Protocol, Etiquette, Dress Code – What is it Exactly?

Lately the British online media is full of articles claiming to know all about royal protocol, rules (I’d prefer to call it guidelines though), etiquette and dress code. When reading these articles you really wonder what these journalists know about the subject and whether they are correct. Not that I am an expert, but I just don’t call everything a rule. At the beginning I found these articles sometimes pretty amusing, but now they just start to become irritating.

What is protocol? What are rules? What is etiquette? And what is a dress code?


According to dictionaries online protocol is the official procedure or system of rules governing affairs of state or diplomatic occasions. It is thus the official rules of conduct, or the way meetings between officials ought to be organised. These rules are internationally identical, but are of course subject to modernisation. Protocol according to several dictionaries also includes acceptable behaviour, but that is not correct according to protocol experts. It does however include the order of importance given to people, thus precedence.

The website of the Dutch royal family describes protocol as being the formal and official aspects of the monarchy. This includes the written and unwritten rules that determine procedures during public appearances and other royal events.

A royal court, but also presidential ones, usually have a Chief of Protocol in their household. The Chief of Protocol and his/her office is responsible for creating an environment for successfull diplomacy, one can read at the website of the U.S. Department of State. He/she is responsible for the management of for example official and state visits, official and international events, as well as diplomatic events.

The royals are the first ones to agree that you don’t always have to stick with protocol if you feel too uncomfortable. In an interview days before he ascended the Dutch throne King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands said: “I am not a protocol-fetishist.” He said that people can address him the way they want, if that makes them feel more comfortable. Also Queen Máxima says that they represent more than just a title.

That already makes clear that even royals are not always entirely sure about what is protocol and what is etiquette, as I’d say that the way people should address royals is more etiquette than protocol. But it is a bit hard to tell. One thing for sure, protocol has got nothing to do with the way you should dress.


Of course protocol involves etiquette and good manners. But etiquette should be distinguished from protocol. Etiquette are the rules of courtesy and these are changing continuously. Society is changing, and thus also the etiquette rules are changing. It is also entirely possible that the etiquette of younger royals is quite different from the etiquette the elder royals are used to.

Etiquette, as the word already shows, was developed in France, at the court of King Louis XIV. Luckily times have changed, as it must have been terribly difficult to be a member of that court, as everything should go as planned. In the 19th century education and good manners were rather important and lots of books were written about etiquette. Although in the 20th century etiquette became less important, in many social circles etiquette is still providing guidance.

Unlike protocol etiquette can vary widely between different cultures and nations. Therefore most important is to show respect to each other and be aware of the feelings of others.

Etiquette thus to me mainly involves acceptable behaviour.


In royal life this means among others making royal curtsies as a sign of respect and formality. But you only curtsy to someone higher ranked than yourself. So if you are a Royal Highness you normally would only curtsy to a Majesty. Guidelines at royal courts do however vary.

Touching a royal at a public function, aside from handshakes, is not done. But would you like it when someone puts his/her arm around you when you hardly know each other? And hugging someone once in a while has never hurt a royal, but is just a way of showing you’re actually a real human being.

I can imagine that it might be handy sitting “royally”, so your underwear doesn’t show. But doesn’t that count for everybody wearing a skirt or dress?

Etiquette might also involve how to drink or how to use your utensils. But most important is to my opinion that you don’t spill your food or drink your wine too quickly (or worse, get drunk). If you’re not sure about how to use utensils, just look at the people around you, and start on the outside if there is more than one knife, fork or spoon. Just don’t make too much of a fuss when you get it wrong.


Lots of articles have been written about royals dressing the wrong way. But what is wrong? What is wrong for one person, is right for someone else. And also here counts: fashion is changing, so traditional dress codes are changing. You often see that new royals dress carefully at the start of their new life, and that they slowly change the way they’re dressing. Each person has his/her own style and should be able to feel comfortable in their clothing. I must admit that I personally would draw the line at dressing far too daring. As a royal – at least in these times – you just don’t dress almost naked in public like some celebrities do. What you do in your private life, behind closed doors, is however another matter.

Elder royals for example often still wear hats and gloves in public, but you already see differences. Although quite a few royals still stick with hats and gloves at official functions, you see these items less and less at more informal occasions. And trousers are no longer something to avoid, even not at public events. Some royals even do wear leather nowadays.

Whatever you wear, you should at least dress for the occasion. Debrett’s perfectly tells you what to wear for which occasion. But it should be clear to everyone, you usually don’t wear a day dress to an evening event, nor do you wear an evening dress or tailcoat during the day.

When looking at recent articles, I don’t think any royal rule forbids you to wear red nail polish, not to wear nude stockings, or to use certain kind of bags. Nor does it tell you how you should wear your hair or whether you can wear something sleeveless or not.


Although some so called royal rules in online articles make sense, others surely don’t. Just to name a few:

Displaying affection in public on royal engagements might not be too usual in Great Britain, but I can give many examples of royals who did. And people rather love them for it than criticize.

British royal couples must have a fruit cake for their wedding. That something seems to have been a tradition for quite some years doesn’t say that you have to follow this tradition. It is your own choice, as are the flowers, the people in your wedding party, your dress or even whether to wear a tiara or not.

The British royals don’t play Monopoly. And all that because Prince Andrew, The Duke of York, once seems to have admitted that they can’t play it at home as it could get a little too vicious at times. That says more about the personalities of some royals I suppose than about any royal rule.

British royals don’t eat shellfish, how often have I read that recently. A “tradition” to avoid food poisoning or allergic reactions. I am pretty certain the royals usually just eat what they want and laugh about such articles themselves. The Queen surely can’t tell her family what to eat. And what’s more: just look at the menu for an official dinner or state banquet.

Royals are not allowed to use social media publicly. Royal courts nowadays make use of social media. And people like Queen Rania of Jordan and Crown Princess Mette-Marit of Norway show that you can very well use the social media when you’re a royal. As a royal you should just be somewhat more careful about what to post – although it wouldn’t harm many normal people either to think a bit more carefully before posting – and I am certain that royals do.

That royals can’t vote is a myth. There is no law forbidding a royal to vote. In most monarchies it is considered unconstitutional for a monarch to vote in any election. But you often see the other royals vote and no, it isn’t publicly known whom they’re voting for. Members of royal families are not supposed to make political statements, but of course can show which causes they support.

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