Charles's New Duds Turn a Fashion Frog Princely

updated 03/06/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/1989 01:00AM

He may be first in the hearts of his countrymen, but with British clothiers, the future King of England has long ranked near dead last. Three years ago, when the 3,600 retailers and manufacturers of the Menswear Association of Great Britain drew up their annual list of best-dressed men, the dumpy Prince Charles pulled just one, lone vote. His clothes were "dull, boring and much too safe," pronounced the snoots. "To us as an industry, he is absolutely no help at all."

But on this month's whirlwind four-day visit to the U.S., the former colonists finally got to see firsthand what's been making gossip in the British press. The Charles who dropped by for tea with the Quayles, dined at Camp David with the Bushes and poloed near Palm Beach was a Charles who had made a sartorial turnaround, stepping out of his design disaster tweeds and into some svelte suits. From the dowdy land of Fair Isles and Wellies came a stylish Cinderfella.

What the British press once called "overgrown schoolboy suits" have given way to what the French have called le style Anglais. "One doesn't really notice Charles's style now, which is the real mark of an English gentleman," says Hamish Bowles, fashion editor of Harpers & Queen. "He looks more fashionable without being 'fashiony.' "

"He definitely looks sharper these days," says Mark Connolly, fashion editor of British GQ.

"I think he's got it absolutely right, now," says Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty magazine. "He's a lot smarter than he ever used to be." Even the snitty Menswear Association has come around. In last year's poll, Charles leaped to second place. "There's been a definite improvement," they crowed. "He must have followed our advice."

More likely, the missus'. Even in the early days of their marriage, Di left new shirts and ties on her husband's bed pillow as a gesture of affection—and a gentle hint to smarten up. Evidently, the nudging has paid off. When he's not wearing one of his 44 official uniforms, Charles is no longer in rumpled tweeds and baggy trousers. Having switched to a new Savile Row tailor, classic traditionalists Anderson & Sheppard, the prince is sporting elegant wide-lapelled, double-breasted suits (size 38, $2, 114) and trimmer pleat-front pants. His custom shirts, from Turnbull & Asser, are Sea Island cotton poplin (size 15½ and "a devil to iron," says a member of his staff), with his trademark collar and its slightly cutaway points. (According to one Savile Row insider, the prince is no easy fit. He has "slightly sloping shoulders, drooping a bit on the right. But he has no bumps or lumps anywhere.")

He has also, with his wife's encouragement, developed a fondness for silk underwear and for horsey-motif Hermés silk ties and pocket squares. Even on the ski slopes, the sporty Di has gotten him out of his old army parka and into a bright-blue jumpsuit. "Diana has obviously been an influence," said the late Stephen Barry, the prince's former valet. "Along came the princess, and the next moment he was wearing a yellow sweater."

This trip, royal watchers got an eyeful of the splendid princely duds. After a private dinner in New York City and a fast tour of Washington, D.C., where he met with a group of former Marshall scholars and called on President Bush, the prince headed for the Palm Beach area. There he sported a dashing, formfitting navy blazer with eight gold buttons down the front and five on each sleeve.

The prince's visit was a success, even if there was a heavy emphasis on style over substance. The prince, sniffed British Embassy spokesman Francis Cornish, "does occasionally get a little bit taken aback when he does something serious and the media coverage of that event is entirely trivial." Sorry, Charlie—that's the price a clotheshorse pays.

—Susan Schindehette, and Katy Kelly in Washington, Don Sider in Palm Beach and Terry Smith in London

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