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May 16,2022 Lisa Armstrong, The Telegraph's Fashion Editor, wears Suzannah London to collect her OBE

Lisa Armstrong OBE

What a fashion editor wears to collect an OBE 

I can’t lie. The five months’ run up to receiving my OBE yesterday have been nerve twanging. Have I filled in the forms correctly? Did I submit them in time? Will I remember my passport? And last, but obviously not remotely least – my honour has been awarded for services to fashion, after all – what to wear?

Weirdly, that turned out to be the simplest bit. I felt it had to be British and a designer who knows the ins and outs of dressing someone for a big, formal occasion and understands how to make clothes for women who aren’t model height and don’t want to flash novel patches of skin. A palace visit isn’t the moment for something edgy. On the other hand, I didn’t want anything boring. Print was a no-no – patterns can date quickly and I feel fussy in them. But a plain dress can be unforgiving and show every crease. Definitely nothing too full-skirted. I know from sorrowful experience I can’t carry that Sarah Jessica Parker look off. And absolutely no body-con.

As the requirements increased – a fabric that wouldn’t get destroyed by having something heavy pinned to it – my shortlist of designers shrank. While there are plenty of lovely flowy maxi and midi dresses that might work for today’s glamorous but loosened up wedding guest codes, they didn’t seem quite right for an occasion so formal it involves curtseying. Yes, curtseying. That was a whole new dilemma, because as I discovered, shoes can fall off just when you think you’re home and dry with your curtsey. As for a tight, tight skirt? Only if you like the sound of ripping fabric.

Unsurprisingly, nothing on the catwalks was quite right, without major adaptations. Was there even time? I was starting to know how it must feel to be a mother of the bride (or groom) who wants to look ultra polished but also modern and not stiff.

Then one morning in bed, between Wordle and my newsfeeds, I found the dream dress online at Suzannah London – a pale but vibrant blue (my favourite, and unlikely to clash with the palace decor), in a textured fabric that added interest but wouldn’t read as a pattern. It was a flattering fit and flare shape, with a pretty neckline and bracelet-length sleeves in material that had some natural stretch. This was all too good to be true. I made an appointment, and prepared for disappointment.

I wasn’t. The dress fitted almost perfectly, felt comfortably effortless but had enough structure to not limp out on me. The few alterations needed could easily be done in time. Having dressed the Duchess of Cambridge and Countess of Wessex and plenty of other women for high-powered formal occasions, Suzannah knows the lie of the land, including the minimum hat size permitted for those who like to keep it all as simple as possible. Some bright Manolos and a veiled hairband and I was done. Or almost. I cannot overstress the positive difference a new bra from Rigby and Peller made to the silhouette of this dress. And although the dress is lined, for double indemnity, I wore some Skims to ensure maximum smoothness. I felt good to go – and it had all been quite painless...

Now I just had to dress my 82-year-old mother. You’re allowed one guest and my husband nobly offered his place to my mother, who was thrilled – before immediately asking what on earth she’d wear. This is someone who insists she can never find anything she likes and says she just wants to merge into the background. This will be a cinch. I’m a fashion editor, I reminded her, emanating a confidence I didn’t feel. But amazingly, after a tour of the Bond Street Fenwick, we found the ideal dress in LK Bennett that didn’t need any alterations. She wore it with a navy Max Mara coat she already had, and a small pillbox, also from LK Bennett, and I think she looks absolutely wonderful in it all.


And so the day dawned, more or less bright. With every single piece of paper the palace had issued stuffed into my handbag, we set off uncharacteristically early. It’s lucky we did. This is the first investiture to take place at the palace since just before the pandemic in 2020 and there’s a backlog of gongs waiting to be handed out. All the roads to Buckingham Palace were closed but luckily we had been given a special pass so that our taxi driver could get access to the Mall.

Once inside the gates, there’s a palace official every few feet to tell you firmly but extremely politely to put your phone away, and then guide you to your requisite place. Like well dressed gauchos (many of them in shiny military uniforms), they seamlessly herd guests into the correct positions at precisely the right moment. Given that there were 75 decorations handed out on Wednesday and that each recipient is allowed a plus one, that’s a lot of choreography.

Next up from the quartet: All that Jazz, followed by Bob Dylan and Purcell. It’s that kind of eclectic day. Mingling in the state rooms before being invited in small groups to receive our gongs, I saw Natasha Baker, the Paralympic dressage rider; Julius Wolff-Ingham, head of fundraising at the Salvation Army; Milly Kendal, who was being awarded an OBE for services to the hair and beauty industry; and the actress Ruth Wilson (an MBE for services to drama).

And yes, the state rooms are pretty much what you’d expect – gilded and dazzling and festooned with hundreds of important Old Masters including several Canalettos. Yes, we spied a three-bar electric heater in one of the grand fireplaces. But there were no fraying carpets or visible mice à la The Crown. And – nice touch – there was Elnett hairspray in the ladies’ loo. (No equivalent in the men’s, I was reliably informed.)

While perched on gilt chairs we chatted to our neighbours. On a sartorial note, there was lots of bright colour, some polka dots and a very pretty floral dress from Me+Em. Ruth Wilson wore a white Erdem coat dress and Kate French, the Olympic pentathlete, wore a (different) blue dress from Suzannah with a big bow at the back. Most of the men were in lounge suits although some chose to wear tails. Yet another military official, this time wearing, as you do, spurs, talked and walked us through the next steps, deploying fellow members of the palace team to demonstrate. For something so intimidatingly formal, there’s a disarming note of playfulness that puts everyone at ease. Sort of. I think it was at this point we were told we were getting Princess Anne – to, I think, everyone’s delight. We were informed that we’d each get around a minute with the Princess Royal, were allowed to ask questions and that we’d know when the conversation was over.

At which point a million thought bubbles appeared above everyone’s heads: what if we don’t?

You’d think walking over to someone to have a badge pinned on you would be relatively stress-free. But when you consider all the variables, there’s huge potential for things to go pear-shaped, hence hot and cold running staff every step of the way, including the palace staffer who places a special, non-fabric-ruining clip onto your precious dress ready for the medal to be hooked on. We were told that curtseying was optional – Mel B, who attended the morning investitures with Prince William, would have been OK in her Victoria Beckham body con dress – but a bob of the head was expected and that we’d have to walk away backwards after being presented.

And before you know it, your guest is led into the room where it happens and parked in their spot while you’re missile guided in front of Princess Anne, who had clearly done her research on each guest and asked thoughtful questions. I told the princess how much we enjoyed writing about her style at The Telegraph, at which point she laughed, pointed at her plain navy, military uniform – which looked a bit like that of a bobby on the beat – and gave me one of those wry Princess Anne looks. It seemed a good moment for the 60 seconds to be up.

Really the hardest part of the past five months was the walking backwards. Even then, there’s someone to make sure you don’t make a complete twit of yourself. Then they unhook your cross and ribbon (a gorgeous coral colour), attach it to a proper pin and present it to you in a box embossed with the letters OBE. 


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Photo credits: Geoff Pugh for The Telegraph




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