IIt wasn’t often you saw Queen Elizabeth with her hair down. On state occasions, a crown or tiara rested on a perfect headdress. At the Balmoral stables, where she kept her ponies in Wellington boots and Barbour jackets, a patterned scarf was always tied under her chin.

But most often it was a hat.

“You almost can’t see it in isolation. There’s always a brooch, there’s usually pearls, there’s usually white gloves,” said Beatrice Behlen, senior curator of fashion and decorative arts at the Museum of London, in a 2019 phone interview. “And then the matching hat.”

Hats had been part of the Queen’s life since childhood, when she was photographed wearing beanies and berets. She would continue to wear them through adolescence and early adulthood, often coordinating with her younger sister, Princess Margaret, and the Queen Mother.

A baby Elizabeth seated in a carriage wearing an elaborate lace bonnet tied with a bow under her chin and a small lace-trimmed coat.
1928

baby in a cap

The queen was well acquainted with impressive headwear even as a toddler. Here, around 1928, she wears a lace bonnet wavy with diaphanous flounces.

Collection Hulton-Deutsch/Corbis/Getty Images/CNN Illustration

From the outset, his tastes are bold and provocative. Commanding boundary-pushing milliners like Simone Mirman, Freddie Fox and, most recently, Rachel Trevor-Morgan, she embraced unconventional shapes, floral appliqués, feathers and the full color spectrum.

As a princess and during the early days of her reign, Elizabeth was a trailblazer. In February 1944, when she wore “a design based on an officer’s duty cap” to the wedding of Lieutenant (later Captain) Christopher Wake-Walker and Lady Anne Spencer (Princess Diana’s aunt), the The Associated Press reported that the copies sold out quickly. through London; and in 1946, the price of ostriches in South Africa reportedly skyrocketed after she and her mother wore ostrich feathers in their hats to the VE Day parade in London.

Black and white photo of Princess Elizabeth emerging from a stone church doorway as servicemen hold their swords above the princesses in an archway.  Elizabeth wears a peaked hat and a coat with a brooch.
1944

A pair of hairstyled princesses

Leaving the wedding of Lady Anne Spencer and Lieutenant Christopher Wake-Walker in 1944, Elizabeth steps out next to Princess Margaret wearing a peaked hat and an elegant double-breasted coat.

Illustration ANL/Daily Mail/Shutterstock/CNN

When the Queen wasn’t setting trends, she was embracing them, following the fashion for small hats in the 1950s and joining Barbra Streisand and Bianca Jagger in their embrace of the turban in the 1970s.

Queen Elizabeth stands out among a crowd of schoolchildren wearing a bright yellow turban-style hat with a matching polka-dot dress fitted at the waist with a white sash.
1975

Sun in Mexico

In 1975, during a visit to Mexico, the Queen shone in a sunny yellow polka dot turban and matching belted dress.

Serge Lemoine/Hulton Archives/Getty Images/CNN Illustration

“The Queen doesn’t need to be ‘in fashion’; she IS in fashion – and she has inspired her generation to return to elegance, to appreciate quality and to dress appropriately”, Dorothy Shaver, then president of the Lord & Taylor department store chain, told the Los Angeles Times in 1957, ahead of the Queen’s first state visit to America.

In the 1960s, hats were all the rage, due to changing attitudes and trends. But the queen was not discouraged. “When she was growing up, it was perfectly normal to wear hats, so everyone, every woman, would have worn a hat,” Behlen explained. “It becomes a trademark when she continues to wear them when everyone stops.”

As is always the case with women in politics, Elizabeth’s dress was dissected and scrutinized. She often seemed to use this to her advantage, deploying her accessories as vehicles for subtle messages.

In 1946, she wore an oversized beret to meet a group of guides and a “cross between a pillbox and a dazzled ushanka” in Slovakia in 2008, wrote artist and lecturer Oliver Watts in The Conversation. “Although ‘just’ for the occasion, it should also be a kind of joke, a piece of humor to put people at ease with wit and generosity,” he added.

Queen Elizabeth stands among life-size terracotta soldiers followed by Chinese dignitaries.  The Queen wears a sky blue pillbox hat with a sheer veil and a matching sky blue jacket and costume dress with white and blue gingham edges.
1986

Terracotta Army Tour

Dressed in a sky-blue hat and veil, the Queen inspects the 2,000-year-old Terracotta Army during her visit to Xian, China, in 1986.

Illustration Bregg/AP/CNN

We have to assume that a similar motive was behind his decision to wear a blue and yellow hat – matching the colors of the European Union flag – to open the UK Parliament in 2017, just as negotiations on Brexit was beginning. “Is the Queen wearing a European hat?” wondered the BBC and countless other social media speculators. But of course she never said.

Queen Elizabeth sits on a gilded throne in Parliament next to her son Prince Charles, who wears a morning suit.  The Queen wears a royal blue hat with yellow flower detailing and a matching buttoned coat and dress.
2017

Addressing a Nation Divided by Brexit

In 2017, when the House of Parliament opened, the Queen’s lapis blue hat caused a stir. Designed by royal dressmaker Angela Kelly and milliner Stella McLauren, it was quickly interpreted as an anti-Brexit symbol due to its uncanny similarity to the EU flag.

Carl Court/WPA Pool/Getty Images/CNN Illustration

Perhaps the most lasting effect of his hat-wearing is the indelible mark he left on Britain.

During her 70-year reign, she helped make the hat a symbol of high-society sophistication, an appealing anachronism and a beacon of Britishness.

This is particularly remarkable considering that across Europe queens like Letizia of Spain and Máxima of the Netherlands now reserve hats for the most formal occasions.

Queen Elizabeth standing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace surrounded by senior members of the royal family, including Charles, Camilla, Meghan and Harry, who all look at her smiling.  The Queen wears a royal blue and teal coat and a matching hat with black feathers.
2018

The Royal Air Force celebrates 100 years

At the Royal Airforce Centenary in 2018, the Queen stepped out wearing a blue and teal coat with a matching peacock feather hat, designed by Angela Kelly.

Chris Jackson/Getty Images/CNN Illustration

“The patronage of the Royal Family keeps hats alive. Her Majesty The Queen has kept hats alive in the imaginations of people around the world,” milliner Philip Treacy said during a 2018 episode of the BBC’s “Desert Island Discs” radio show.

“If the Royal Family chose not to wear hats – say in the 60s or 70s when some people gave them up – I wouldn’t really be sitting here having this conversation with you because hats are part of the culture. Anglicism and Britishness.”

Queen Elizabeth wears a gray coat embroidered with yellow flowers around the collar, with a matching medium-brimmed gray hat decorated with feathers and yellow flowers.  She is surrounded by men in black top hats and tailcoats.
2019

Royal Ascot

The Queen brought to life an otherwise understated gray outfit with floral and feather detailing – both on her pleated hat and matching jacket.

Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images/CNN Illustration

There are, however, occasions on the British calendar where the wearing of hats remains de rigueur – notably Royal Ascot, a horse racing event in which the Queen was once a guaranteed participant. UK bookmakers have accepted bets on which color she would choose for the annual fixture, with pinks and blues being among the most frequently worn in recent years, according to betting company William Hill.

Although she retired from public life, her mobility clearly diminishing, the Queen took every opportunity to be visible, often pairing brightly colored frock coats with matching hats so that she was a must-have for her subjects.

One of Elizabeth II’s final public appearances, during her Platinum Jubilee celebrations in 2022, seemed to epitomize her approach. The bright green offered a moment of joy for the thousands gathered at Buckingham Palace, but it was tempered by a poignant act of tribute: a black pin attached to her hat in remembrance of her late husband Prince Philip a year ago.

Queen Elizabeth standing on a balcony next to a smiling young Prince George.  The Queen wears an emerald green suit jacket with a matching wide-brimmed hat, a three-row pearl necklace and a diamond brooch.  She leans on a cane which she grasps with a white-gloved hand.
2022

Platinum Jubilee

During her Platinum Jubilee celebrations, the Queen wore a black pin on a bright green hat in honor of her late husband, Prince Philip.

Max Momby/Indigo/Getty Images/CNN Illustration

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