Five Minutes with Royal Fashion Expert Bethan Holt

Words by
Melanie Rickey

19th December 2022

Bethan Holt is the fashion news and features director at The Telegraph, and author of The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style. Her knowing eye for the cultural semaphore behind modern royal style makes her writing both eye-opening and utterly fascinating. Here, we discover the roots of Bethan's Diana obsession, her admiration for the new Princess of Wales, and find the Queen wore high street clothes, Who knew?

My personal style signature is… I’d like to think it’s timeless and chic, but I often can’t resist a more girly or nostalgic element like a big ruffle or a sailor collar to pep it all up a bit.

My interest in royal fashion began when … I was really young and I’d look at my mum’s copies of Hello! magazine. I became fascinated by Princess Diana and her death was a huge moment in my childhood. Later, when I became a fashion journalist, I realised how powerful royal fashion choices are and the interest became professional.

Bethan Holt
photo by Andrew Crowley

I’m convinced Diana is the ultimate fashion icon… I sometimes describe my style as Princess Diana in 1981 meets Princess Diana in 1996, so that blend of pretty-pretty and something more refined. I loved the fun she had with her clothes and how they were such a powerful form of self-expression for her. 

The Queen Crowns Charles Prince of Wales
Wearing Norman Hartnell with a hat by Simone Mirman, the Queen crowns her son Charles as Prince of Wales during the investiture ceremony at Caernarvon Castles in July 1969.

When I joined the Daily Telegraph in 2016, interest in royal style was growing among a new generation… it was the year of Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday and William and Catherine’s story was gripping the world as they had their children and emerged as the new generation of royals. Every day, there seemed to be a new story to write about the royals as fashion influencers.

For me, the story that sums this best up is… the late Queen’s choice of outfit for Trooping the Colour in 2016. At 90, you might have expected her to choose something ‘safe’ or understated but she appeared in a coat and hat which were such a bright shade of green they seemed almost fluorescent; #neonat90 began trending on social media which is such a brilliant demonstration of how this woman from the wartime generation could appeal to a completely new audience through her style.

On the balcony of Buckingham Palace during Trooping the Colour to mark the Queen’s official 90th birthday, 11 June 2016.

When I wrote my first book, The Duchess of Cambridge, a Decade of Modern Royal Style, what most fascinated me was… how this woman was reinterpreting centuries of royal fashion tradition for a completely new era of 24/7 internet news and social media. On the one hand, she was often dressed in a contemporary take on ‘princess’ dressing, like the nautical-themed Alexander McQueen look she wore to a sailing event in Portsmouth or the floral dress by Erdem at the Chelsea Flower Show, but she also relaxed royal dress codes with more relatable style gestures, like her love of LK Bennett heels, skinny jeans and sportswear. It was a really interesting juggle to catalogue.

I learned that… that even ‘boring’ outfits can convey a huge amount of meaning - and that even people who pretend not to be interested in the royals will always have an opinion or want to gossip with you about them!

The Queen in Bermuda
Queen Elizabeth II and Price Philip during their Commonwealth visit to Bermuda, November 1953, when the Queen wore dresses like this one from the high street store Horrockses

Working on The Queen 70 Years of Majestic Style to commemorate the Platinum Jubilee was… a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I had a real sense of imposter syndrome when I was asked to write the book as it would involve delving back into the archives going back years before I was even born. But it was so interesting to track such an amazing style evolution. I’ll always remember the process of writing it as it coincided with the first 12 weeks of my pregnancy so having the writing deadline really got me through the sickness.

The Queen in 1952
The Queen leaving the Royal Film Performance at the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square, 1952 in a a Norman Hartnell, gown nicknamed the ‘magpie’, which went the 50s equivalent of viral.

My favourite discoveries… there were quite a few! There were some brilliant stories from early in the Queen’s reign which I discovered by combing through newspaper archives. We always think the Princess of Wales is a trailblazer for wearing high street, but I found that the Queen was actually a huge fan of a brand called Horrockses in the 1950s. They made beautiful cotton sundresses which she wore on tours and which women could buy to get the look themselves. There was also a stunning evening gown created by Norman Hartnell, Her Majesty’s most-trusted couturier, for a gala in 1952. Nicknamed the ‘magpie’ gown because it was black and white with a tuxedo-like bodice, it went the 50s equivalent of viral, with shops producing copies within days and newspapers issuing patterns so women could sew their own versions at home.

The Queen Riding
The Queen wearing her classic off-duty style staples — jodhpurs, a tweed riding jacket, riding boots and a silk scarf.

Following her death we wanted to reissue the book with… a slightly different tone. I re-wrote the introduction reflecting on the final outfit the Queen was pictured wearing (a kilt and cardigan) and we have changed the book to be in the past tense. I hope it will be a lovely memento for royal fans of a uniquely stylish life.

The Queen by Bethan Holt
The Queen: 70 years of Majestic Style by Bethan Holt has been updated since the death of Her Majesty in September

The last piece of clothing I bought is… a kilt, from a vintage store off Brick Lane. It even has a gold pin - I love it. 

As a fashion journalist, what I’m most interested in now is... I’m feeling a little out of the loop after several months of maternity leave, but I loved seeing Chanel take its Metier d’arts show to Senegal last week. I’m excited to be back at work when the fashion axis is shifting again following Alessandro Michele’s departure from Gucci. It feels like there’s space for a big shake-up moment again.

I’m currently reading ‘French Children Don’t Throw Food’... once I was obsessed by French style, now it’s how they raise their children. 

The beauty staple I never leave home without is… Charlotte Tilbury’s Legendary Brows

The Queen, Birmingham
The Queen attends the Royal Variety Performance at the Birmingham Hippodrome in 1999.

The upcoming project I’m most excited about is… returning to work and maybe writing another book proposal. I can’t wait to get my brain back into gear after maternity leave. 

The next thing on my mind is… finally getting round to organising our wedding.

The Queen: 70 Years of Majestic Style  is available now.