There are always defining moments in every Queen’s career, say when Elizabeth I stood before her troops at Tilbury in 1588 and gave one of British history’s most famously rousing speeches or in 1947 when the future Elizabeth II delivered her famous radio address from South Africa promising to dedicate her life to her job.
But for Kate, currently the Duchess of Cambridge and the future Queen Catherine, one of the most defining moments came on April 30 2011, the day after her wedding to Prince William, and her first full days as a bona fide member of the royal family.
Crossing the lawn at Buckingham Palace as the newlyweds made their way to a helicopter to whisk them off to start married, just what did Kate choose to wear? An $85 Zara dress.
The symbolism was clear: Kate might have snagged the prince, gotten herself a title and was now calling a palace home but she was the same woman as she had been 48 hours earlier. With one outfit she was making it clear to the world that she would do things her way of her and that despite her elevation to royal ranks, she remained firmly tethered to normal life.
It was a powerful and very canny move and a style strategy we have seen her wheel out again and again in the year since then.
So, what in the name of her extensive collection of tepid coat dresses has been going on of late?
According to my calculations, in the last 100 days Kate has worn more than $83,851 worth of readily identifiable clothes, shoes and jewellery, not including the number of bespoke designer pieces she has showcased, items that I could not find prices for or the value of. the royal jewelery she has worn. (If we added that all in we would easily be well into the six-figures, I reckon. Keep in mind too that members of the royal family cannot accept freebies either.)
What is clear if you pore over photos and details of the last three and a bit months is that over the course of the last 100 days there has been a very discernible shift in her wardrobe towards the much more costly.
Gone, by and large, are her high-street favourites, affordable pieces from mainstream British chains and in their place is an ever-growing roster of four-figure frocks and diamond earrings.
No look came with a higher price tag in this time period than her very chic, pared back ensemble for the Top Gun premiere with Kate opting for a $5,115 Roland Mouret dress, Prada heels, a $4,418 Alexander McQueen clutch and new $18,133 diamond earrings from Robinson Pelham.
While Kate did re-wear a number of pieces, most notably the white Alexander McQueen suit she first debuted during her and husband Prince William, Duke of Cambridge’s disastrous Caribbean tour and a striking Catherine Walker coat she first donned last year, these are all pieces that cost into the thousands. (There are no prices listed on the Catherine Walker website and you know what they say about having to ask how much something is…)
This is a sartorial tendency that extends to her in her off-duty hours too. Back in 2019 Kate was last photographed at the polo wearing a $740 LK Bennett dress. In July, the 40-year-old was back at watching her husband de ella working up a sweat playing a few chukkas but this time she chose a ladylike Emilia Wickstead number from the designer’s 2019 collection. Currently, a white sleeveless dress that is similar is selling for just under $2000.
Since early May, Kate has worn Alessandra Rich on multiple occasions (whose dresses start at about $2,511 and go up to more than $4,000), plenty of Emilia Wickstead, again costing in the thousands, and a variety of pairs of Emmy heels ($690 to pop) or Gianvitto Rossi pumps which come in at $1022 a pair.
The genius of Kate’s style for so long was her ability to seamlessly pair bargain items, such as the $3.95 earrings she chose for her first official event this year, with high end pieces, a perfect blend of the accessible and the aspirational.
What was so delightful about this was not just the demonstration of her fashion nous but the implication it carried; just because ella she could afford all the designer loot she could cart home from Bond Street did not mean ella she wanted to.
It all felt refreshing and just real and over the years the duchess’ regular choice of budget looks interspersed with the luxe carried with it the message that royal life had not fundamentally changed her as a person.
Which is why this emergence of this recent Kate who seems increasingly wedded to top tier labels only is a bit disquieting. To some degree I feel a certain sense of disappointment that one of the most meaningful ways she has, for more than a decade, set herself apart from the royal status quo seems to have disappeared.
(The only notable exception to this trend came on June 3 during a St Paul’s service during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations when she accessorized her bespoke Emilia Wickstead yellow stunner, which would have set Kate back thousands, and her $2000-plus Philip Treacey hat with … at $34 clutch from homegrown Australian brand Forever New.)
Maybe what I really liked about the Zara-era Kate was that every time she got out of her official car for an engagement clad in a $27 dress it carried with it a certain wonderful sense of defiance and refusal to suddenly change who she was. The takeaway: she She might have a title but she was still Kate.
One way to explain the change in her wardrobe direction might be that it reflects the repositioning we have seen of William and Kate’s image in the last year, from plucky young ‘uns to future king and queen. The runway from where they are now, as working foot soldiers of the royal family, to their coronation inside Westminster Abbey is being very clearly laid out by the Palace, driving home a message of monarchical continuity as the Queen looks shakier and shakier.
Perhaps the argument has been made that it’s fine for a workday duchess to slip into a few pounds worth of polyester but not for a queen-in-waiting. Or perhaps Kate has just grown up a bit and like women the world over is now focusing more on better quality pieces she can wear more often.
But to some degree the ‘why’ does not matter here; what does is what flow-on effect this shift might have.
On a purely functional level, Kate’s deployment of modest clothes over the years went a very long way to making her seem uniquely relatable in a way no royal WAG has before. Now, the more she chooses out-for-reach for everyone but the super-rich labels, the more she risks eroding those gains and making herself into more of a remote figure.
For William and Kate to truly ensure that the royal family remains a thriving concern, they need to seem approachable.
The danger there is obvious – central to the brand the Cambridges’ have assiduously been trying to build is that they are the congenial, normal royals, the hardworking duo happily transforming The Firm from fusty, frosty and all-too grand into a powerhouse of do -goodery.
At a time when the UK is in the grip of a cost-of-living crisis, seeing the woman who has been sold as the refreshingly normal duchess-next-door gadding about the better part of a $100,000 worth of designer duds is a potentially dangerous and certainly ill-conceived move.
Closes might maketh the man but Zara could help maketh a queen.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years’ experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles.