How do you convey royalty without overshadowing the most royal?
There is a moment in the first season of The Crown when actor Tobias Menzies, playing the perennially tetchy consort of Queen Elizabeth II, bristles at the constraints of his job. With a case of lockjaw severe enough to cause concern for his molars, Menzies portrays the Duke of Edinburgh (whom the queen would not make a prince until five years after she succeeded to the throne) as an arch complainer, a man who views the 20th-century monarchy as little more than “a coat of paint” on a crumbling Empire.
“If the costumes are grand enough, if the tiaras sparkle enough, if the titles are preposterous enough, if the mythologies are incomprehensible enough, then all must be fine,” says Menzies, playing the man who would become Prince Philip. And, as it turns out, the script got it mostly right. Prince Philip, who died Friday at age 99, may have been wrapped in a cloak of dramatic hooey to become a character in the hit Netflix series. But the role, as written, is rooted in established fact.
Headstrong by reputation, opinionated, notoriously brusque (and often, in public, misogynistic and racist), Philip was also in important ways the model of a company man. By the time he stepped down from his official royal duties in August 2017, he had spent seven decades obediently working for The Firm, a term for the royal family credited to the Queen’s father, King George VI. Fulfilling the requirements of a job for which there is no precise standard, unless you consider second fiddle a job description, the prince slogged through a staggering 22,219 solo public engagements over his long lifetime. In doing so, he navigated the most challenging of corporate dress codes for more than 65 years.
The brief was clear from the outset: The queen’s consort should be impeccable yet unassuming, irreproachable in style without drawing your eye away from one of the richest, and certainly the most famous, woman on Earth. If the clothes Queen Elizabeth II wore in public were engineered to meet programmatic requirements — bright colours and lofty hats to make this diminutive human easy to spot; symbolically freighted jewellery (the Japanese pearl choker, the Burmese ruby tiara, the Obama brooch!); symbols and metaphors embroidered onto her gowns — those of Philip were tailored to keep him faultlessly inconspicuous.
As a clotheshorse, he had certain natural advantages, of course.
“He was staggeringly good-looking, tall and athletic,” said Nick Sullivan, creative director of Esquire. “That never does any harm when it comes to wearing clothes.”
Beyond that, though, were a series of confident and knowing choices. For decades, the prince’s suits were made for him by John Kent, a Savile Row artisan who began his tailoring apprenticeship at 15. The prince’s shirts came from Stephens Brothers, and his bespoke shoes came from century-and-a-half-old bootmaker John Lobb. In the neatly folded white handkerchief Philip habitually squared off in his breast pocket (another was kept in his trousers) could be seen a telling contrast with the dandyish puff of silk favoured by his eldest son.
Unlike other members of the royal family whose tastes run to costly baubles and fine Swiss timepieces, Philip habitually wore “a plain watch with a brown leather strap,” as The Independent once reported, and a copper bracelet intended to ease arthritis. He left his large hands free of jewellery and roughly manicured.
If he looked best in sporting clothes, it was because he was a true sportsman, captain of both the cricket and hockey teams at boarding school in Scotland, a polo player well past his 40s, and an active participant in international coaching competitions until late in life.
He was also the only member of The Firm’s inner circle before Meghan Markle to have been foreign-born. This, too, may have given him a style advantage since it is often true that outsiders can bring a fresh eye to staid sartorial conventions, both enlivening and improving them. (It took the Japanese to explain denim to Americans and the Neapolitans to demonstrate for the English how to perfect English style.)
Search online and you will not find an image of Philip committing a style solecism. There is never a novelty tie or a funny hat. For that matter, and except on obligatory state occasions, there is little enough of the comic operetta regalia beloved of Philip’s uncle, Louis Mountbatten, the First Earl Mountbatten of Burma — no braiding, no frogging, no sashes or fringed and gilded epaulets.
The paradox of Philip’s life may have been that he, as the husband of a queen and father of a future king, was essential to power although insignificant to its workings. And he often jokingly disparaged himself as the “world’s most experienced plaque unveiler.” Yet it was probably in that role that he did his best work for the family business, since a glimpse of this elegant and diffident man was the closest most Britons would ever come to royalty’s attenuated realities and burnished grandeur. In that sense, Philip was never “dressed,” in any conventional manner, so much as he was outfitted for purpose.
Written by: Guy Trebay
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES
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