Kate Middleton, Princess Diana and Queen Elizabeth II have all been recognized for their impressive fashion sense. But royal women have to work within a royal dress code that prevents them from dressing — or expects them to dress — in a certain way. The royal men have a dress code as well. Some royals are rebellious in their fashion choices, while others stick strictly to the code.
The royal dress code spans from expected to strange, but most of it derives from decades of royal tradition.
Here are 10 rules of the royal dress code.
1. Clutch signals
There is more that meets the eye when it comes to royal clutch use. Ladies are known to use their clutch to give subtle signals to staff — such as a desire to leave an event, or a need to escape an awkward conversation.
Queen Elizabeth would switch her handbag or clutch from one hand to the other to signal that she was ready for a conversation to end.
“It would be very worrying if you were talking to the queen and saw the handbag move from one hand to the other,” royal historian Hugo Vickers told People.
“It would be done very nicely,” Vickers continued. “Someone would come along and say, ‘Sir, the Archbishop of Canterbury would very much like to meet you.’”
Princess Diana was known for using her clutch to hide her cleavage when getting out of the car to avoid having a wardrobe malfunction photographed by any pesky paparazzi.
“We used to laugh when we designed what she called her ‘cleavage bags,’ little satin clutches which she would cover her cleavage with when she stepped out of cars,” British handbag designer Anya Hindmarch told The Telegraph, per Vogue.
2. No bright nail polish
Royal family members are prohibited from painting bright colors on their fingernails. Only natural-looking polish or bare nails are allowed.
“The royal family tends to favour sheer, neutral shades on shorter, squoval-shaped nails,” Sarah Gibson Tuttle, founder and CEO of Olive & June, told Harper’s Bazaar. “It’s a super-classic, clean look that looks timeless and royal appropriate. While we’ve all heard rumours of rules, I know royal nails are always pretty, polished and perfectly manicured.”
Queen Elizabeth was known for favoring Essie’s pale-pink Ballet Slippers shade — which currently costs $10 for a bottle. Elizabeth regularly wore the Essie shade from 1989 on, reports Harper’s Bazaar.
3. Pantyhose are encouraged
Royal women are not required to wear pantyhose, but it was highly encouraged that they do out of respect for the queen. With Queen Camilla recently crowned, this unspoken rule could be updated.
Kate Middleton is rarely seen in public without a pair of nude pantyhose on. Meghan Markle, on the other hand, frequently broke this unspoken rule as a royal. In her engagement photocall with Prince Harry, she is not wearing any pantyhose.
“Meghan did not wear a lot of nude stockings, but then when she and the queen appeared together, she did,” veteran fashion journalist Elizabeth Holmes told Insider. “Kate leans into this stuff much more than Meghan did.”
4. Queen Elizabeth did not like facial hair
Queen Elizabeth made her dislike for facial hair known — but it never stopped Prince Harry from keeping his ginger beard.
The queen felt that beards were appropriate in only a handful of circumstances.
“She doesn’t mind royal men growing beards when they are away in the armed forces or out in the wilds, like Harry was in the Antarctic, but she expects them to be clean shaven when they get home. Royal staff are not supposed to grow beards or mustaches, and she probably thinks it is difficult to enforce that rule when her own grandson has a beard,” reports Vanity Fair.
In regards to Harry’s rebel beard, Elizabeth said she “intensely dislikes facial hair,” and hoped her grandson would remove it “sooner rather than later,” according to The Telegraph.
5. Boys must not wear trousers
There is a reason Prince Louis only wears shorts. At 4 years old, he is not mature enough to wear trousers, according to royal dress code.
“It’s a very English thing to dress a young boy in shorts,” etiquette expert William Hanson told Harper’s Bazaar.
“Trousers are for older boys and men, whereas shorts on young boys is one of those silent class markers that we have in England. Although times are (slowly) changing, a pair of trousers on a young boy is considered quite middle class — quite suburban. And no self-respecting aristo or royal would want to be considered suburban.”
The tradition goes back generations. Prince Harry, Prince William and King Charles III all donned shorts as young boys.
“The usual custom is that a boy graduates to trousers around 8 years old,” Hanson told Harper’s Bazaar. “This is, historically, perhaps due to the practice of ‘breeching’, which dates back to the 16th century. A newborn boy would be dressed in a gown for their first year or two (these gowns have survived as the modern Christening robe) and then he was ‘breeched’ and wore articles of clothing that more resembled shorts or trousers than dresses.”
6. Women and their elaborate hats
One of the hallmarks of a royal event are the big, elaborate hats worn by women. Queen Elizabeth was known for her impressive hat collection, but it’s not just because it was her preferred accessory — it’s royal tradition.
“Up until the 1950s, ladies were very seldom seen without a hat as it was not considered ‘the thing’ for ladies to show their hair in public,” Diana Mather, a senior tutor for The English Manner etiquette consultancy, told the BBC. “But all that has changed and hats are now reserved for more formal occasions.”
Today, royal women are expected to wear hats during all formal royal occasions, reports Bustle. Hat-wearing is also seen as a status symbol — donning a hat visually expresses that you are part of the elite.
7. Queen Elizabeth liked to stand out
Queen Elizabeth often wore bright-colored clothing — for a reason. She wanted to stand out so people knew her as the queen. “I can’t wear beige because nobody would know who I am,” said Elizabeth, according to her biographer Robert Hardman, per The Telegraph.
In large crowds, bright-colored clothing made it easier for people at the back of a dense crowd to spot her.
“She needs to stand out for people to be able to say ‘I saw the queen,’” daughter-in-law Sophie, Countess of Wessex, explained in the documentary “The Queen at 90.”
“Don’t forget that when she turns up somewhere, the crowds are two, three, four, 10, 15 deep, and someone wants to be able to say they saw a bit of the queen’s hat as she went past.”
8. Always pack a black outfit
When traveling, members of the royal family are expected to pack an all black outfit in case of an unexpected death in the family. This way they can be properly dressed to fit the somber occasion when they arrive back in the U.K., reports Harper’s Bazaar.
This rule was created after the unexpected death of Queen Elizabeth’s father, King George VI. She was rushed home from Kenya and had to wait on the plane in London until someone brought her a change of clothes, according to Bustle. It would have been deemed inappropriate for Elizabeth to emerge in London in a normal dress after the death of the king.
9. Tiara wear is limited
Tiaras are only worn during white-tie events and only married women and members of the royal family are allowed to wear them. Middleton never wore a tiara until she married into the royal family. Same for Markle.
“The old rule is that hats are never worn indoors after 6 p.m., because that is when the ladies changed into evening dress, and tiaras and the family jewels would come out,” etiquette expert Grant Harrold, known as the Royal Butler, told the BBC.
“For married ladies it was a sign of status and would show you were taken and not looking for a husband,” Harrold added. “For the gentleman it was a clear sign not to make advances toward the lady in question.”
10. Gloves stop the spread of germs
Gloves were a standard accessory for royals up until the ’90s. Diana was not a big fan of wearing gloves. Vogue former deputy editor Anna Harvey, claims she once ordered a dozen suede gloves for Diana, but she never wore them. “She wanted flesh to flesh contact,” Harvey said, per Vogue.
In recent decades, gloves have no longer been part of the standard dress code, but Elizabeth wore them throughout her life. Members of the royal family shake hands with hundreds of people each year and gloves help prevent the spread the germs, reports Bustle.