Taking tea with the Queen

What does one wear to a royal garden party? That’s the first question most women ask when that all-important invitation arrives in the post. It’s one of the most exclusive of UK summer events to be invited to attend – no pressure then! You can act as cool as a cucumber but it’s a big deal to be asked to enjoy what for guests will be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Garden parties are an important way for the Queen to meet to people from all walks of life who have had a positive impact in their community, and they are also a way of recognising public service. Around 8,000 people attend each garden party as invitees are allowed to bring their spouse, partner, a friend and any unmarried children.

Taking tea with the Queen

Guest list open to all

Garden parties did exist in Queen Victoria’s time but, despite being held in the afternoon, were called ‘Breakfasts’ and only the nobility and officials were invited. When the Queen came to the throne in 1952, eligible young women were presented at Court, as they had been for years.

In 1958, these presentations were abolished and garden parties were created as a modern replacement. There are three garden parties every year at Buckingham Palace and one at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.

So what is the protocol for dressing for a royal garden party? It’s hard to master the dress code for any summer garden party, let alone a royal one. The same rule of thumb should apply: wear something comfortable and keep it simple but elegant.
Following those guidelines will allow you to relax. It can be a tricky one to get right; arrive overdressed and you won’t be able to shake that feeling of self-awareness; go too casual and you’ll spend the afternoon regretting it.

Protocol says women should wear ‘afternoon dress’ which could mean anything. I’m glad to say that the dress code has relaxed since I attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace as an unmarried daughter many moons ago. Thankfully the gloves etiquette has been dropped.

Get advice about what looks best

Wearing a dress is still women’s most popular choice for a royal garden party. A shift dress with a jacket or wrap – depending on the weather – looks great. Something a bit different and great if you have the figure to carry it off is a stylish jump suit in a block colour with a short jacket.

The most suitable style of dress obviously depends on what shape you are. Shops specialising in special occasions will offer good advice on what looks best. It’s summer so there’s more choice of colourful prints as wells as block colours. Fabrics should be light and airy: silk, linen, cotton mix or lightweight jersey works well. It’s best to do the hand crumple test with the linen as, depending on the quality of the fabric, some linens crease worse than others. You don’t want to look as if you’ve slept in your outfit within minutes of putting it on.

Don’t choose fabrics that are transparent or too revealing. Your outfit will look elegantly finished with a fascinator, hatinator or a hat, and you’ll be glad of a hat if it is a really hot day.

Taking tea with the Queen

Choose comfortable shoes

I know stilettos look fabulous with a lot of outfits but remember they are rather challenging on grass and gravel. Flat shoes or something with a slightly chunky heel is better for navigating the beautiful grounds. Choose your bag wisely: a cross-body style bag – not too big or bulky – or a bag you can comfortably hold on your arm means that your hands are free to hold a cup of tea and a plate of food. The dress code is simpler for the men, who can wear uniforms, morning dress or lounge suits – most men opt for suits.

Don’t forget to be prepared for the weather because royal garden parties are never cancelled, even in torrential rain. Take a smart raincoat and umbrella, as you won’t be allowed in looking like a festivalgoer in a cagoule and wellies!

Enjoy the beautiful grounds

Tea is served in three marquees: a main tent for the public, the diplomatic tent and the Royal tent. Guests queue up for their tea and are free to wander the grounds which, at Buckingham Palace, have a beautiful lake. It’s hard to believe that such a tranquil setting is in the middle of London.

Inside the main marquee is a 400 foot-long buffet table with 110 staff ready to serve tea, cordial, salmon and cucumber sandwiches, scones, strawberry tartlets, mini-Battenberg cakes, fruit and whisky cakes. It’s estimated that a total of 27,000 cups of tea are drank at the three parties.

If you are lucky enough to meet the Queen or other members of the royal family, you will be selected to stand in designated lanes among the crowds for a very brief introduction. So practise your curtsey!