A dress for the ages

Kate Middleton found the right balance, honouring royal tradition while putting her own stamp on the day

A dress for the ages

Tom Pilston/APs

The fact that Kate Middleton’s bridal legacy was assured months before anyone had an inkling of what it was going to be tells you all you need to know about bridal-industry conformity. Before the big day was even over, factories in China were pumping out knock-offs of the dress. Had she arrived in the swan getup Björk wore to the 2001 Oscars, future brides would be shedding feathers as they walked down the aisle.

Yet the path Kate had to navigate was uniquely her own. She had to present as a bride for the ages, which meant pulling off a tricky high-wire balancing act: honour royal tradition while making a personal statement; provide a showy fashion moment yet be sensitive to the dire economic climate; inject new life into a beleaguered royal family; and, most perilously, prevail over the inevitable comparisons that would be made between her and Prince William’s mother, Lady Diana Spencer, on her wedding day 30 years ago.

As the smiling bride alighted from a Rolls-Royce Phantom VI at Westminster Abbey, it appeared all of the boxes had been checked off, and brilliantly. All eyes were on the dress, of course. The restrained V-necked white-and-ivory satin-and-lace gown with a two-metre train won near universal approval for being pitch perfect—classic yet fresh, formal yet fluid. She wore it; it didn’t consume her, unlike the fate of Diana Spencer who was overwhelmed by her billowing organza confection with an unwieldy 7.6-m train.

Middleton’s choice of designer, Sarah Burton, the British creative director of Alexander McQueen, was a master stroke. On a practical level, it indicated Kate listens to advice from her new relatives. Fashion writer Sara Buys, the daughter-in-law of William’s stepmother Camilla, is said to have recommended the designer, having worn McQueen at her own wedding.

But in selecting the house founded by Lee Alexander McQueen, whose suicide in February 2010 rocked the industry, Middleton also sent a signal to fashion insiders that she plans to take seriously her responsibility as a British style ambassador, a role played by William’s mother. That clout is already evident: the fashion world is waiting to hear whether Burton will replace the disgraced John Galliano as the creative director at Christian Dior. The head of Dior’s parent company was rumoured to be waiting to see if the designer had scored the royal nuptials before making his decision.

Within the fashion world, choosing McQueen was quickly, and erroneously, interpreted as indicating the new royal plans to take fashion risks. The designer was known as a bad-boy iconoclast who dubbed one collection “Highland Rape” and whose attitude to the monarchy would have landed him in the Tower of London in an earlier century. He once famously boasted that as an apprentice at Savile Row tailors Gieves & Hawkes, which makes Prince Charles’s clothing, he stitched “I am a c–t” onto the interlining of one of his royal highness’s jackets.

Anyone familiar with the extreme wedding dresses in Burton’s fall 2010 collection—described admiringly by one commentator as taking inspiration “from a medieval psychiatric ward in Alaska”—would have noticed that Middleton’s mainstream taste prevailed in the design process. The result was less identifiable as a McQueen than a modern update of the wedding dress commoner Grace Kelly wore when she married her prince, Rainier of Monaco, in 1956. It referenced retro Hollywood glamour and a more innocent time before royalty was under assault. Princess Grace was also one of William’s mother’s earliest confidantes, once warning a besieged Diana before her marriage that “it will only get worse.”

Kate’s dress did display McQueen’s great strengths—craftsmanship, evident in the elaborate lace overlay assisted by the Royal School of Needlework, as well as elaborate corsetry and construction yielding a pronounced Victorian-era silhouette. The Victorian theme carried through in the bride’s modest short silk tulle veil and small bouquet, freighted with floral symbolism dating back centuries.

Middleton was barely down the aisle before the gush began. Vogue’s Hamish Bowles proclaimed the dress “sublime.” Simon Doonan, the British-born creative director of Barneys New York, went even further, boldly suggesting the new princess’s influence might bring an end to the “all-pervading culture of porno-chic” that has invaded fashion. Writing on, Doonan referred to the bride as “Audrey Hepburn for the 21st century” and asked: “Could April 29, 2011, mark the beginning of a whole new era of elegant restraint?” for a generation that has grown up with hair extensions, stripper poles and skin-baring brides.

Doonan pronounced the new duchess of Cambridge as poised to bring an end to “hotness” being the single viable currency for women in the spotlight, referring to her as “ ‘the anti-hooker,’ garnering the attention and admiration of the entire world with barely a glimpse of flesh.” (Doonan seems to have forgotten that Middleton allegedly captured her prince’s eye by modelling a see-through dress.)

He may also be overlooking another of Catherine of Bucklebury’s potential bridal legacies: unleashing the “sexy bridesmaid,” heretofore an oxymoron. Maid of honour Pippa Middleton’s form-fitting McQueen gown with its décolletage-baring cowl neckline was destined to grab attention, too much so, according to some observers. It also defied wedding protocol by being white, thus competing with the bride. In fact, Pippa’s va-va-voom dress, a slight variation on the red satin McQueen gown Cameron Diaz wore to the 2010 Golden Globes, is itself expected to be knocked off as a bridal gown.

Fashion is fickle, of course. Hubert de Givenchy deemed Kate’s dress “very simple and very nice,” but wasn’t so taken with the short veil, calling it “a little flat, but because she has such a lovely face, she can afford to wear it this way.” Valentino, a friend of Diana’s, referred to the late princess’s wedding dress as “a dress of a fairy-tale princess…still a dress everybody remembers.” He thought Kate’s dress, on the other hand, was “a very pretty, modern dress that will be copied everywhere but lacks that fairy-tale element,” a comment that suggests he forgot how that particular “fairy tale” ended.

Valentino doesn’t like the new flock of princesses: “Today most of the new princesses are young, modern, non-royal women who have clear ideas, independence from stiff protocol,” he said. “They want to be themselves and not anymore a symbol of the crown.”

That certainly applied to the confident and highly conscious Kate, a princess determined to write her own fairy tale, or appear to. She reportedly did her bridal makeup herself and told her hairdresser that she wanted “William to recognize me” at the altar. Hence, her signature long locks were left down, pulled back only enough to hold a simple 1936 “starter” Cartier tiara, a loaner from the Queen. Nor was her family’s imagery completely eclipsed by the Windsors: the bride’s pavé diamond drop earrings, a gift from her parents, depicted acorns, a prominent symbol on her family’s new coat of arms.

For the evening’s events, the new princess reinvented herself while remaining in bridal mode, changing into a strapless satin gown with diamanté detailing at the waist also designed by Burton, a glam 2.0 version of her wedding dress minus the lace. Over it, the modest newlywed wore a white angora bolero sweater for photographs. Which means that by the time you read this, a $19.99 version will be at H&M.

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