Stately Style: Prince Philip

Duke of Edinburgh wearing a grey suit
Image credit: Allan Warren / CC BY-SA 3.0

In matters of style, there appear to be two distinct branches of the British Royal Family. On the one side are the renowned clotheshorses, those revered style icons whose sartorial influence reverberates through the generations. In this stream are the likes of Princess Diana, Prince Charles, and Edward VIII (who became the Duke of Windsor after abdicating the throne). Then on the other side you’ll find those royals who, while always appropriately dressed and irreproachably presentable, don’t seem all that interested in clothing. In this vein I would place King George VI (who seems that way perhaps only in contrast to his famously foppish brother), Princes William and Harry (whose respective dress senses similarly suffer by comparison to those of their stylish spouses), and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Her Majesty The Queen’s late consort.

Or, rather, I used to think Prince Philip fit in the latter category. I’m not sure what it was that gave this impression. It may have been his rugged reputation as a former Royal Navy Commander and an avid sportsman. Perhaps it was a general air he projected of not seeming bothered by matters as trivial as attire. Or maybe I was just too busy admiring the fine suits worn by his son to notice the wardrobe choices of the Royal Family’s paterfamilias.

I was recently disabused of this impression, however, by the flood of media coverage following the Duke of Edinburgh’s passing last year. Nearly every article dedicated to the subject showed a man who always seemed to dress impeccably well. What’s more, I soon realised that the assumptions I had formerly made about the Duke’s dress sense may well have been precisely what informed his pitch-perfect apparel. A military man would of course take pride in his appearance; a lover of games like polo and cricket might only naturally conduct themselves with a sense of élan. And, as any menswear expert will tell you, a healthy sense of the importance of dressing well is rarely a frivolous business.

In fact, Prince Philip seemed to understand intimately the importance of being appropriately dressed since doing so was an essential part of the odd balancing act entailed in his role as the Queen’s husband. To paraphrase the title of a New York Times article published last year on the subject, Prince Philip essentially spent most of his life navigating the most challenging corporate dress code imaginable: 

‘As the Queen’s consort, his clothes had to be impeccable, but nearly invisible. Faultless, without attracting attention. In the seven decades that he stood, literally and metaphorically, in his wife’s shadow, his wardrobe was always beyond reproach, but very rarely eye-catching.’

While it makes sense for the Queen’s public raiments to deliberately draw attention — she is, after all, the person everyone is looking to see in any given context — Prince Philip was always tailored to complement and quietly deflect that same attention. So while the Queen is usually decorated in colourful fabrics and arresting accessories, Prince Philip always tended towards muted tones and simple ensembles. As a consequence, whether it be his naval uniform, black-tie attire, country tweeds, or sporty equestrian garb, the Duke’s wardrobe was always impeccably inconspicuous.

Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II in formal attire
Image c redit: BiblioArchives / CC BY 2.0

Lest it seem as though Prince Philip was merely a royal mannequin dressed up to suit the occasion, however, it is worth pointing out that despite his dutiful adherence to custom and occasion, the Duke of Edinburgh nevertheless exhibited a distinct sense of personality in his sartorial choices. He, for instance, seemingly always favoured jetted pockets on his jackets rather than flapped versions even in very casual contexts — an appropriately unfussy choice for a man famed for his no-nonsense approach to life. The same goes for his pocket handkerchiefs, which tended to be plain, white, and folded in a simple square (in contrast to the more foppish, colourful puffs of fabric favoured by Prince Charles).

He would even occasionally break the ‘rules’, albeit with characteristic restraint, as evinced by perhaps the most famous photograph exhibiting the Duke’s dress-sense. In the photo, Prince Philip stands casually on the back of a first-generation Range Rover while watching the Royal Windsor Horse Show in 1974. He is wearing a white shirt and club tie with trousers and a jacket whose brown shades match so neatly that they might be mistaken for a suit at a glance. The unexpected touch — apart perhaps from a pair of very chic horn-rimmed sunglasses — is his choice of footwear. Rather than the traditional brown and hardier country numbers we see him wearing in a similar photograph taken alongside a young Prince Charles, the Duke here wears a more formal pair of black shoes. It’s not the typical choice, but as worn by Prince Philip it’s hardly possible to imagine it done any other way.

Of course, Prince Philip had many advantages in his favour. As a young man, he was handsome, tall, and well-built. With broad shoulders, a slim waist, and long legs, he was all but tailor made to wear a suit. And, speaking of tailors, he naturally had all of Savile Row at his disposal. Nevertheless, his suits were usually fitted by his long-time tailor John Kent of Kent & Haste (who started as a tailor’s apprentice at the age of 15); his shirts, ties, and pocket squares tended to come from Turnbull & Asser; while his shoes were handmade at John Lobb. Meanwhile his robemaker was Ede & Ravenscroft (London’s oldest tailor, which was established in 1689), his military attire was made by Davies & Son, his naval dress handled by Gieves & Hawkes, and Edinburgh’s Kinloch Anderson tended to supply his kilts.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in a suit 1954
Image credit: Archives New Zealand / CC BY-SA 2.0

While all of this sounds about as lavish as one might expect from a man of his station, it’s also worth pointing out that Prince Philip had a reputation for frugality when it came to thinking about his wardrobe. He would habitually wear a garment until it was worn in the cuff or the collar and preferred just a plain watch on a simple brown strap. It gave his wardrobe a lived-in quality that generations of British-inspired dressers have tried to imitate. He was, in short, as Mansel Fletcher put it, ‘a great example of a man wearing his clothes, rather than vice versa’.

Prince Philip’s thoughtful and restrained approach to dressing — despite his best efforts, perhaps — did not go unnoticed. In 2016, a the age of 94, GQ named him one of the ‘50 Best-Dressed Men in Britain’. Last year, the same publication called him ‘quietly the best-dressed royal of his time’. He was indeed a paragon of classic British style and perhaps (despite his sometimes prickly public persona) one of the most considerate dressers of all time. Given his 73-year tenure as being outfitted primarily in relation to the Queen, it might seem surprising, therefore, that when offering advice to young people as part of his Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme in the year before his passing, he suggested that we ‘dress for ourselves and not others’. Then again, if anyone would have understood the importance of the same, it would have been him.

However you choose to interpret the clothing advice offered (explicitly or otherwise) by the late Prince Philip, what is entirely clear is that I couldn’t have been more wrong not to count him among the most stylish group of Royals. Then again, given his lifelong duty as a man bent on deflecting all undue attention, my failure to notice him initially now seems all too apropos.

Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip wearing country clothes
Image credit: Harry Sagers / CC0 1.0