And so we have ourselves a new style icon. On Friday Catherine Middleton became a princess, walking through the doors of Westminister Abbey not just into royal history, but sartorial history too – whether she likes it or not, and whether the international fashion police like what she wore or not. Not that she has much choice in the matter. When you are a public figure, especially a female public figure, you are judged on what you wear.
The question now becomes: what sort of a style icon is she going to be? For they are not all created equal. To paraphrase Shakespeare, some are born stylish, some achieve stylishness, and some have style thrust upon them.
The first and second types tend to be, by adulthood, relatively hard to distinguish from each other, but otherwise easy to recognise: they are the sort of people whose every garment is obsessively chronicled by various style bloggers. They tend to appear, to the outside world, kind of outré and extreme, but are all the more interesting for that.
They also tend to have an identifiable and consistent look. Think, for example, of Japanese Vogue’s Anna Dello Russo, US Elle’s Kate Lanphear, Carine Roitfeld. Think even of Anna Wintour, with her trademark razor-sharp bob and glasses. Indeed, think of many who will be attending the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute gala this Monday night, perhaps the ultimate fashion world preening event, where peacocks of all worlds (social, philanthropic, business, and creative) shake their brightly coloured plumage at each other in an effort to institutionalise their iconic status.
Whether these women were actually born mixing and matching in strange ways or insisting on the same haircut every single time is debatable, but at a certain point what is clear is they developed a very personal take on dressing that distinguishes what most of us consider “style icons”: ie women whose clothes rest upon a pinnacle extreme enough to allow others to take their example, and dilute it into something practical regular people (which is to say, people who don’t want gawkers taking pictures of their shoes) can wear.
Lady Gaga, the winner of the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s style icon award for 2011, fits this description, for example. No one would ever take wholesale her almost-naked bodysuit-plus-stilt-shoes look, but, abstracted into skinny skirt with high, high heels, it makes sense in the general population. Emma Watson, whose style is still unclear, and seems mostly formed by Christopher Bailey, does not. Neither (I think) do Gwyneth Paltrow and Sarah Jessica Parker, women who are often referred to as “icons”, but who as far as I can tell seem, rather, just to wear very trendy, often tight, clothing, the better to show off their gym hours.
Indeed, I think most celebrities don’t actually qualify as style icons: what they wear generally is simply an expression of other people’s (stylists’) agendas. Style icons have their own agenda – or at least those in categories one and two do. Three is a different matter, which is why this is where I expect to put Catherine.
After all, the former Kate Middleton is a woman who has been lauded for the past eight years for her ability to stay quietly in the background, to be supportive of her boyfriend as he hemmed and hawed, to not do anything to attract notice or cause consternation or solicit opinion (good or bad) in any way. Who has effectively made herself synonymous with the words “appropriate” and “middle-of-the-road”. Who is clearly content to do her historic duty and walk a few steps behind her monarch. She is pretty – but not too pretty. Sporty, but not too sporty. Her hair is neither very long nor very short. The only thing extreme about her is her ability to avoid any choice that would cause any controversy. And this includes what she wears.
She is, thus, an example of a different kind of style icon: one who gets the title simply because she’s out there. She dresses, therefore she is – that sort of thing. She has had the role thrust upon her, and it is hers for the duration. Now she has a choice to make about what she does in that position.
She can follow the lead of her late mother-in-law, Diana – at least as she was when she was married to Prince Charles – and use fashion to help burnish the shiny, glamorous image of the young royals (as opposed to what Diana-the-divorcee did, which was use fashion to burnish her own star). But chances are, the current Queen is a little sensitive to any attempt to create a stand-out new royal.
She can do a Michelle Obama, and use fashion to promote local industry, consciously supporting and publicising small British designers – but then, that’s wading a bit into politics, and it’s also Samantha “Ambassador for British Fashion” Cameron’s job.
Or Catherine can do nothing in particular, and, post-honeymoon, keep on keeping on as she is, in nice, well-fitting, easy to understand, clothes that make other women see her and think: hey! I could wear that no problem! She’d be like the royal, UK equivalent of the former First Lady Laura Bush (but skinnier and younger), who stayed smiling in neat dresses in the background and ended up being one of, if not the, most popular figures in her husband’s beleaguered administration.
My guess is this is what the royal family would like the new princess to do, and this is probably what we will see. And ultimately it is not without political implications of its own: Catherine’s fashion accessibility – its very banality – helps render the royal family more accessible. At least when it comes to clothes, she may, in fact, give new meaning to the words “people’s princess”.
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman