Mark Twain’s maxim that there are no new ideas is particularly true of fashion. Designers can reinvent — and consumers rediscover — through a modern lens, but everything and everyone references something, even the future queen of England.
For the Duchess of Cambridge, finding a personal uniform that spans the Venn diagram of all her different personas is tricky. Last week alone, she spent an afternoon as mum-turned-Santa’s little helper in tartan at a Christmas party, an evening as poised Duchess in full regalia at a diplomatic reception, and a day as wife of the future king, showing her respect for the British Armed Forces.
So far, so normal for Kate: at this point, she’s got the quick-change down to a tee, and can segue from mum-of-three to informed humanitarian to queen-in-waiting at the drop of a tiara. But since her return to official duties from maternity leave in October, Kate has also quietly been upping her game.
The rumour mill has been quick to put this shift down to a rivalry with the Duchess of Sussex — designer handbags at dawn — as Meghan’s wardrobe of international designers has been so widely praised. She’s only five months older than Kate, but having honed her personal style on a red carpet, not in the Royal family, she has had to worry far less throughout her life about what’s “appropriate”.
Kate has notably experimented with a slightly sharper, more tailored silhouette since Meghan’s arrival on the scene, wearing little-known labels such as Canadian label Smythe, which designed the blazer she wore over wide-leg trousers in Cyprus last week — a brand that Meghan discovered while filming ‘Suits’ in Toronto. That outfit drew parallels between the pair, thanks not just to the designer, but the tailored silhouette and the neutral colour palette — Kate more often wears bright block shades and pastels, while Meghan favours more muted beige, khaki and navy tones. But Kate has also introduced Meghan to British labels such as Emilia Wickstead, who is a favourite with both. And with the rule book of duchess style to stick to, it would be stranger if the pair’s taste didn’t overlap every once in a while.
What the Duchess of Cambridge may have learned from the Duchess of Sussex is to spend a little more. Kate has always been one for rewearing her outfits time and time again; it’s one of the things that has endeared her to the British public, and is a habit picked up from Princess Diana, and the Queen before her. But since she makes sure to get good cost-per-wear, it makes sense to invest in elevated pieces — as Meghan does — in the first place. Kate has always worn designers such as Alexander McQueen and Erdem, so even if the balance has started to shift away from the high-street pieces she was once known for — well, have you ever seen the Queen wear Zara?
The wardrobe of a working royal woman is one that follows tradition, but personal evolution is only natural. Princess Diana’s style was a case in point: the puff-shouldered dresses, polka dots and theatrical silhouettes that she favoured in her 20s gave way to a sleeker, less fussy wardrobe in her 30s, and perhaps Kate — now 36, and with three small children to corral — is experiencing that same desire to strip back and simplify her wardrobe. Pregnancy, and then breastfeeding, can take you out of the fashion game for at least two seasons, so if those days are now behind her, she might also be making up for lost time.
This week, Kate debuted two new pieces — first, a £1,085 (Dh5,017) tartan skirt by Emilia Wickstead for the aforementioned Christmas party, held at Kensington Palace for the families of RAF personnel currently deployed overseas. Paired with a black cashmere cardigan, it was a “fashion” reimagining of Mrs Claus’s signature garb, but it also nodded to Princess Diana’s wardrobe, as Kate (and Meghan) often do. The second, a new Jenny Packham dress, worn to an evening reception for the diplomatic corps at Buckingham Palace, was more ornate than her usual Packham gowns. Embroidered with sequins and beading, it would also have come with a higher price tag than the plainer styles she’s worn from the label in the past — but it echoed the Queen’s dress perfectly.
The most notable addition to Kate’s wardrobe is her growing collection of large curved headbands, not dissimilar to those worn by Anne Boleyn, that she debuted at Prince Louis’s christening. It’s possible that Kate might have taken her cue from the duchess satin headbands worn on the Prada spring/summer catwalk... But I’d guess she’s getting used to carrying a little extra weight on her head. After all, a crown can be rather cumbersome.