I first came across Jenna’s @megandcath Instagram account a few months ago and was completely taken aback by how thoroughly in depth her fashion reviews were. Let’s face it, there are a lot of Duchess fashion accounts out there! But this one was much different. She has a creative approach to reviewing diplomatic fashion but also an easy going spirit that reflects the funness that is found in dressing up. Whether she’s doing a deep dive in her InstaStories on how Kate Middleton’s wedding gown changed her opinion of wedding dresses forever or creating tiara styling challenges with her followers, her content is unique and specific to her voice. So I was thrilled when she agreed to write a blog post for Your Royal Closet on sartotiral fashion – a specialty of hers. I hope you enjoy this post as much as I do and, please, go follow this star on @megandcath.
An Informal Introduction to Sartorial Diplomacy by Jenna @megandcath
Have you heard the phrase “sartorial diplomacy” before? If you’re a royal watcher, the answer is most likely yes. Put most simply, it’s the practice of using clothing to send a message, often a political one. We typically see royals and other women in the public eye utilize this form of communication on prominent occasions, such as official tours and international events. However, for women whose wardrobes are so closely scrutinized, even a casual, everyday occasion offers an opportunity to tell a story through clothing.
Sartorial diplomacy is nothing new – the practice goes back centuries. It can be adopted by people of all genders, ages, and stations, but is particularly useful to royal women, who are some of the most closely watched and photographed in the world. At the same time, they are also incredibly guarded, and very limited in what they are able to say due to traditional ideas about what is appropriate for royalty. With all of these factors at play, royal women have always used their clothing as a form of expression. In the sixteenth century, Queen Elizabeth I used her extravagant gowns and jewelry to assert her dominance as a female ruler. During a crucial state visit just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Queen Mother, then known as Queen Elizabeth, charmed the people of France while remaining in mourning for her recently-deceased mother thanks to Norman Hartnell’s stunning White Wardrobe.
There is an entire online course on the History of Royal Fashion, which you can join for free to learn about sartorial diplomacy and so much more! Here, we’ll cover just a few basic Dos and Don’ts for diplomatic dressing, referencing some familiar looks along the way.
1. DO choose the right designer.
When Miss Catherine Middleton was faced with selecting a gown for the biggest royal wedding in decades, she turned to Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen. McQueen was a perfect choice for the bride of the heir to the throne – a quintessentially British designer, but a modern one at that.
Six years later, the Duchess of Cambridge proved the power of the right designer once again during an official visit to Paris. Echoing shades of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s trip so many years before, this one came at a time when the relationship between the UK and France wasn’t on its strongest footing (Brexit negotiations were ongoing at the time). On this occasion, Kate didn’t just wear Chanel, she went all-out, going for one of the house’s iconic tweed skirt suits and possibly the chicest handbag she’s carried to date. Like most royals, the duchess typically shies away from logos, but here she sported two: one on a slim black belt and another on that fabulous bag. Kate topped off her look with Cartier jewelry, gaining extra points for yet another iconic French brand. C’est magnifique!
2. DO say it with color.
This is a simple technique, but it speaks volumes. The Queen herself is a master of the color wheel, and has made a signature look of her brightly-hued coordinating hats and coats. But her choices are rarely arbitrary – just take her historic 2011 state visit to Ireland. It was the first visit to the country by a reigning monarch of Britain in exactly 100 years, and with so much tragedy in the ensuing century, the stakes were high. Beginning with the moment she stepped off the plane in bright emerald green, the Queen’s visit was marked by peacemaking efforts, and was well-received by many (though not all) people in Ireland.
Similarly, in 2019 the Duchess of Sussex took a cue from her grandmother-in-law when selecting her look for her arrival on an official international visit. For a late evening touchdown in Morocco, Meghan chose a simple but formal red dress by Valentino, a nod to the country’s flag. While matching one’s outfit to a host country’s national color might seem basic, it’s a surefire way to start a trip off on the right foot!
3. DO know your symbols.
Ah, summer 2011 – what a time to be alive. All eyes were on the newlywed Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as they embarked on their very first international visit as a married couple, to Canada and the United States. Wardrobe planning must have been a daunting task for Kate, as the tour was eleven days long and included many outfit changes. For one of the tour’s flagship appearances, Canada Day, she pulled out all the stops and turned to a tried-and-true combination of sartorial tactics. Not only did Kate dress in the colors of Canada’s flag, she also sported several examples of the country’s national symbol, the maple leaf. Decorative leafs adorned her custom Lock & Co. hat, and the white dress first seen in her engagement pictures got a little extra sparkle thanks to the famous Maple Leaf Brooch, on loan from Her Majesty herself. This outfit was A Lot of Look, and probably not something we’d seen on Kate today. But the addition of a symbol, and even more than one, is an extra-thoughtful way to express goodwill and excitement about visiting a new place!
Unsurprisingly, the actual Queen is also the queen of including symbols in clothing. On her aforementioned 2011 state visit to Ireland, Her Majesty went all-out for a black tie reception. She wore one of her signature white evening gowns, made extra-special by its embellishment with 2,091 tiny embroidered shamrocks. Never one to shy away from a brooch, the Queen added another national symbol in the form of a custom-made crystal harp, and topped things off with the Girls of Great Britain and Ireland tiara. This look was a master class, indeed.
4. DO go for a thoughtful rewear.
There was so much excitement surrounding the #SussexRoyalTour of September of 2019, which saw Harry, Meghan, and Archie spending time in several countries in Africa. During those ten days, we saw a string of quiet fashion wins from Meghan – sustainable, affordable shirtdresses were the order of the day, as local businesses and charitable organizations took center stage! At the end of the tour, the duchess chose a beautiful blush pink trench dress for a meeting with Graça Machel, the widow of legendary civil rights leader and President of South Africa Nelson Mandela. Royal style lovers were happy to see this House of Nonie piece make a reappearance, but the rewear for this particular event had some extra added significance: Meghan first wore the dress in July 2018 when visiting an exhibit at London’s Southbank Centre in honor of the 100th anniversary of Mandela’s birth. This made it an especially thoughtful wardrobe choice to meet with Ms. Machel. Understandably, when royal women rewear an item – even as small as a piece of jewelry! – we are bound to see photos of the other times it’s been worn. The royals are no doubt cognizant of this, and it’s likely a factor in choosing when and where to repeat.
Kate recently opted for this strategy as well, when she joined with William to record a video message for Australia’s first Thank a First Responder Day. Many of us were excited to see the duchess bring back the bright yellow Roksanda Ilincic dress she’d first worn upon arriving in Australia for the Cambrides’ 2014 trip (and repeated once before at Wimbledon 2016). Kate’s wearing this dress again was a sweet reminder of the visit, hopefully one we’ll see repeated sometime in the future.
5. DON’T be afraid to enjoy a gift.
The Queen’s fondness for brooches is well-known, and this is nothing new. Even as Princess Elizabeth, she regularly sported these accessories, and was gifted them on important occasions. Beginning with her coronation world tour in 1953, many nations of the Commonwealth, organizations, and private individuals have given the queen brooches over the years – in fact, it’s become somewhat of a tradition! Ever the sartorial master, Her Majesty typically pulls these back out on relevant occasions, such as state visits, official portraits, and audiences at Buckingham Palace. One of her most-loved gifts is the Australian Wattle Brooch, a gift from the people of Australia in 1954. The Queen has worn it on multiple Australia-related (and other) events over the past six decades, including her visit to Australia in 2011. It’s always a nice nod to that very first trip, and a mark of respect and fondness that she wears it with such regularity after so many years.
Royal gifts are a lot less frequent these days, and there is a lot less publicity when they are made. The practice was still hanging on in 1981 though, when Lady Diana Spencer married Prince Charles. Diana received many wedding gifts, a large number of which were jewelry. Perhaps one of the most extravagant was an entire sapphire and diamond jewelry suite, given to the princess by the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. The suite included a necklace, earrings, ring, bracelet, and watch, and was made by Asprey jewelers. If her selection of engagement ring is any hint, it seems that sapphires were one of Diana’s favorite gems, and she wore the pieces of this set countless times over the years, even having some of the jewels reset and combined with others. There aren’t many close-up pictures of Diana during her trip to Saudi Arabia in 1986, so it is tough to say definitively whether she wore the jewels while there. Regardless, by wearing the pieces of the suite so regularly and at so many important occasions over the years, she showed her genuine appreciation for the gift.
6. DON’T fail to do your research.
There was a collective wince across the royal style community in late January, when Kate stepped out for an event at a children’s hospital in a tweed skirt suit by Dolce & Gabbanna. It wasn’t the first time she’d worn the label – or the suit, having debuted it in February 2019. Still, wearing D&G is considered a bit of a questionable move in the fashion world right now, due to the brand’s many controversies in recent years. With head designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana having a history of making discriminatory, racist, and homophobic comments, it’s become less common to see their designs on red carpets or in the pages of magazines. The house has been working on rehabbing its image, but some in the industry feel the efforts are half hearted. Though several celebrities have returned to wearing D&G, and others never really stopped, it was surprising to see Kate as one of them. For someone who is usually so careful with choosing her clothes to send a diplomatic message, it seemed out of character for her.
Politics aside, First Lady of the United States Melania Trump does not have a great track record when it comes to sensitive sartorial choices. In October 2018, there was widespread outcry when she visited Kenya and chose a white pith helmet as an accessory while taking a safari tour. The pith helmet has a long history as a symbol of the brutal colonialism to which the African continent was subjected in the nineteenth century. “I wish people would focus on what I do, not what I wear,” the First Lady has said. Unfortunately for women in the public eye, this is not an option – while it is sexist that women’s clothing is scrutinized in a way that men’s clothing is not, this also gives women a unique power to send messages with what they wear. Speaking of which…
7. DON’T limit yourself!
Arguably the best fashion moment of the Cambridges’ 2019 Pakistan tour actually didn’t involve Kate (though her looks on that tour were fabulous). The one that might have drawn the most attention was Prince William’s stepping out in a traditional sherwani tunic, matching trousers, and velvet loafers for a black-tie evening reception. As an added touch, his outfit, like Kate’s, was in dark green, Pakistan’s national color. It’s incredibly unusual to see royal men make such a bold local fashion statement, as they typically stick with the suit-and-tie look. But people absolutely loved it. Will’s adventurous move won him high praise from the designer of the look himself, Nauman Arfeen. Hopefully we’ll see more unexpected style choices and local designers on Will, as well as other royal men, during future international visits.