Just-Plain Royals

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2014 New York Times News Service


NEW YORK — So was it amazing, trendsetting, hemline-changing? Will it transform forever the fortunes of an obscure but hugely talented young designer, or alter the item on the top of everyone’s Christmas wish list? Did, in other words, the visit of Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, aka Kate Middleton, to the East Coast this week have a fashion impact felt round the world?

Nah. It was more like a fashion flurry: Now you see it, now it evaporates from memory.

But while it may seem paradoxical, the Windsors’ clothes, in their absolute boringness, made a serious statement.

In 1985, four years into their marriage, Diana, Princess of Wales, and her then-husband, Prince Charles, swept America off its feet during their Washington-Florida jaunt. This week, three years into their marriage, their son and his wife did the same. But where once all was fairy tale and filigree, this time it was more “Real Royals of Kensington Palace.”

They fly commercial! They go to basketball games! And they wear the same things as you and me. The script was written in their style — especially so in the case of the five-months-pregnant Duchess of Cambridge. It makes some sense: She did not have any speeches scheduled, so her clothes did the talking for her. At least in public.

From her first appearance on the way to the Carlyle hotel in New York in a burgundy tweed coat to the petrol silk gown she wore to the St. Andrews charity gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catherine displayed an image of extreme accessibility: aesthetically, financially and politically. (As did, to be fair, her husband — though social media and the paparazzi did not seem all that interested in his wardrobe choices, comparably speaking.) A recent move toward edgier styles, as demonstrated by the high-low hemline she wore to a National History Museum gala in London in October, was nowhere in evidence. Challenge was not on the agenda; outreach was.

Consider the list of brands, which included only one maternity label, Séraphine (bouclé coat, Day 1; black turtleneck dress, Day 3), as well as Goat (the black 1960s coat worn on Day 2), Beulah London (the lace cocktail dress, Day 1), Mulberry (pink coat, Day 3), Jenny Packham (gown, Day 3). If not exactly Main Street, the brands largely capped off before the top end. Especially because the obvious exception — the final evening gown for the Met gala — was actually a rare example of a royal shopping her closet: the Duchess of Cambridge had worn the dress twice before, including in 2013 to a 100 Women in Hedge Funds gala.

Then consider the looks: covered-up, knee-length, small-shouldered, round-necked, largely muted, awfully polite. Even the black lace cocktail dress the duchess wore to a private dinner for hedge fund managers flashed but a bit of arm, and called to mind only adjectives such as “appropriate” and “neat.” When there was sparkle — a bit of Lurex here, some metallic there — it was discreetly done.

More interesting, then, was what the clothes did not represent.

They did not represent, for example, a real effort to “give British couturiers a huge boost” (a prediction of The Daily Mail) in the way that first ladies like Michelle Obama and Samantha Cameron have increasingly used their public profiles as tools to raise the global recognition of local designers. Rather, the effect was more a nod to small business than a major promotional push. The clothes were too forgettable, or familiar, for that.

Nor did they represent an effort to employ sartorial diplomacy, with Catherine embracing American names to demonstrate a form of aesthetic outreach.


Though she did make a gesture to local designers — wearing a Tory Burch silver tweed coat to watch an NBA game at the Barclays Center along with J. Crew stretch jeans, and sporting Stuart Weitzman black court pumps and a Muse bag throughout her visit — it wasn’t prolonged enough to make a real point. As a result, the choices seemed less about strategic trans-Atlantic boosterism and more about the youthful midmarket: coat price, $595; jeans, currently on sale for $105; pumps, $355, amortized over the visit. As for the bag, she has been, well, clutching it in various colors since 2012.


And they did not even seem like an effort to make a point about the dos and don’ts of contemporary pregnancy dress, as the coat parade largely obviated the whole burgeoning stomach issue.

It’s possible that the duchess’ clothes were so uniformly bland because, according to royal watchers, there was real trepidation in the palace over Catherine eclipsing her husband, à la Diana. (This was one theory why Catherine did not accompany William to Washington; another was that, in her fifth month, aides did not want to tire her out.) Those who do not learn from history, etc.

However, given the prince’s own carefully calibrated dress — his open-necked checked shirt at the Barclays Center, his clear decision not to wear what has become the de facto power uniform of Western leaders (dark suit, white shirt, blue tie) and opt instead for a more civilian-oriented blue shirt and a pinkish-red patterned tie when he met President Barack Obama — this seems not entirely convincing.

Rather, it most likely has to do with the continued repositioning of the royal family as normalish folks, in touch with the proverbial “real life,” which has been going on since they woke up and smelled the popular dissatisfaction at the turn of the millennium.


The most potent example of the rebranding has, of course, been William and his bride, the first commoner to marry a king-in-waiting in 350 years (and the first with no serious aristocratic connections). The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are new-look royals, in every sense of the word.


There were some who took to Twitter to express their disappointment in the absence of a much-anticipated new gown on the final evening of the couple’s tour (“Rebecca English @RE_DailyMail: I think for a gala dinner in the USA’s city of fashion something new would have been preferable”). But like it or not, Catherine’s gala dress — as with her entire New York wardrobe (and, possibly, the entire New York adventure) — served its purpose, and proved the point.