What’s it like to be a member of the British royal family? From the outside, it looks pretty easy: lavish dinners, beautiful gowns, and a staff to cater to your every whim. Who wouldn’t want that? But as it turns out, being a royal comes with its own set of rules and regulations, many of which might seem extreme to us normal people. With so many guidelines to learn, it’s a wonder that Kate and Meghan, who married and are marrying into the British monarchy, were able to pick them up so quickly.
While Princess Diana, Kate Middleton, and now Meghan Markle have done their part to modernize the British royal family, there are still many rules and traditions from before even Queen Elizabeth’s time that continue to this day. That said, each woman (as well as many other members of the royal family) have found little ways to stay true to their style while still following both official and unofficial royal family dress codes.
Some of these rules require plain old common sense to understand (bright, gaudy nail polish is a no-no, and nude pantyhose is required). Others, though, are head scratchers — like why Prince George is only allowed to wear shorts (yes, seriously!).
Keep scrolling to learn more about royal etiquette rules when it comes to the family’s dress code.
Royal family members must wear hats to official functions.
If you've ever seen photos from a royal event and wondered "Why do royals wear hats all the time?" you're not alone. These fashionable, funky, and over-the-top hats are part of the royal dress code and have been for decades — plus, they provide a bit of entertainment for us non-royals. Of all the things we love about the royal family, hats — especially kooky royal wedding hats — are one of our favorites.
"Up until the 1950s, ladies were very seldom seen without a hat, as it was not considered 'the thing' for ladies to show their hair in public," Diana Mather, a senior tutor for The English Manner etiquette consultancy in the UK, told BBC. "But all that has changed, and hats are now reserved for more formal occasions."
Though she's not afraid to wear a little (or a lot!) of color, Queen Elizabeth's hats tend to be of a more conservative style. Kate Middleton, on the other hand, usually takes a fashion risk with her hats and fascinators. We'll have to wait and see what she wears to Meghan Markle's wedding, but we do know that she'll have to don a hat. And considering her track record (whoever selects Kate Middleton's accessories always brings their A-game), her hat just may help her upstage the bride.
Nail polish must never be bright or flashy.
If you're a member of the royal family, nail polish isn't off limits — thought it does have to be within a certain color range. This royal nail polish rule applies to all members of the family, so you'll never see Queen Elizabeth sporting a hot pink or deep red polish, even if she's on vacation. In fact, Queen Elizabeth's nail polish of choice is Ballet Slippers from Essie (a barely-there pink), and has been for almost 30 years! And you can easily copy her manicure at home, because a bottle only costs about $9.
Kate Middleton's nail polish at her wedding was a custom shade made by her manicurist, Marina Sandoval. Sandoval told Daily Mail that she mixed Essie's Allure nail polish with a Bourjois polish called Rose Lounge to create Kate Middleton's wedding nail color.
Prince George can only wear shorts.
Just because he's a child doesn't mean Prince George's dress code is relaxed. One thing you might not have noticed when looking at sweet photos of the young prince (that cherubic smile is adorably distracting!) is that he's only ever photographed wearing shorts. So why does Prince George wear shorts all the time, even when it's cold?
Dressing young boys in shorts is a long-standing British tradition, according to Harper's Bazaar UK. "It's a very English thing to dress a young boy in shorts," etiquette expert William Hanson explained. "Trousers are for older boys and men, whereas shorts on young boys is one of those silent class markers that we have in England. Although times are (slowly) changing, a pair of trousers on a young boy is considered quite middle class — quite suburban. And no self-respecting [aristocrat] or royal would want to be considered suburban. Even the Duchess of Cambridge."
Gloves are a must if you're the queen.
Queen Elizabeth's outfits these days are very predictable: bright suit, matching hat, small purse, and of course, gloves. And the reason why Queen Elizabeth wears gloves is quite simple. In addition to making an outfit look polished and finished, a crisp pair of white gloves protects Queen Elizabeth from dirt and germs she might pick up during a busy day of hand-shaking. She probably has at least two or three pairs of gloves in her handbag, estimates Genevieve James, whose mom, Cornelia, has been Queen Elizabeth's glove maker since 1947.
“When you’re the queen and you’re shaking hands, you don’t really want to show your arms,” James told Reader's Digest. “The glove goes a bit under her [sleeve], so you don’t actually see any arm.”
When casual wear is allowed, there's still a certain dress code.
We'd like to imagine that Prince William and Kate Middleton spend their days off wearing pajamas and sweatpants, but when it comes to the royal family, casual dress must still follow a certain set of guidelines. A smart day dress (with an acceptable hem length, of course) or trousers paired with a jacket or cardigan are acceptable for ladies. Men are expected to wear a blazer with a collared shirt and wrinkle-free chinos.
But what about jeans? Are they off-limits, too? "Many places will not allow jeans, as they are still seen as very casual wear, so it is better to play safe for both sexes," etiquette tutor Diana Mather told the BBC. "But if the duchess is outside walking the dogs, for example, then jeans are fine."
Bright hues are a wardrobe staple for Queen Elizabeth.
If you're the queen, dress codes don't apply to you, right? Wrong! Though this isn't an official rule, Queen Elizabeth's outfits are often neon in hue for a very important reason: to ensure that people can see her in a crowd.
The Queen is a bona fide celebrity (in addition to being sort of like the matriarch of the UK), so wherever she goes, she attracts large crowds. To ensure that people who have waited for hours to catch a glimpse of her — or possibly even shake her hand — can see her, Queen Elizabeth wears her bright-colored outfits so she can easily be spotted.
“She needs to stand out for people to be able to say ‘I saw the queen,’” her daughter-in-law Sophie, Countess of Wessex, explained in the documentary The Queen at 90. “Don’t forget that when she turns up somewhere, the crowds are two, three, four, 10, 15 deep, and someone wants to be able to say they saw a bit of the Queen’s hat as she went past.”
Kate Middleton Pantyhose
Pantyhose are always required.
Kate Middleton likes to show off her legs (and with gams like those, why wouldn't she?), but eagle-eyed readers will be able to spot the sheen of her nude stockings. Queen Elizabeth requires all her guests to wear tights to royal events, according to Harper's Bazaar.
When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle announced their engagement last November, Meghan made headlines for breaking royal protocol by not wearing stockings during the photo call. "You never see a royal without their nude stockings. Meghan, from what I can see from the engagement photographs, it doesn't look like she was wearing tights or stockings," royal expert Victoria Arbiter told INSIDER. "I would say that's really the only hard, steadfast rule in terms of what the Queen requires."
Coats must be kept on at all times.
You will often see Kate Middleton show up to an event in a beautiful coat or coat dress (and not just because it's cold!), but you'll never see her remove it in public. That's because it's apparently considered very unladylike and it would ruin the cohesiveness of her outfit. Who knew?
That said, Kate Middleton's coats are always quite stunning, so even though we won't get a glimpse of the chic dress she most definitely has underneath, her fashionable outerwear is enough sartorial inspiration to last us until her next public appearance.
Tiaras can only be worn by members of the royal family.
It's rare to see members of the royal family wearing tiaras. In fact, they usually only ever do it for white-tie affairs, which are basically the fanciest of the fancy events royal family members will attend, like weddings and state banquets. On top of that, there are rules governing which family members can and cannot wear tiaras.
"Flashy diamonds and tiaras are not worn during the day, and only married ladies wear tiaras," etiquette expert Grant Harrold told the BBC. "For married ladies, it was a sign of status and would show you were taken and not looking for a husband. For the gentleman, it was a clear sign not to make advances toward the lady in question."
Because first-time brides are also allowed to wear tiaras (this is why Kate Middleton wore a tiara for her wedding), it's possible that Queen Elizabeth will give Meghan Markle permission to wear one as well — and she will have many royal tiaras from which to choose.
Royals must have an all-black outfit on hand at all times.
When traveling abroad, all members of the royal family must have an all-black outfit packed away in case there is an unexpected death. Yes, that may sound morbid, but it's true! Why? As it turns out, it might not look proper for a royal to get off a plane wearing normal clothes while he or she is supposed to be in a state of mourning.
This rule has been in effect since 1952 when Queen Elizabeth had to rush home from Kenya after she learned that her father, King George VI, had died. When her plane landed back in the UK, she waited on the runway for a few hours until she was brought a change of clothes. It wasn't considered appropriate for her to appear in her normal, colorful dress right after the sitting king had passed away.
Clutches are considered acceptable accessories at engagements.
Queen Elizabeth always carries her much-loved Launer purses (which she uses to send secret signals to her staff), but Kate Middleton prefers clutches. Why? Because it prevents them from ever having an awkward moment where they don't know what to do with their hands. In some cases, Kate will substitute a clutch with a bouquet of flowers or a pair of gloves.
Princess Diana, who was known as a bit of a rule-breaker, also used her clutches to shield herself from unflattering photos. If you look back at photos of Princess Di emerging from a car, you'll notice she's carefully positioned her clutch over her cleavage, thus preventing the paparazzi from taking any unflattering or overly revealing photos. So smart!