Even the most confident dressers can be thrown off course by a special occasion, especially if it’s the kind they haven’t been to recently, if ever. The good news is that Britain has a small army of designers both well known (Erdem, Emilia Wickstead and, increasingly, Suzannah, London) and relatively under-the-radar, who excel at occasion wear and know the rules better than anyone.
Suzannah for instance, combines a fashion eye with encyclopaedic knowledge of the various dress codes that still permeate events like Royal Ascot. She’s well-known for calming confused mothers-of-the-groom and gently advising mothers-of-the-bride who don’t want to look mother-of-the-bride (when did this become such a maligned subject) and generally steer clients around numerous invisible-to-the-novice social landmines.
As well as her own chic, streamlined silhouettes she sells millinery by the likes of Jane Taylor so you can get the head-to-ankle look (you’ll need to go elsewhere for shoes, but her sales staff can advise you, and they’re not so lofty that they won’t tell you when Zara has some great heels in). If you can’t get to London, she sells online, but when you’re spending this much, nothing beats trying on in-store and getting them to do any necessary alterations.
The names here aren’t exactly cheap, because no compromises have been made on quality. If you’re a perfectionist with a high-street budget, look for secondhand pieces by Emilia Wickstead, Erdem and Roksanda, three stars of London Fashion Week who understand how to dress for a bit of a British do. Or check out Coco Conran (cococonran.com) who makes lovely linen dresses to order (sizes 4-30) in her London studio for the remarkable price of £200.
Any time and money on special clothes is well spent. Case in point; the perfectly fitted Laura Green coat dress Zara Tindall wore at the Coronation. She’s never looked better. As for those white Fiona Clare column dresses the new Queen’s companions wore in the Abbey – they were so understated, flattering (those elongated V necks ) and appropriate for the task in hand, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job.
From the workmanship of Suzannah’s embroideries on the Duchess of Edinburgh’s ivory Coronation gown (overseen by Jenny King) to the silver bullion used on Jess Collett’s whimsical alternative tiara for the Princess of Wales and the “we-have-lift-off” collaboration between Safiyaa, the London-based ready-to-wear label, and Hand & Lock’s embroiderers, who came up with Penny Mordaunt’s uniquely appropriate teal cape dress, the range and breadth of this country’s independent designers is mighty.
If you were looking to order an outfit from Claire Mischevani, perhaps for an upcoming wedding, or for Royal Ascot, you may have found over the past couple of weeks that her website had effectively crashed. Mischevani, who has run her label from a tiny atelier in Shrewsbury for over 20 years, dressed Pippa Matthews and Akshata Murty for the Coronation and was so inundated with interest after that she had to put a “notice” on the front page of her website; “Following the overwhelming success of the outfits… there will be a short delay in the delivery of our orders.” “The aftermath has been truly unbelievable,” she tells the Telegraph now.
“The congratulations and good wishes from clients, friends, family, press and industry colleagues has been overwhelming. We have seen a huge sales boost with new enquiries coming in on a daily basis and new orders from clients around the world including, USA, Australia, Istanbul, Germany, Spain and Portugal.” Her vintage-tinged feminine silhouettes, and original print designs, make her dresses flattering for all.
Looking for the perfect headpiece to match your carefully selected outfit? London-based milliner Jess Collett knows how to rise to an occasion, via turbans, hairbands and hats, big or small.
Twenty-five years ago the designer secured a loan from The Prince’s Trust to start her business – who could have predicted then that she might create bespoke headbands, in collaboration with Alexander McQueen, for the Princess of Wales and Princess Charlotte at his Coronation?
Beyond tiara-esque designs, Collett excels at making bespoke hats that match up both with the colour and pattern of any client’s outfit, but also by considering the right scale and shape of headpiece for the event. If you’re not set on going made-to-measure, and are looking for something special to wear just the one time, it’s worth also checking out the hat hire section of her website.
A stalwart of the social season, weddings and Royal Ascot are Suzannah London’s bread and butter – the likes of the Princess of Wales, India Hicks, Helen Mirren and Emilia Fox know that it’s hard not to look your best in her dresses.
No surprise then, that the Duchess of Edinburgh is one of her most ardent fans. When she attended the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s wedding in a very 2023 cropped top and skirt co-ord, back in 2018, founder Suzannah Crabb was the woman behind it. Ditto the elegant embroidered coat dress she wore for the late Queen’s funeral. Crabb told the Telegraph last year that early photographs of the young Elizabeth II have always played a part in her designs.
The designer’s most high-profile commission to date was the Duchess’s Coronation gown. Deadlines, she says, were tight, with lots of moving parts to coordinate. The occasion also served as an introduction to a new fan, Lady Louise Windsor, 19. Her silk Suzannah dress featured an iris print by French photographer and artist, Rachel Levy. It’s sure to be the first of many.
Laura Green’s pieces are designed with longevity in mind, favouring classic styles with modern tweaks. She knows the flattering power of a full A-line skirt and a bold colour, as proven by Zara Tindall, who wore a cornflower blue dress coat by the brand to the Coronation. The subtle details – white edging around the neckline, split sleeve cuffs, a belt to highlight the curve of the bodice to the flared skirt – gave the piece a personal touch. You can add your own with her pre-order and bespoke services.
All Green’s pieces are handmade, with nothing bulk-made or wasted, which is reflected in the timelessness of the designs. Her best sellers are the ones that will be worn season after season, to a multitude of events. Take the Helena coat, wear it by itself in the spring, over a lighter dress in the summer, and if a warm colour is chosen, with tights and boots in the winter. As Green says, her pieces will be “the perfect plus one for all your upcoming events”.
Milliner Jane Taylor is always busy at this time of year, with Ascot on the horizon and wedding season in full swing, but even more so since the Coronation, when her hats adorned the heads of Pippa Middleton, Akshata Murty, Lady Louise Windsor and Penny Mordaunt. But you don’t need to be a millinery aficionado to commission a piece from her.
“We have lots of hat haters coming in actually,” she says. “Mothers of the bride, mothers of the groom, they need to wear a hat and it just feels a bit alien. We help them find the right shape and we pick colours from their outfits that work well with their skin tone.” The impact is transformative: “We have lots of ladies saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I actually really love hats now.’”
The Halo is Taylor’s hero piece: “It’s like a pillbox but without the crown,” she says. “The Pillbox Halo is perfect for the Royal Ascot dress code.” Also selling well are Taylor’s boaters: “People can wear them in the daytime, on the beach, at weddings… And I think hats with veiling will be quite a big thing at Ascot this year.”
Dressing women for royal engagements is a skill set all of its own, and nobody understands its peculiarities better than Fiona Clare Aldridge. The designer has long been a favourite of the Queen – one of just a handful of couturiers tasked with her wardrobe.
“I don’t like to just do a design and put it on a person, I work very much with the person to find out what’s right for them,” the designer says. It’s an approach that wins her commissions for big life moments: brides, mothers-of-brides and grooms, and once in a blue moon, a coronation.
Aldridge designed the gowns worn by the Queen’s maids of honour, Annabel Elliot and Lady Lansdowne. Both are long-time clients too, and although she had to follow a brief, each dress was crafted with the individual in mind; Lady Lansdowne’s with embroidery across the bodice, Elliot’s with silver thread running down the front and at the cuffs.
It was a high-profile moment for her label – she’s not one for the limelight herself though. “I like to be slightly under the radar,” she admits. “I just feel so proud and honoured that they asked me to do it.”
If anyone understands the need to look good and feel good, without being distracted by your clothes, it is Daniela Karnuts, founder and creative director at Safiyaa. Her quietly elegant designs have been worn by Michelle Obama, the Duchess of Sussex, Gillian Anderson and most recently, Penny Mordaunt for that starring role in King Charles’s Coronation ceremony.
It’s carefully considered details like capes and draping over the shoulders and upper arms, and clever cuts to flatter and enhance the body, which are key to Safiyaa’s appeal. Still, nobody could have predicted the viral social media response to the midi dress she created for Mordaunt. With an elegant square neckline and a caped back, it was a triumph.
“As women, we bear the weight of multiple roles, our clothes need not be one of them,” Karnuts says. “What we wear should accentuate and elevate how we feel and what we project. As a designer, it’s my job to incorporate this spirit. If I can help any woman with that, I know I have succeeded.”