The first lady of fashion
From the dress that captivated a prince to the standout designs she champions today, Kate has become our most important royal influencer. E, says Laura Craik, the best is yet to come…
If someone said ‘Duchess of Cambridge’ to you, what would be the first image that popped into your mind? Mine would be of a smiling woman in a red coat, with bouncy chestnut tresses worn in loose waves. Del 745,392,041,583,610,584 photographs in existence,
I’m not sure why it’s a red coat that first springs tomind, but for whatever reason, that’s the archetype. Red is her colour. Così, pure, are royal blue, bottle green and fuchsia, but a red coat is seared most vividly in my memory as the quintessence of Kate.
In realtà, no. A red coat is the quintessence of the Duchess of Cambridge. The quintessence of Kate is something else entirely. I like to think it’s the sheer, strapless dress she modelled in a student fashion show at the University of St Andrews in 2002 (see page 19); the dress that, legend has it, first prompted Prince William to turn to his friend and whisper, 'Wow, Kate’s hot!’ I have modelled in a student fashion show. I didn’t wear a sheer, strapless dress. Had anyone suggested so, I’d have run, screaming and traumatised, to my dorm. This is why Kate married a future king and I didn’t.
In the intervening years, reams have been written about her fashion sense, with furious conjecture about whether it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This misses the point. You may not like her raffia wedges, her cut of jean, her choice of shift dress, but you cannot criticise her fashion sense. Invecchiato 20, she had the fashion sense to shuck on a see-through dress that grabbed the attention of a prince.
Whether it’s sexist to conflate wearing a see-through dress with bagsying a prince is a moot point: the fact remains Kate was far from the only undergraduate at St Andrews who’d set her cap at William – but she was the one who piqued his interest. The point being that Kate has always known how to use fashion to achieve a desired effect. It’s just that the nature of the effect has changed – greatly – along the way. Now she’s no longer seducing a prince but a picky public. If you think her LK Bennett shoes are too pedestrian, her Bretons are unimaginative and her choice of eveningwear should be more adventurous, that’s your prerogative. Style is subjective. Fashion sense is not. Fashion sense means knowing how to wear the right clothes at the right time for the right outcome. In this, Kate rarely fails.
Nel 20 years since she came into the public eye, this has rarely prevented people from opining that she’s failed. Had her 19-year-old self known that her eventual destiny would be to have her clothes, calzature, hairstyle and beauty choices picked over by a nation of perennially dissatisfied vultures, perhaps she would have taken to the catwalk in a bin bag.
Take, per esempio, her state visit to New York in 2014. Five months pregnant and dressed in a smart coat by the British label Goat, she was greeted by a child at the Northside Center for Child Development with a scathing ‘You’re not Elsa’. Out of the mouth of babes came a pronouncement that deftly sums up the Duchess’s dilemma: che cosa, Esattamente, should a princess look like?
It’s a question she’s been exploring ever since marrying Prince William in 2011. Frozen mania may have abated since 2014, but for many people – and not just children – the archetypal princess is still a pretty, slightly otherworldly creature, forever scattered with rhinestones. Throughout her 30s, the prevailing criticism of Kate was that she lacked sparkle: that her outfits were mumsy, dowdy, frumpy and bereft of the magic that Diana so effortlessly conveyed. While comparisons with Diana were an inevitable part of Kate’s destiny, they were also rather unfair. Diana was an icon. Anyone would suffer by being compared to her.
Diana was a rule-breaker, whose flouting of convention won her few allies within the Royal Family. From the very beginning, it was clear that Kate was cut from a different cloth. She has assiduously obeyed rules of protocol as if her happiness depended on it. Which it probably does. Like many first-born children, Kate is a pleaser. If her wardrobe choices lack sparkle, it’s surely because she is all too aware of how they are scrutinised for price and provenance. Whether she is attending a sporting event, a school, a church, a cenotaph, an awards ceremony, a film premiere or a climate-change conference, her clothes are carefully chosen to toe a diplomatic line.
As she has grown into her public role and been accorded more royal duties by the Queen, her style has evolved to become more assured. If her early and mid-30s saw her stick somewhat doggedly to mid-market British brands such as Reiss, Boden, Whistles, Beulah, Hobbs and LK Bennett, her late 30s have seen her less stymied by price sensitivities, and more willing to experiment with colours and shapes. It’s a bit like when a person starts a new office job: she might begin wearing smart, unremarkable shift dresses and practical shoes, only to replace them with more interesting apparel as her wages, confidence and status grow.
Oggi, Kate attends informal engagements in dresses by designers such as Emilia Wickstead and Alexander McQueen, showing the same support of British labels as she always has, only with fewer concerns about their price tag. For state events, she will confidently wear custom-made gowns and jewels fit for the occasion. As she should. She is a duchess, Dopotutto. Only in Britain would people carp about the cost of her clothes. inoltre, Kate is fastidious about rewearing her favourite garments in a manner that makes their cost-per-wear quite reasonable, not least given the publicity they generate for the brands concerned.
After some research, I realised that the reason she’s seared in my memory as wearing a red coat is because she has reworn her trusty red Catherine Walker, LK Bennett, Alexander McQueen and Armani coats on multiple occasions. Even her evening gowns have been recycled – most recently, a pale lilac plissé dress by Alexander McQueen, first worn to a Bafta event in Los Angeles in 2011, then reworn (with a different belt) for the first Earthshot Prize Awards last October. This sustainably minded way of dressing is undoubtedly something she will carry forward into her next decade.
As she celebrates her 40th birthday, I’ve been thinking about Sheer Dress Kate, and how she was necessarily subsumed by Nice Dress Catherine. I like to think the free spirit that rocked up on a catwalk in a black bandeau bra and matching knickers still lurks beneath the Jenny Packham swag. And I would say to that creature: don’t decide that, just because you’re 40, you have to bury the girl you were. Forty is a milestone for anyone, but for women it can feel particularly charged. When I typed ‘Why is turning 40…’ into Google, it automatically generated the words ‘so depressing?’ Googling this phrase led me to Quora, and a series of threads with titles like: ‘Today I turned 40 and have been crying all morning’ and ‘What made your 40th birthday less depressing?’ The truly depressing thing? That these threads had been initiated by female users.
The truth is that being 40 is exactly like being 39, minus the pressure of your 30s passing. That whole ‘life begins at…’ cliché is a load of tosh, and never more so than when you attempt to apply it to a duchess with three children and a job for life. As for what we can expect Kate to wear in her 40s, I think it will evolve rather than radically change. Kate’s role forced her to adopt a smart, measured, conservative way of dressing long ago. Whatever the stereotypical ideationof your 40s looks like, she embraced it ten years prematurely.
With her favourite labels and silhouettes firmly in place (I bow to her devotion to the accentuated waist despite giving birth to three children), her 40s will likely see her experimenting with increasing confidence. A long-time fan of Alexander McQueen, she’ll likely embrace the slightly more adventurous silhouettes from designer Sarah Burton’s oeuvre, though she’ll probably still avoid any directional prints, knowing that plain colours are more suited to her public role.
She’ll continue to take her lead from the Queen and employ tailoring in strong block colours that make a powerful impact on formal visits. She’ll remain loyal to the British designers she’s loved throughout her 30s – Jenny Packham, Erdem, Emilia Wickstead – but likely add some up-and-coming ones into the mix. She’ll continue to fly the flag for British fashion, and while she would no doubt balk at the idea, the fact remains that she is Britain’s most powerful royal influencer, as evidenced by numerous studies. Her global reach is unparalleled and has done wonders for the profiles and sales of countless brands. The Edinburgh-based handbag brand Strathberry was only launched in 2013, but Kate’s patronage has helped it grow exponentially.
Kate often recycles outfits with a clever change of accessories – as shown here when she wore this Alexander McQueen gown to a Bafta event in 2011 and again for the Earthshot Prize Awards last October, switching her belt
Beauty-wise, she’ll continue to display that flawless skin whose hue never seems to change, be it January or July. e no, let’s not even conjecture whether she’ll have any ‘work’ done. That’s her business, but given how sprightly her parents look (mother Carole is 66; father Michael is 72) it’s fair to say that Kate has youthful genes.
Her thick, glossy ‘princess’ hair is currently being worn as long as it has ever been. I predict a bob in her mid-40s, but that she will still be a fan of bouncy waves. To paraphrase Diana, there are three of them in their marriage: Kate, William and a pair of curling tongs.
In British label Goat during a visit to a children’s centre in New York, 2014. Taking centre stage at Wimbledon’s Centre Court in Emilia Wickstead – one of her favourite designers – July 2021
She’ll also embrace a softer silhouette. As she relaxes into her 40s, perhaps the olive dress she chose to wear for the family’s 2021 Christmas card is a portent of what’s to come. Kate has always dressed to please: her next decade will see her also dress with pleasure, embracing fashion for its own sake, but always in a way that’s sustainable. Sustainability will become a cause even closer to her heart, and she’ll still continue to dig out favourite coats, suits and dresses from the past.
Just maybe not that dress.