There are any number of striking aspects to Camilla Parker Bowles's fashion sense, but the most startling is that, after more than a decade in the public eye, it does not seem to have changed at all. After so many years of having her looks dissected and ridiculed, Parker Bowles has not been bullied into a makeover. She has abstained from fashion, keeping her sensibly shod feet firmly on the side of unremarkable tweeds, Sunday service hats and silhouettes that are more rectangular than hourglass.
Whatever one might think of her long relationship with Prince Charles, there is something admirable in her extraordinary willpower in leaving her hair and wardrobe alone.
Camilla Parker Bowles in 1998. Despite years of spectacularly personal criticism of her appearance, she seems determined to follow her own counsel on how to present herself.
(Robin Nowacki - AP)
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Parker Bowles and Charles will wed Friday in a ceremony that will not be attended by his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. The exact nature of the relationship between Parker Bowles and Prince Charles -- before, during and immediately after his marriage to Princess Diana -- may never be fully known. The seemingly endless affair has been filled with sordid twists and with what some might regard as morally bankrupt behavior. But there has also been plenty to suggest that everyone involved was the victim of suffocating royal traditions. All of this, of course, has been chronicled in a vast assortment of photographs.
In almost all of them, Parker Bowles looks particularly staid. She chooses suits and dresses that are generally shapeless. Her clothes steer clear of any curves that might be lurking beneath all of that tweed and silk. Staying true to British fashion stereotypes, she wears hats of enormous proportions. Occasionally, the hats make her look quite regal -- if one dares to use such a word to describe her. They call to mind something that might be found in Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe. The queen has been particularly skilled in elevating frumpy stateliness to iconic stature.
The black hat that Parker Bowles wore this year to Westminster Abbey was dignified with its angled brim and matching Christmas-present bow. It was perfectly accessorized with a striking triple strand of black pearls. The hat did not make Parker Bowles look sophisticated or chic, but it did give her an air of grandeur and tradition. Another hat, this one dating back to a photograph from 1998, was a sort of lilac dome that hovered over her cloud of blond hair. The hat appears to have a small swarm of butterflies stuck in its tucks and folds. It is not an attractive hat, but it loudly announces an unwavering adherence to propriety and social rank.
Parker Bowles's hair has not been significantly altered for more than a decade. She maintains a style that combines Farrah Fawcett's 1970s layers with Linda Gray's 1980s angel wings. The color is a rather harsh ash blond that adds little warmth to her face. She is not a "Bergdorf Blonde," a Madison Avenue blonde or a golden girl.
To be fair, it's worth noting that Prince Charles does not have anything close to the elegant style made famous by the Duke of Windsor. But he benefits from the masterful tailoring that comes with a bespoke suit. The suit has endured because it flatters every man -- creating square shoulders where nature has given him sloping ones, creating the illusion of a taut tummy where a life of leisure has led to a protruding one. He, too, looks dignified.
But he is not being compared to a former spouse. Parker Bowles is not so lucky. It is difficult not to consider her in the context of Princess Diana, who famously transformed from a young awkward bride prone to wearing clothes that neither fit nor flattered her figure into a woman who had more than a few sexy Versace ensembles in her wardrobe. Her evolving style reflected her changing sense of self. It reflected a realization that during every outing the public is judging and in most cases, all they have to go on is the packaging.
The public is judging Parker Bowles, too. And if there is anything that her clothing has said over the years, it is that she will not be swayed by public perceptions. Rare is the person who can withstand withering public scrutiny without trying to put a more pleasing gloss on her appearance. But Parker Bowles's appearance over the years has shown a more natural evolution than concerted effort. Instead, she has wrapped herself in a wall of horsy tradition and the kind of conservative frocks that some might call frumpy but that could just as easily be described as aggressively dignified -- unflappable, steely, confident.
In looking at her style over the years, it mostly seems impenetrable. The public thrashing left no visible marks. In the last few years, Parker Bowles looks happier in the photos. But the clothes look pretty much the same. They offer no hints that her sense of herself has shifted. There are no stylistic cues that she has come into her own. She is where she has always been. Parker Bowles hasn't changed, only her circumstances have.