Do you remember where you were on November 16, 2010? When Kate Middleton appeared on TV screens around the hall in all her swooshy, glossy, Issa-dressed glory, there was a fascinating new fashion influencer on the scene.
Kate’s forays in slinky party dresses, rowing attire and wedding guest looks had already been well-documented, but here was the first moment of calculated, world stage dressing from our future queen — by wearing sapphire blue to match her already-famous engagement ring (the grandest of hand-me-downs from Diana, Princess of Wales), she showed she got the whole fashion messaging thing, but she kept the look fresh and youthful by sticking to a label she already loved and which had seen her through many a twenty-something night out.
And now here we are, almost a decade on. The Duchess of Cambridge is still using fashion to clever effect and her sister-in-law, the Duchess of Sussex, has been yet another breath of fresh royal fashion air.
Of course, that Issa dress promptly sold out, as did thousands of copies created around the world by retailers hoping to cash in on the nascent “Kate effect”; it was the first hint at the remarkable impact she would have on fashion.
The appeal of Kate is that she’s provided a style template that could hardly be further from the sexy, pumped-up vibe of the pop and reality stars in whose midst she finds herself on magazine pages, best-dressed lists and social media sites. She’s normal apart from being extraordinary, a fact emphasised to us via her penchant for skinny jeans, polite knee-length dresses and Barbour jackets.
One of Kate’s first great fashion acts was to wear high street labels. Unlike the royals of the past, Diana included, there was a very real possibility that women could buy her look and, consequently, her prowess for boosting the fortunes of retailers soon became apparent. When British store Reiss posted healthy profits in the early 2010s, it put the figures down, in part, to the fact that Kate had worn its pieces for some key early moments in her royal life, including a cream dress that starred in the official engagement portraits and a caramel shift dress for a post-honeymoon meeting with Michelle Obama — some rushed out to buy the exact same pieces (a phenomenon which would become known as “replikate-ing”), but there was a halo effect, too, which prompted a more general spike in interest — any store in which Kate was photographed browsing on one of her frequent shopping jaunts on the King’s Road enjoyed a boost and it’s now estimated that her fashion choices alone could bring £152 million (Dh730 million) each year to the British economy.
Kate’s trendsetting was tentative at first. She became so synonymous with LK Bennett’s Sledge patent beige heels that the V&A acquired a pair for its permanent collection. She supported the new generation of British design talent, like Erdem, Emilia Wickstead and Sarah Burton, who had taken over at Alexander McQueen just months before she was commissioned to create the future queen’s wedding gown.
The Markle Sparkle
Then, in 2017, along came Meghan Markle. If the royal fashion soap opera had been sedate and quietly lovely until this point, now it flashed to life. How could it not when, for her first public appearance as Prince Harry’s girlfriend, Meghan wore a shirt known as the ‘Husband’ by her friend Misha Nonoo? The Duchess of Cambridge may have spent the previous seven years finding a way to wear clothes with meaning, without allowing them to become a distraction, but Meghan was immediately more bold. Weeks after the ‘Husband’ shirt came the engagement and an upscale set of portraits taken by glossy magazine photographer Alexi Lubomirski, which included a shot of Meghan in a couture Ralph and Russo gown rumoured to be worth £56,000.
Instead of wearing British labels though — why should she when she was American-born and had lived in Toronto until weeks before her engagement? — Meghan mostly sported international designers like Dior, Prada, Givenchy and Valentino and she imbued her outfits with messaging that highlighted her eco-conscious and feminist principles by wearing vintage couture and spotlighting brands like Outland Denim, which helps women who are victims of sexual exploitation, Veja trainers (an eco brand with vegan options) and Maggie Marilyn, a New Zealand designer who puts sustainability at the heart of her designs. She’s made a point of working with women designers, too, from well-known names like Stella McCartney to under-the-radar labels like Safiyaa, a demi-couture brand founded by Daniela Karnuts that caters to the Duchess’s preference for clean lines and minimalist tailoring.
One of the Duchess of Sussex’s most powerful fashion choices was the dress she wore for the photocall introducing her son Archie to the world in May this year. It was a simple white trench dress — a style Meghan has made her own and which sets her apart from the bright, eye-catching patterns traditionally worn by royal women. Earlier this month, fashion search engine Lyst declared that Meghan has been the most powerful dresser of 2019.
In the past year or so, the Duchess of Cambridge’s look has become more exciting than ever. She’s started wearing trousers, which Meghan does but wasn’t really the done royal thing before. Peak New Kate was the day she wore a purple Gucci blouse, wide-legged Jigsaw trousers and an Aspinal box bag in lieu of her old favourite clutches to a children’s centre in South London.
Fashion has helped the royals to both elevate themselves and make themselves relatable in the delicate climate of this 24/7 digital news era. It’s been a tool to revive popularity and exert clever displays of soft diplomacy. But the royals have helped fashion, too.