Gift of the garb: the tweaks behind Kate Middleton's high fashion makeover

Gift of the garb: the tweaks behind Kate Middleton's high fashion makeover

June has become peak royal voyeurism month. State visits, Ascot and news that Meghan and Harry have officially peeled off from the charitable Royal Foundation, previous jointly headed with Prince William and Kate, has pivoted yet more attention on to them and, by extension, their outfits.

Given that ‘body language’ and ‘facial gestures’ are not entirely reliable indicators, their clothes have become another clue to understanding what’s going on.

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We ‘know’ for instance, thanks to their label choices, that the royal sisters in law are ‘very different’ (aka don’t get on); Meghan is pushy and grabby (all that fancy Givenchy couture), while Kate is not (all those years of wearing mid-level outfits, and reliably leveraging the big guns when she had to).

Those who prided themselves on being immune to the allure of royal fashion ever since the departure of Diana, Princess of Wales, find themselves poring over the royal outfits. To an extent, this can be justified with the ‘social anthropology’ angle. The arrival of Meghan has brought what Hollywood might call a narrative arc to the dress pageant. Was she intent on outshining Kate on the frock front? Was Kate jealous? Was Kate mounting a fightback? Had some of her favourite designers been ring-fenced from Meghan? Were they both competitively under-eating?

Sometimes the frenzy of curious speculation becomes prurient or creepy. But like it or not, it is hard to ignore what the principal royal players wear, particularly since they seem to be clocking one another’s choices. Witness the way Kate increasingly leans towards Queen Letizia of Spain’s glamorous, dignified, yet fashionable choices. Or the extent to which the younger British royals took a style lesson or three from the celebrities who attended Harry and Meghan’s wedding. Or the way in which Meghan’s arrival on the scene and her flouting – give or take the occasional token M&S jumper – of the high-low clothing equation Kate had settled on.

On one level, if you love clothes, why would you want to ignore this particular conversation? It’s enjoyable and harmless – until it’s not. Is this constant objectification of what a woman wears and, by extension, of what a woman is, even appropriate post #Timesup?

Er, yes. Clothes are a valuable form of power, particularly for women. Never more so than when you have an inverse ratio of clothes to words at your disposal. Their body language is so curtailed that clothes become a major form of expression.

Even when she was a diffident twentysomething, still being put through her paces by her husband to be (or by royal courtiers), Kate was devoutly un-flashy. Perhaps she’d learned from one of her earliest exposures to the public gaze – when she elected to wear that see-through dress at St Andrew’s fashion show – that if you court attention, it generally devours you in the end.

When I interviewed Kate’s mum Carole Middleton last year, I was struck by how down to earth she is, and also by how unsophisticated – or unspoiled – by cynical metropolitan standards.

The Middleton women have never been about taking spectacular fashion risks (unlike the late Princess of Wales), ergo they have never had any spectacular fashion disasters. In the early days after their marriage, it was alleged Prince William had decreed that his new wife should shop the high street as well as more reasonably priced mid-ranges, but if so, he would merely have been endorsing an instinctive Middletonian approach to clothes.

But the safe approach worked. The endless parade of LK Bennett nude platforms, the slightly awkward length – two inch above the knee – skirts in defiance of any fashion trends, nude tights and ageing nipped in coat-dresses may have frustrated the fashion industry, which had been hoping for a boost from a second Diana, who had delighted in her role as a fashion plate and appeared to enjoy the company of the likes of industry giants Anna Wintour and Gianni Versace.

Let’s not forget Diana had received style advice from a Vogue editor – the late Anna Harvey – from the age of 19 onwards. Kate, we were told, was doing it on her own, although later on, she enlisted the help of Natasha Archer, always credited as a PA.

The important thing is that the general public have, in the main, liked the cut of her jib. Kate’s girl-next-door-but-in-a-slightly-bigger-house persona came across as relatable and authentic, as did her eagerness to please, visible in those literal interpretations of national symbols that she incorporates into outfits when she’s abroad.

Looking back to those pre-Brexit times, perhaps William and Kate weren’t living in a bubble or knew how to communicate with those not in theirs. And she has always had the knack of looking sincerely delighted to be wherever she is doing whatever it is she had to do, no matter how humdrum. That’s extremely endearing.

What has so engaged fashion lovers latterly, however, is the Duchess of Cambridge’s refined style makeover, supposedly at the hands of Virginia Chadwyck-Healey. The nude LKs have been replaced by court shoes of the internationally sleek variety (like Meghan’s), culminating in last Tuesday’s previously unthinkable-for-day silver Jimmy Choo pair. The unflattering hemlines have dropped. The mumsy coats have been phased out in favour of sensationally well cut coat-dresses and fashion forward coats like the periwinkle-blue Mulberry one.

The hats, always a Kate highlight, have become ever more elegant. The hard eyeliner has become flatteringly smudgy. There are signs of luminescent highlighter (another Meghan tip?). She’s having fun with casual wear – the wide trousers and white blouse she wore to her garden at the Chelsea Flower Show in May were much more age appropriate and fashion aware than her old puffas and skinny jeans.

The bouncy curls have smoothed and are increasingly sculpted into an imposing side chignon. Kate gets more queenly, more elegant by the day.

Unfortunately, some of the adulation surrounding seems to grow with the amount of toxic insidious racism and snobbery meted out to Meghan – much of it played out in criticism about the Duchess of Sussex’s sartorial choices. It’s surprising that Meghan, a famously savvy media player before her marriage, allowed what should have been such an easy win – great looking, unpretentious American commoner brings happiness to a formerly lost prince – to turn sour.

Price, starting with that £56,000 Ralph & Russo engagement dress she wore, which she almost certainly wouldn’t have paid for, or at least nothing like the full whack – has been a constant gripe, especially when contrasted, as it often is, with Kate’s more frugal approach. It’s the wicked, extravagant Duchess of Windsor versus dutiful, homegrown Queen Elizabeth I all over again.

This, despite the fact that Kate has clearly upped her expenditure too, hasn’t changed the argument. Depressingly, it seems the public still hasn’t reached that enlightened stage where two women in the royal family can be good at what they do in different ways, without being pitched against one another.

The more Meghan – and everything she wears – is demonised, the more Kate and her style are lionised, often by the people who used to sneer at her for being a middle-class social climber. This part of the show is not remotely edifying, even if the clothes watching is excellent.

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