As Prince Charles turns 65 on Nov. 14, odes are being written to his charitable work, critiques of his rejection of modern architecture, and enough “will he ever be king” pieces to sink the royal yacht Britannia. As I mulled over ways to mark his arrival into “senior citizen status,” I found myself re-reading Hans Christian Andersen’s delightful fable The Emperor’s New Clothes. It’s about a self-important royal who “had a coat for every hour of the day.” Wanting the latest, greatest fashion, he’s conned by a set of swindlers into wearing a magnificent set of clothes cut from a “magical” cloth. Of course the cloth is fiction, as is the story.
And I realized that that scenario—yes, I realize it’s a fairy tale—would never happen in Britain. For Prince Charles is so old-fashioned that he believes in getting maximum value out of his clothes. He buys classic suits and clothes that can be worn for years, if not decades. And while that sense of thriftiness and frugality may be a sharp contrast to a life filled with luxury, it is perhaps a better way to evaluate a person’s character than analyzing the pilasters on a country house.
Earlier this year, Charles appeared at several public engagements wearing a grey suit that had a tear obviously repaired below one pocket. (The Telegraph has a fun story, including a video). Even the Guardian, that bastion of republican hopes, made note of it after its first outing: “It turns out that Prince Charles is, in fact, just like the rest of us. Well, in the sense that he is somewhat more thrifty than we might imagine for a monarch-in-waiting. The heir to the throne was spotted by the Telegraph this week wearing a suit jacket with a neat but conspicuous repair. The royals are possibly not the best figureheads of frugality but three cheers for Charles for making do and mending. Bespoke suits of this kind cost on the order of £3,000-4,000 so it’s heartening that when he – or perhaps his footman – discovered a tear in the fabric, rather than popping out to the shops for a new suit, a repair was in order. A Clarence House spokesperson told the Guardian that although they were unsure how the tear had occurred, it was most likely through “wear and tear” due to the age of the suit. They said that the temporary patch will be fully repaired with an invisible patch shortly.”
And in a documentary, he wore a heavily patched gardening jacket that looked, as one commentator noted, as if “he was wearing a set of army fatigues that had fallen into the hands of a blind, lunatic seamstress who’d tried to fashion them into a quilt for a family of homeless ferrets.” Of course fashionistas went crazy, calling the motley patchwork repairs “perfectly distressed.” One talked of its “complimentary palette of rustic, leathery patches.” And Charles’s repairs extend beyond clothes. When one person noticed the high shine on the prince’s shoes, he responded, “Oh, they’re old, just like me.” Even his favourite coat dates back to 1987.
Of course he can afford to replace all those pieces with shiny new versions. Yet for a man due to inherit a castle or two or three, and even a crown, perhaps “making do” is also a recognition that what’s important isn’t money, position and power. It’s being comfortable in one’s clothes, unlike a certain fictional emperor.