Whatever your opinion about the institution of the monarchy, few could disagree that the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II this morning – simultaneously familiar and novel, grand and intimate – was spectacular to look at. The meticulously choreographed pomp and ritual, juxtaposed with the gestures of a grieving family, remind us not only that it was a monarch and a mother being laid to rest. Together, the public and personal touches, made for a visually arresting spectacle: the coffin, draped in the Royal Standard and carried by members of the Queen’s Guard, the crown resting beside a handwritten card; the hypnotic sway of the procession; the military regalia next to the child-sized suiting and hats of the junior royals.
I have spent much of the last ten days debating whether it is necessary, or even appropriate, to discuss the optics of a funeral. But it should be noted that nothing about the look or feel of the funeral was accidental, the Queen herself was consulted over today’s Order of Service. The planning has been underway for decades. It is swathed in symbolism.
And although there is a sanctity and solemnity to a funeral which can blur the vision of even the sharpest sartorial or social commentator, there is a difference between passing judgement on the cut of a dress or modishness of a hat and being genuinely interested in the aesthetic, artifice and architecture of an historic event. And funerals, more poignantly and viscerally than weddings even, provide striking visual moments, whether that is the two young Princes behind their mother’s coffin or Jackie Kennedy in her veil. And from mourning spawns great art: Mozart’s Requiem, various episodes of the Sopranos.
And mourning is a kind of art, a performance. That is not to say it is fake but that it is public. Grief, in contrast, is private, messy and intimate. The rituals and routine of mourning help us to try and make sense of it and create order in the chaos.
Clothes are central to mourning, as they were today, from the veiled hats to the jewellery with sentimental meanings. Most significantly, when you are grieving, a funeral gives you a reason to get dressed – even if you don’t want to. That is a gift for the living as much as it is an homage to the dead. Most the funerals you or I have ever and will ever go to, in an anonymous crematorium or beside a humble homemade buffet, will harness the power of aesthetics to pay our respects.
The most obvious way we do that is in the wearing of black. Denim might now be considered de rigueur after dark, hats are no longer considered necessary at weddings, but black remains by and large the colour of mourning in the western world bypassing both social and fashion trends. Not only, I think, because it is solemn but because it is unassuming. Black helps keep the focus, its blank-canvas anonymity encourages an equity between mourners and affords you a freedom.
Nevertheless, getting dressed for a funeral does demand fine diplomacy skills: we must appear to make an effort, without making a statement. Nobody wants to buy an outfit for a funeral, although sometimes we have to. Getting dressed appropriately is a gesture of respect.
Should you ever express personal style? Personally, I think it is ok – I wore towering Prada platforms to my grandmother’s Catholic funeral (Catholics are excellent at funerals, by the way), because she always laughed at my ‘silly shoes’, I wore a floaty cotton dress I’d worn a thousand times before to my brother-in-law’s memorial because he was sustainably minded and unimpressed by anything grandiose. And yet, expressions of personal style must not become the narrative. Meghan Markle met the delicate and diplomatic demands with aplomb today: her caped Stella McCartney dress was very ‘her’ (reminiscent of the cream design she was pictured in when sharing a giggle with the Queen in 2018, the designer she wore to her wedding reception) yet pared-back enough so as not to divert attention. Accessories stripped back. Effort made. It said, like most respectful looks of today everything about the occasion and little about the person wearing it.