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Royal Frump and Circumstance

Queen Elizabeth's dowdy style sense is her crowning glory

June 12, 2002|ROBIN GIVHAN | WASHINGTON POST

Queen Elizabeth II seems to revel in her frumpiness, which, of course, only makes it more splendid.

Those figure-ignoring suits, the prim gloves and the church-mum hats have been on full, glorious display these last few days as she has celebrated her Golden Jubilee.

From stages, steps and the Gold State Coach, the queen has executed that marvelous royal wave in which the hand swings to and fro like a sail in a gentle breeze. That silent greeting has been copied by beauty queens around the world, but none can execute it with the stately panache of the queen. As she has posed for photographs with her subjects, both the famous and the unknown, she has produced the same tight smile that never varies in breadth by more than a millimeter.

And at virtually every occasion, she has toted around a pocketbook. Were it something a bit more chic such as a Marc Jacobs satchel or a fringed Carlos Falchi hobo sack, one would be inclined to refer to it as a handbag. But her little black patent-leather tote is so perfectly frumpy, so delightfully bubbe, that it can only be called a pocketbook.

Its omnipresence leads one to wonder what it could possibly contain, as it's highly unlikely that the queen would need to carry around a driver's license, a cell phone or one of those collapsible Totes umbrellas. Because the queen is so grandmotherly in her public presentation--even in the way her unruly family seems to snap to under her steely gaze--one suspects that the monarch is doing what any well-prepared granny would and stocking her pocketbook with nibbles in case anyone should get hungry before supper. Undoubtedly, there are Starlight peppermints wrapped in clear plastic and stuffed into the bottom of that bag.

As with any public person, the queen's style has often been unkindly remarked upon. Within the fashion industry, the queen was often pointed to as a source of inspiration during the height of the '90s' dowdy-chic phase and its fascination with dull blouses and skirts of unflattering length. But complaints about the queen's sense of style have always been uttered with an amused shrug. No one expected the queen to change her wardrobe.

Why should she? At 76, she has perfected her look. She has honed a personal style that, in its exquisitely articulated dowdiness, speaks of solidity, continuity, ritual and timelessness.

Her attire is obviously and loudly of another era, although it is impossible to say which one. She dresses in a manner that announces she is different from other, lesser folks who are constrained by their times. She--an embodiment of the monarchy--is as timeless as a rock.

Dowdiness is defined by its relationship to time. A dowdy dresser is one who fails to move forward, who clings to dirndls when everyone else long ago moved on to pencil skirts and trousers.

One is reminded of this by the queen's dress gloves, by the hats that sit atop her head with such stubborn formality. The silver hair has been painstakingly sculpted into a complex cross between an Aqua Net bouffant and a barrister's powdered wig. Utterly divorced from the here and now, her coiffure is eloquently arcane.

Her bosom--not a bust or a chest, mind you--is always neatly swaddled in fabric or jewels. She has favored pearls during much of the Jubilee celebration. And such modesty is what one would expect for a woman of her years. But one can imagine her old-fashioned explanation for this conservative cover-up: "Gracious, dear, one must keep the chill out."

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