Tuesday, May. 15, 2012

The Stamp of Her Influence

We know that the first Queen Elizabeth oversaw a period in which culture flourished, because Edmund Spenser's poem "The Faerie Queene" is about her — "that greatest Glorious Queene of Faerie lond" — because her birth is mentioned in one of Shakespeare's plays (Henry VIII) and because she was painted by some of the greatest masters of the age. The second Queen Elizabeth has also inspired several classics, perhaps none more indelible than this from the Sex Pistols: "God save the Queen/ She ain't no human being/ There is no future/ in England's dreaming."

If the cultural artifacts inspired by the first Elizabeth seem higher-toned, the second Elizabeth wins hands down on quantity. Her current Majesty is very likely the most portrayed woman on the planet. Billions of stamps, millions of coins and notes and hundreds of thousands of postcards bear her likeness. Her face, especially in profile, is recognized in every English-speaking land and is ubiquitous in several. Hers is not the exotic, come-hither face of a Marilyn or an Angelina. It's the face of distant historic authority, a literal figurehead, having no real power but oodles of symbolic supremacy.

Does ubiquity equal influence? The Queen does not inspire purchases the way Kate Moss or Kate Middleton might. She cannot give the sales of a certain brand of lipstick a fillip by casually dropping its name in conversation. But her complete lack of sex appeal or commercial appeal is actually the Queen's strength, buttressing her rarer and more potent qualities: consistency and longevity. Whatever flavor of the month Kate Middleton may be, it's never going to be as durable as the Queen's regal vanilla.

Officially, Elizabeth II has sat for roughly 200 portraits, by artists from Annie Leibovitz to Lucian Freud to hologram creator Chris Levine. She never gives her opinion on the results — at least not publicly — and seems to regard lending her time to artists as part of her cultural duty. The painters don't get to know their subject, because she can never be a subject. One artist — Justin Mortimer, whose portrayal stirred up controversy because it separated her head from her body — had two two-hour sittings with the Queen, mostly to take Polaroids and make sketches. "She sat very formally, like a Queen, in her chair and was chatting nonstop to her equerry," he recalled afterward. The second session was more relaxed but not intimate. "We even talked. She was funny." Another sitting, for Australian entertainer and painter Rolf Harris, was filmed, but the small talk was tiny.

Of course, the Queen's official portraits, even those by masters like Freud, are nowhere near as culturally relevant as her uncommissioned portrayals. She's vastly more influential as an icon than as a patron. As the apogee of all that is British and institutional and proper, Her Majesty serves as a useful target. Unchanging and unknowable, she is a perfect canvas on which to project the obsessions of the moment. Andy Warhol's silkscreen prints of Elizabeth, part of his "Reigning Queen" series of the mid-'80s, treats her like any other celebrity, frozen in time and bright colors. Earlier, Jamie Reid had rendered her with a safety pin through her nose in the style of a '70s punk.

It was Reid who created the 1977 cover for the Sex Pistols single "God Save the Queen," which has become part of a robust body of work that defaces the Queen's image as shorthand for rebellion or antiestablishment passion. The British TV show Spitting Image, which aired 1984–'96, used puppets to mock the royals, making them look them dim or harried. In the late '90s, another show, The Royle Family, followed the escapades and interactions of a family that mirrored the Windsors in uncanny ways — right down to the fact that both clans lived off the government — except the Royles were broke.

More recently, the mock-the-Queen approach has fallen out of vogue, with such artists as Alison Jackson examining instead the strangeness of the public appetite for intimate or embarrassing details about the royal family. Jackson gets look-alike actors to pose as, say, the Queen sitting on the toilet reading a newspaper and photographs them in paparazzi style. The juxtaposition is uncomfortable, confronting readers with their own voyeurism: in a world full of artifice masquerading as reality, what images of the Western world's most gilded family do we seek out and create?

Perhaps the most interesting evolution of the Queen's cultural impact can be seen in the fashion industry. Her clothing choices, never considered avant-garde or even fashion forward, can be most generously described as safe. Under the risible headline "Elizabethan Look May Capture Fashion World," the Pittsburgh Press in February 1952 praised the Queen's fashion choices and her "dainty waist and slim hips" but noted that Norman Hartnell, one of the couturiers to the Crown, said that "no member of the royal family intends to influence fashion." If that was her aim, it has been one of the Queen's most successful and lasting campaigns.

The point of Her Maj's wardrobe is pretty much to wear what no one else will. She dons bright colors and bold prints so she can be easily spotted in a crowd. This tends to send the royal dresser to a lot of fuchsias, primrose yellows and purples — and so much the better if those colors aren't fashionable. Because she cannot under any circumstances be underdressed, the Queen will often wear matching hat, coat and gloves. For a long time this extreme matchiness was considered the leading edge of frumpiness. But over the years, the Queen's highly coordinated, color-saturated look has begun to appeal to other women, particularly those in positions of prominence without power. Michelle Obama wears similar hues and bright patterns. (Witness the matching yellow dress-and-coat ensembles she wore to her husband's Inauguration and Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies.) Carla Bruni, the First Lady of France, has regularly rocked blouses tied with a bow like those the Queen favors. The trickle-down effect has spilled over onto women who like to be contrary: über-hip British model Agyness Deyn cites the sovereign as her fashion icon. "The Queen dresses all matching," noted Japanese Vogue editor-at-large Anna Dello Russo. "What incredible impact that has. No one else dresses all in pink without looking hilarious, but she does. She pulls it off." Even the Queen's conspicuously dowdy casual wear, with its range of headscarves, wool skirts and knee socks, has been aped; it was the inspiration for Dolce & Gabbana's fall 2008 ready-to-wear line. All this must be very reassuring to a monarch in her twilight years. She doesn't have to change to keep up with the times. If she just stays as she is, the times will circle back to her.

In a new book from TIME, The Royal Family: Britain's Resilient Monarchy Celebrates Elizabeth II's 60-Year Reign, Europe editor Catherine Mayer and colleagues take a look at the Windsors and their legacy. Now available in bookstores, or go to www.time.com/royalsbook to order your copy today.