The Queen’s sturdy-yet-elegant handbag has become an iconic symbol of her royal style. For decades, it has been a constant and ever-discreet companion of a women who lives her life almost entirely in the public eye — and its contents have been a source of endless speculation.
Even after being made a Dame by Her Majesty, the redoubtable Joan Collins was left with one burning question: “I always want to know what she keeps in the handbag.”
So here, for Joan and every other curious royal fan, we take an in-depth look at the Queen’s most famous accessory, and find out why both the bag and its contents are so significant.
Over 40 years ago – long before the term It-Bag was coined – the Queen found a daytime shape that always works for her, whether she is on an informal walkabout, a state engagement, or enjoying a trip to the races. Made by Launer, it is boxy, with short handles, and comes invariably in black, white or beige. Always carried on the left arm, it is compact enough not to get in the way when she shakes hands, but big enough to hold everything she needs.
The Queen’s sturdy yet elegant handbag has been at her side for decades now, becoming an iconic symbol of her royal style. (Photo from Archives Canada)
Launer owner Gerald Bodmer, whose company was granted a royal warrant for service to Her Majesty back in 1981, tells us: “All bags made for the Queen are bespoke, made of the softest calf leather. The style she has been using most in recent years is the Traviata, a simple shape with short handles and the famous Launer silver twisted rope logo used as a clasp on the front.”
All her handbags are lined with a very lightweight full-grain suede, in such a way that she can easily find objects inside. What objects would those be? We know the Queen doesn’t need to carry a passport, driving licence or keys…
Only Her Majesty knows for sure, but well-informed opinion suggests that along with her reading glasses, other practical must-haves include a handkerchief, mints and a fountain pen – not to forget a portable hook which is used to hang the bag neatly under tables.
Phil Dampier, the author of What’s In The Queen’s Handbag: And Other Royal Secrets, said the Queen carries treats for her much-loved corgis, “sometimes a crossword cut from a newspaper by a servant in case she has time to kill” and “a throwback to her days as a girl guide – a penknife”.
Phil adds that the Queen likes to have a diary and a small camera, which she uses “to take pictures of visiting presidents and other VIPs,”and that she always makes sure she has a pair of binoculars at horse races.
For royal fans wondering if Her Majesty carries a mobile phone, the answer, says Phil, is no. “She doesn’t really use it very often, just when she is driving around Balmoral or Windsor or Sandringham on days off,” he says, adding that anyone wanting to get in touch “knows how to contact her!”
Like most women, the Queen also keeps a small mirror and a lipstick handy. While it hasn’t been confirmed that Her Majesty keeps perfume in her bag, if she does it will be a fragrance by Floris, the longest-reigning British beauty company in royal favour, boasting the warrant since 1820.
Apart from the essentials, it is understood that the Queen keeps a small number of mementos close to her heart when she’s out and about. “One of her most personal and prized possessions in the bag is a small metal make-up case,” that Prince Philip gave her as a wedding gift nearly 70 years ago, says Phil.
She also keeps good-luck charms, including miniature dogs, horses, saddles and brass horsewhips, which were mostly gifts from her children, and a handful of family photographs.
“She would feel lost without it,” Phil says. “It’s her most valued possession and a valuable tool. The Queen would never go anywhere without her handbag. The only time she might not have it by her side is when she is in a completely relaxed environment, like up at Balmoral.”
It has, indeed, often been described as her “comfort blanket.” Not only does it contain personal possessions and practical items, it plays a key role in helping its owner manage her public life.
It is a key mode of communication, used to send out coded signals to staff and guests at lunches and other events. When the Queen places her bag on the table it means she wishes to take her leave in around five minutes, while putting it on the floor tells aides to speak to a guest or move them along the table.
On walkabouts, Her Majesty may choose to “drop the bag to one side in a certain manner, telling her staff it’s time for her to move on”. A lady-in-waiting will then join the conversation, allowing the monarch to slip away without causing offence. The monarch, who meets thousands of people each year in the course of her work, may also use the solid, square bag to gain personal space when someone gets a little too close.
How many handbags does the Queen own? About 300, says Phil. And it’s her trusted designer and dresser, Angela Kelly, who is charged with looking after them. That is no small responsibility.