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What the Coronation says about Fashion
From pantomime cloaks to heraldic craftsmanship, the ceremony dripped with meaning. The Royal family made their fashion statement, and it was mostly good.
In the end, the rain could not dampen the ceremony of this “deeply eccentric affair that so perfectly reflects the weirdness of Britain,” as the singer Nick Cave put it. Last performed over seventy years ago, the coronation this weekend was a dazzling fashion moment, as heraldic craft, unbridled luxury and moments of pure camp took centre stage.
The coronation matters because Charles has views. Unlike his mother, who limited her opinions to race horses and dogs, Charles has been making an issue of the environment and the preservation of craft for decades. It seems unlikely he is going to drop his sense of purpose around these issues now he holds one of the world’s most influential positions.
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Let’s start with the fun: as guests filed into Westminster Abbey it was clear no one had any idea what they should be wearing. One turned up in an off the shoulder floor length emerald evening dress (all the better to show off the enormous emerald she had suspended on the end of her diamond necklace - well I mean if you can’t wear it to a coronation, when the hell can you?), another turned up looking like she had dug some ancient M&S out of her wardrobe. Some wore hats, mostly of the “flying saucer” variety, and too many wore fascinators (who EVER thought these ridiculous pieces of pointless head decor were a good idea?). Those that got fashion points opted for the raised headband - MP Penny Mordant and Princess Beatrice among them.
Penny turned into an unlikely star of the show: as President of the Privy Council, (whatever that is) she was asked to carry ‘the sword of state’. As no ceremonial outfit had even been made for a woman in that role, she commissioned and paid for her own, from the sustainable, woman led brand, Safiyaa. It was in the colour “Poseidon”, a reference to her Portsmouth constituency, and embroidered with a fern motif, which is a nod to the privy council.
The losers were Katy Perry, who looked like the worst of the mother of the brides, Liz Truss, who showed up in orange triggering a shock of PTSD across the nation. The winners were Rishi Sunak’s wife Akshata Muthy, who was the epitome of restrained chic, and the Macrons, who paraded down the Abbey aisle like they were walking for Vuitton. Frankly if you were missing the Met Ball’s red carpet, the Abbey’s gold and blue catwalk was over delivering.
Then came the main actors. Kate and Wills were late (after 6 months of planning!) meaning Charles and Camilla had to hang around waiting. But who cared - Camilla and Kate brought the glamour and it gave us more time to gawp at them both. Camilla’s necklace was a showstopper: designed by Garrard, the jaw-dropping piece features 25 graduated brilliant diamonds and a massive 22.48-carat pendant. It was originally created for Queen Victoria and has since been worn by every queen for every coronation. Normally a piece like that would be so grotesquely over the top it would make the wearer look like Krystle Carrington on crack, but Camilla carried it off magnificently: her bouffant white grey ‘do and Bruce Oldfield embroidered gown conferring a strange sense of purity amongst all the colour. She had the Bruce Oldfield atelier embroider her two rescue corgis on the hem, (my god these Royals and their dogs) and the simple kaftan-esque design brought a touch of bohemia to the look. I loved it. Never has she looked more understated in a ceremony that was all about overstatement. She even managed to carry off the crown.
Kate was the one we were all excited about: would she wear a tiara? Would it be McQueen? Would she rent or upcycle as she has done before? In the end she commissioned a new silver thread work headpiece from milliner Jess Collett (neatly sidestepping any discussion about plundered imperialist tiaras), and worked with the team at Alexander McQueen on a white crepe gown embroidered with roses, thistles, daffodils and shamrocks, representing the four nations of the United Kingdom. She also wore a pair of earrings that used to belong to Diana, which was the only look in the first wife got. Daughter Charlotte got a mini me outfit and stole the entire show. Angelic and poised, she looks like the second coming of the mighty Princess Anne. Watch her space.
As for the panto, well we had to endure Kate and Will’s gopping ceremonial robes, Charles’s shocking purple tunic, (why, when the gold one was so good?) and then parades of ultimately enjoyable military uniforms, from Beefeaters to Bearskins. Anyone else spot the golden curled wigs the carriage horseback riders were wearing under their hats?
Princess Anne provided another unintentionally comedic moment when she topped off her Blues and Royals uniform with a red feather that succeeded in obscuring the view of the poor royal relegated to third row behind her - the self-exiled Prince Harry.
There then ensued a quite Tolkein-esque ceremony where the King was dressed and undressed, and presented with various historic insignia, including The Bracelets of Sincerity and Wisdom, The Rod of Equity and Mercy, The Garments of Salvation, The Ring of Truth and The Globe of Authority. Anna Wintour’s Metropolitan Museum may put on lavish fashion exhibitions designed to jenny up fashion’s role in culture and history, but whatever she did over in New York last week was cuttings on the atelier floor next to this.
Amidst such a display of opulence, the King was keen to stick to his principles. He refused to commission any new robes "in the interests of sustainability and efficiency" Buckingham Palace declared. "We've got this wonderful, sustainable, eco-friendly king who's reusing something rather than having a new glove," said Deborah Moore, the chief executive of glovemaker Dents when they heard the glove they made for his grandfather, George VI, in 1937 was to be re-used.
Charles also wore his Grandfather's 'Colobium Sindonis' - a white linen shift-like tunic, and his sword belt, eschewing the tradition of having a new one made. He wore his Great Grandfather’s 'supertunica', a full-length, sleeved coat of gold silk, which was made for the coronation of King George V, and the Imperial Mantle, made of gold cloth and originally produced for the coronation of George IV in 1821.
The King’s record in sustainability speaks for itself. He turned to organic farming in the 80s, he set up the Business & Sustainability Programme at Cambridge University and the Sustainable Markets Initiative, a program that helps the private sector accelerate into sustainability. He rescued Dumfries House in Scotland by setting up a doundation and uses it as a centre for heritage craft. He couldn’t be clearer about where he thinks the direction of travel should be focussed. He is also always impeccably dressed - dashing, even.
All these historic traditions and pieces, many of which were sustainably recycled for the ceremony, remind us that life isn’t just about ‘sufficiency’. I popped up to Hampstead Ladies pond for an early morning swim on the morning of the coronation, where the conversation is always a rather good temperature check. While some were off to knock up their coronation quiches, many were muttering about food banks and lying in darkened rooms till the ordeal was over. The ceremony is provoking much conversation on what place all this has in our world today.
For my part, I found it fascinating the way the ceremony was entwined with symbolism, meaning and metaphor. We humans may need food and water to survive, but we need story and narrative to thrive. I have never argued in this Substack for the end of fashion. Quite the opposite: I adore it. We just need to find ways to enjoy it without producing quite so much. Just a few things, done exceptionally well, that we can pass down the generations and that can not only tell our story, but enthrall us with their very being.
See you next week,
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