There's no denying that the royals are some of the world's best dressed people, with the Duchess of Cambridge curating the "Kate effect" and now, there's the "Meghan effect" thanks to Meghan Markle. In her new book, Wardrobe Wisdom: How To Dress and Take Care of Your Clothes, author Alicia Healey has shared her wisdom on how to dress like a royal. She previously trained as a Royal Lady's Maid at Buckingham Palace for four years, and has gone on to travel the world to offer an a small insight into the glamorous world of the royals.
In the book, royal fans can learn how to create the perfect wardrobe space, effectively organise your clothing, care for your clothing and accessories, and dress for any occasion. Here, we ask Alicia what she learnt during her time as a Royal Lady's Maid, who she thinks is the best-dressed royal and how to keep your clothes in the perfect condition….
What are your thoughts on Princess Eugenie's wedding outfit?
I really liked both of her wedding outfits - she really impressed on the day, as she can sometimes get a lot of criticism for her quirkier, less traditional style. The Peter Pilotto dress was perfect for her – the neckline framed her face really well and the Greville emerald tiara was a surprise flash of colour. Purposely choosing a low-cut back to expose her scar was a particularly nice touch, too. I was initially surprised that she didn’t wear a veil, but in the end it was probably for the best – I can't imagine the veil surviving the winds of Windsor that day! Eugenie's Zac Posen blush evening gown was stunning – I only wish I could see a picture of the back of the dress because I really liked the touches that the designer added here: a cape detail and embroidered white roses of York. I love symbolism like this in fashion design, which you always see in royal wedding gowns.
What are your secrets for recycling old outfits - what little tweaks make a big difference?
Changing buttons is a really easy way to update a jacket or coat. Adding a gold button to a black blazer, for instance, can really fast-track you to the smarter side of smart/casual. Another thing that is easy for amateur seamstresses is jazzing up knitwear with embellishment. With the festive season approaching, who doesn’t like a bit of glitz to upgrade their jumpers? This could be achieved by adding some pearl or crystal embellishment around the neckline. I have a black sweater from Zara that is trimmed with sewn-on pearls – this would be really easy to re-create yourself on a plain sweater. If you're tired of a certain garment and don’t know your way around a sewing machine, take it to a tailor and see what they can do to re-style or re-model it. Maybe you love the pattern of a dress but want to change the neckline, or add seams to make it more fitted: these are things that a seamstress could easily do. Or maybe you just need to alter the size – standard sizing doesn’t always fit all shapes; you may have a size 10 shoulder and size 12 hip, so this will make it difficult to buy dresses off the peg. Sizing up and then getting a tailor to adjust the garment to fit you is the best way of getting a made-to-measure feel.
Lots of people put off buying a whole heap of maternity clothes until they absolutely must. What are your style tips for taking your regular wardrobe through early pregnancy/post-birth?
Some women avoid maternity clothing altogether because the choice is just not that appealing. Sometimes you can get away with just choosing the right cut of clothing by your regular labels and sizing up; anything tunic style or empire line is always going to be baby-bump friendly. Asymmetric cuts or peplum are also great design features to flatter baby bumps. The burgundy shirt dress from & Other Stories that the Duchess of Sussex wore recently is ideal as it has a built-in waist tie – this kind of design feature is great for early maternity wear – anything with adjustable belts or ties will be wearable for longer as the pregnancy progresses. The one maternity garment most pregnant women do buy is maternity jeans. Topshop have some really good ones – no-one wants to spend too much money on maternity wear if it is only something you wear for a short period of time.
What quality control checks do you ALWAYS do in-store?
I usually check to see how it’s washed – clothes that you wear every day should be easy to care for, otherwise you’ll make endless trips to the dry-cleaners (unless you have the luxury of a Lady’s Maid!). I personally would only buy dry-clean-only garments for special events. I don’t like the feeling of scratchy wool on my skin, so that’s a good one to consider too – you may love the pattern/style of the jumper, but if it’s uncomfortable on then it’s probably going to spend more time in your knitwear drawer than on you. With knitwear, I do prefer natural fibres or garments with a high content of natural fibre.
Do you have any rules on cheap clothing? Is a sale bargain always too good to be true?
I really try to resist any form of sales shopping that hasn't been pre-planned in some way. Impulsively buying something just because it's significantly discounted is usually a bad idea – it's these pieces which tend to be those you’ll find left in your wardrobe with the tag still attached several months (or even years) later. What I do advise doing, and what I do myself, is to create a little wish list of quality pieces that you would really like to purchase if they were a little reduced. In the calm of the non-sale season, try them on and decide whether they’re right for you. When the sales come by, you can then swoop in and pick up the bargain, safe in the knowledge that you’ve already tried and tested them.
Do you stand by any rules in terms of the ratio of skin on show? E.g. bare shoulders means covered knees, etc.
I think this is personal preference, really, but generally a bit of balance usually looks better. Mini dresses with long sleeves and a high neck can look great; sleeveless mini dresses with a deep-V – not so much. Everyone’s covering up these days, though – long sleeves, high necks, midi hem lines – I’ve been waiting for this trend my whole life! It can look very ‘grown up’, ladylike and elegant. There was a time not too long ago when evening dress meant baring your flesh, which isn’t the case anymore – modest fashion has become much more mainstream.
Silhouettes are very important for our outfits and how we look in photographs. What are the common 'imbalances' that people in the public eye are conscious of showing - and how do you counter them? e.g. narrow shoulders with shoulder pads, no waist with nipped in waist.
If you observe the Duchess of Cambridge's fashion, she almost always wears dresses with a belt or a defined waist. Even if it's not there in the original design, she adds one. She's very slender and very tall, so I think she probably realises that this is a style feature that flatters her figure. If you don't have the Duchess’s height or waist, higher curved waistlines or empire lines can be more flattering, as a heavily defined waist will just chop your outfit in two in an unflattering way. I like labels like The Fold as they really know how to flatter the figure with stylish design features e.g. waist panels, folds and and ruching.
Clearly you are an expert on expensive taste. How would you distil all your knowledge down to just a few tips for the average woman?
If you don't have the bank balance of a Duchess but want to emulate a royal wardrobe, it's really important to make rational decisions and to do proper research when purchasing clothing. Try to invest in some quality wardrobe basics – I list some of my key capsule classics in my book; things like a blazer, cashmere crew neck, tailored trousers. Buy the best that you can afford of these classic pieces and you’ll always have a good foundation on which to build the rest of your wardrobe. Handbags and shoes are almost always worth investing in – they stand the test of time more than clothing, and can really give a designer edge to your look, even if you’re just wearing a T-shirt and jeans.
Tell us about the best-dressed member of the royal family?
I really like the style of the Countess of Wessex – she's never predictable and often embraces new trends in a way that suits her figure and age. In the early years after joining the royal family, she definitely was not known for her style, which just goes to show that style can be learned. The Duchess of Cambridge always looks immaculate, but I’d love to see her be a little more adventurous in her choice of outfits and not always resorting to the traditional dress coat, which can be a little ageing. I really liked the Erdem tweed dress Kate wore to the V&A recently and her choice of millinery lately is spot on.
What travel-related fashion emergencies should a lady always be prepared for?
It's useful to always travel with a mini sewing kit for wardrobe malfunctions, e.g. loose buttons, fallen hems – these are really easy to fix, and it’s never a good look to wear something with threads hanging down or missing buttons. The biggest problem I find with travelling wardrobes is creasing – even if you pack like a pro, it's hard to stop clothing such as silk from creasing when packed in a suitcase. I really recommend portable travel steamers – they’re much easier and quicker to use than an iron and will have your frock crease-free and ready to wear in seconds so that you don’t have to fork out for a valet service in hotels.
What about when it comes to packing these outfits?
To minimise creasing in clothing, I use acid-free tissue paper to fold the garments. It's especially useful for protecting delicate beaded dresses and silks. I also really recommend zip bags for smaller items in your suitcase, so that they're easy to unpack on arrival – e.g. underwear, bikinis. Ladies of an older generation often travel with lingerie bags for this reason, but they're quite hard to purchase these days, which is a shame as they really help to keep the suitcase organised. In my suitcase, I use a zip canvas bag which was a freebie on a flight to Jeddah. It does the job just as well!
Let's talk about fashion etiquette, what are your do's and don'ts for a formal occasion?
I like fashion rules, and I like to see dress codes properly adhered to. For formal occasions I think it’s nice to interpret the dress code properly and not go too off-piste – a church service in the presence of the Queen, for example, is not the time to go all avant-garde in the millinery department – leave that for ladies day at Royal Ascot. Dressing up is always a sign of respect to the host, so always consider the type of event, the host and what is appropriate. Dressing up is also an outlet for self-expression – but sometimes occasions call for guests to exercise this expression with a little restraint.
We all know the rule about not upstaging the bride. What other sorts of occasions, in your experience, have you carefully managed what is actually appropriate to dress a client?
Dressing in different cultures can be a minefield. If you’re travelling to the Middle East, for example, you’re expected to adopt modest fashion – covered shoulders and knees and loose-fitting clothing. This can be really hard for some westerners to adopt, particularly as bodycon dresses and leggings have become so popular here, both of which are big no-nos in the Middle East. It’s really important to do proper research before travelling to a culture or climate that you’re not used to – wearing inappropriate clothing will just make you feel uncomfortable, and could even lead to arrest in some countries.
For daily style tips you can follow Alicia on Instagram: @theladysmaid. Wardrobe Wisdom: How to dress and take care of your clothes is out now (National Trust Books)
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