, her statement that ‘we will meet again’ provided a poignant moment of pause for us all.

Back in 2002, an issue of Demos Quarterly looked at all aspects of the monarchy, and how the institution was adapting to modern times.  We went beyond looking at the politics to their lesser known impacts – below, Jess Cartner-Morely looks at the royal influence on our wardrobes.

Tantrums and tiaras: How the monarchy accessorised fashion

Jess Cartner-Morley

On the opening night of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition of some of the world’s most famous and valuable tiaras in March 2002, a minor incident took place between Camilla Parker Bowles and the Duchess of Devonshire. The Duchess, who had loaned a tiara to the exhibition, was reported to be furious that Mrs Parker Bowles was singled out for a private tour of the glittering exhibits. ‘I suppose she is surveying her kingdom,’ the Duchess is alleged to have said.

Apocryphal or not, the story was seized on by the media long starved of court scandal of such glamorous complexion. The emotive symbolism of the tiara exhibition reminds us not only of a time when fashion was set by the royal court – but that the legacy of monarchism retains an influence on fashion today.

Tiaras make a good starting point for a look at monarchy and fashion. Not technically a royal item – legend has it that ivy wreaths were first worn by the Greek god Dionysus and his followers, and humble versions known as kokoshnik were once popular among Russian peasants – they are nonetheless as closely allied with royalty, in the public imagination, as palaces. No little girl’s ‘princess’ fancy dress costume would be complete without one.

Now, however, they are enjoying a renaissance as a fashion item. The age-old tradition of a woman wearing a tiara on her wedding day has become commonplace through all strata of society, with cheap rhinestone or mother-of-pearl tiaras sold in every bridal store. Among the well-to-do, ‘status’ tiaras have become a key part of glamorous weddings. For her wedding in a Scottish castle, Madonna’s ‘something borrowed’ was a nineteenth-century 78-carat diamond tiara in a conventional floral garland style, loaned for the day by royal jewellers Asprey & Garrard.

Many of the new generation of tiara wearers are unbothered by the niceties of etiquette. Traditionally, only married women wore tiaras, for instance, and to wear one in a hotel was a faux pas. Now tiaras are worn by teenage clubbers: the stones may be paste, but the link to a princess fantasy lends ample sparkle. What’s more, young women can take a pick’n’mix approach to the princess look, wearing their tiaras with jeans or miniskirts.

The famously outré singer Courtney Love subverted the connotations of the tiara by teaming it with smudged red lipstick and garishly bleached hair. Decades before, punk subculture already had a complex fascination with monarchy and its trappings; indeed, the brightly coloured spikes of the Mohican and related punk haircuts mirrored, in a fashion, the Queen’s own headgear. And it was a logical progression for Vivienne Westwood to later declare herself more interested, as a designer, in high culture than street culture. Today, Westwood can sometimes be seen bicycling through London wearing a Neapolitan coral tiara from the 1870s.

Recently, peacockish elements of the male royal wardrobe have emerged as elements of the images of rap stars such as Puff Daddy – and spoof stars such as Sacha Baron Cohen’s comic creation, Ali G. Puff Daddy’s gold jewellery is ostentatiously displayed in ceremonial fashion. The poses which he and fellow rappers assume for publicity shots and videos, ceremonially surrounded by sports cars, bottles of champagne and women in bikinis, may seem unremittingly contemporary in their vulgarity. However, they have forebears, of a sort, in traditional portraits of landowners posing proudly with their horses and finely attired wives, ancestral homes painstakingly painted in behind.

Moreover, the outsize silhouette favoured by rap artists – designed to enable, or suggest, the carrying of weapons beneath – wittingly or unwittingly lends a royal air. In Puff Daddy’s penchant for overly large coats of white fur, worn over pinstripe suits or leather jackets even in summer, we find a reminder of the costumes worn by Byzantine emperors when they wanted to impress. For example, in the year 325, Emperor Constantine met with the Nicaean Council to attempt to quell growing unrest. He wore, it is recorded, gold-embroidered, jewel-encrusted purple robes, high-heeled red buskins, and a spiked tiara.(1)

The aesthetics of monarchy

Royal aesthetics have always been about wealth, status and visibility. Tiaras have links with notions of romantic love: the wearing of one on a wedding day is supposed to symbolise the crowning of love over innocence. But in a royal wedding, the more humble stones which symbolise love – pearls and turquoise – are less favoured than diamonds. The 14th Earl of Strathmore was following a long royal tradition when he gave his daughter, Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (later the Queen Mother), a tiara of rose-cut diamonds on her marriage to the Duke of York. Diamonds may represent eternity and beauty, but they also stand for wealth and power.

A true tiara is a complete circle, like a crown. (Anything else, strictly speaking, is a diadem.) Often, tiaras are designed in a ‘spiked’ setting similar to a traditional crown. This design has the effect of making the wearer’s status evident, even when glimpsed, from any angle and from some distance. What’s more, a tiara, like a crown – and indeed like the ruffs favoured by gentlemen and women of the sixteenth century – forces the wearer to hold his or her head high, and so give the impression of aristocratic hauteur.

When made of diamonds or pearls, a tiara gives the wearer a halo effect: a ring of divine beauty. Little wonder it was so long popular among royal families keen to demarcate their special status. But the flamboyant design and literally unforgettable beauty of many royal tiaras – the vast Siberian amethysts of the Russian gems, the gobstopper-sized emeralds of the French crown jewels, the dazzling sunburst diamond tiara which Queen Victoria wore on her first visit to the opera – also served a more prosaic purpose. In the days before photographs, few subjects had much notion of their monarch’s physical appearance; what better way to indelibly mark your image on the public memory than through fantastical jewels? The Duchess of Devonshire recently recalled,

When I was a young woman in the 1930s, one’s tiara was a kind of identity card. The face underneath was known by the helmet of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires and pearls glittering on her head: harsh, spiky and upstanding, or rounded in the shapes of flowers or leaves; tall like a nursery fender, or a humbler circlet threaded through the Marcel waves of the hair. It was like recognising people in a country crowd by their dogs. We would have been very muddled if there had been a general swap around and the Duchess of Northumberland wore Lady Astor’s, and Lady Londonderry turned up in one of the Duchess of Buccleuch’s. (2)

Monarchy and the exercise of aesthetic power

For royalty, jewellery takes precedence over clothes. Queen Elizabeth II instinctively knew this when faced with a lastminute wardrobe crisis before a state banquet she was giving for the Reagans in 1983. When her couturier, Hardy Amies, presented her with the dress he had designed for the occasion, it was found that the dramatic bows on the shoulders did not work with the earrings and tiara she planned to wear. Amies was distraught. ‘Oh, don’t go on about it,’ she told him. ‘I think it’s a very pretty dress and I’m going to like it. Just take the bows off.’ (3)

Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother also used jewellery to stake her position. The demure pearls which were a lifelong favourite were viewed, early in her marriage, in stark contrast to Wallis Simpson’s glittering panther brooches. This wholesome image worked in her favour when the abdication of Edward VIII thrust her into the limelight. But with the proliferation of photography, the Queen Mother was forced to pay closer attention to all her clothes. She developed a highly distinctive look, a penchant for pastels which contributed to the public’s sentimental image of her. For 50 years, from the death of George VI in 1952 to her own death in 2002, her style changed little. In this, she came to represent an image of safe constancy in contrast to the increasingly lurid lives of her grandchildren.

Monarch as fashion icon

But it was the Queen Mother’s granddaughter-in-law, Diana, who became the royal family’s only twentieth-century style icon. Diana, who began straightforwardly enough as a young bride whose haircut and wedding dress spawned a thousand suburban copies, but who was rather looked down upon by the world of high fashion, metamorphosed into someone closely entwined with the fashion industry.

In contrast to the figure of the Queen Mother, which Clementine Churchill once compared to ‘a plump turtledove’, Diana became model-thin; ‘becoming’ pastels were swapped for dramatic black and chic beige. Towards the end of her life, she was a Vogue cover girl courted by designers around the world. But the fact that it had been Diana who changed to meet the requirements of fashion, rather than the other way around, hinted at the changing power dynamics of monarchy and the worlds of style and celebrity.

Diana’s willingness to play the fashion icon stemmed, perhaps, from her understanding of the limitations of her role in the royal family. Like many wives before her, she had all the beauty, but none of the power. The revealing black dress which she wore, famously, to a gala at the Serpentine Gallery the night that Prince Charles admitted in a television interview to having committed adultery suggested that she saw her image as her most potent weapon in her public and private struggles.

The aesthetics of monarchy have been dispersed and subverted by a changing social structure. Once, monarchs could have divided threats to their position into those who had breeding but no money, and those who had wealth but no glamour. Huge diamonds and white furs quite clearly denote both. Such demarcations seem archaic now. And it is often the people with both money and glamour but from very far outside the royal circle – Madonna, or Puff Daddy – who most boldly claim the aesthetics of royalty as their own.

Snobbery, too, has moved on. Who designed an item now holds more cachet than whose bank vault it came from. As the pace of commercial fashion has speeded up, that of court fashion, which once had courtiers panting to keep up with the latest fad, has ground almost to a halt. Where royal influences emerge, they are historical rather than contemporary. The peacockish robes of male rap stars have more in common with the garb of Henry VIII than with that of Prince Charles.

Royal influences in contemporary fashion are symptoms not of a forelock-tugging emulation but of a cheerfully insubordinate attitude to the glitz and glamour that was once out of reach of ordinary people. In James Hayllar’s 1863 painting, Going to Court, two women, probably a mother and daughter, are seen in their carriage on their way to court for presentation to the sovereign. They are wearing delicate white gowns with bare shoulders, pearl necklaces, feather fans, silk gloves and diamond tiaras. Onlookers can be seen peering in through the window, huddled beneath their umbrellas and heavy coats. Once, it seems, the court circle shone, and the rest were dowdy. On this, however, the monarchy can no longer rely.

Jess Cartner-Morley is fashion editor of The Guardian

(1) B Cosgrave, Costume and Fashion: a complete history (London: Hamlyn, 2000).

(2) Sunday Telegraph, 17 Mar 2002.

(3) S Bradford, Elizabeth: a biography of Her Majesty the Queen (London: Penguin, 1996).