I admit: when I heard about the royal engagement last Tuesday, my first reaction was a deep, yoga-like groan (you know: from the diaphragm). Not because I was upset about Prince William’s choice or the fact that young Ms Middleton said yes, but because it took absolutely no effort to foresee what has ensued: the avalanche of speculation, discussion and column inches devoted to the burning question of What Will She Wear? And yes, I did blog about it, so I am partly guilty, but I put that down to peer pressure (everyone else is writing about it; I have to too). Still I couldn’t help thinking: can’t we just leave the poor girl alone?
Or, as I advise my daughter to respond when the kids at school gossip about her dating life: “Yawn. Your life must be so boring if this is all you have to think about.” Which seems to be the general knee-jerk reaction for most of us who pretend to have more high-falutin’ issues on our minds, like the Irish banking crisis, as opposed to what a Princess might wear as she embarks on her fairy tale.
But you know what? We’re wrong. I’m wrong: what Kate Middleton wears on her wedding day does matter. And not just because it will give a lucrative boost to some designer, but because the royal family – especially the one who is going to become a king and whoever that king-to-be marries – is one of the few pure symbols we have left. When you combine that with a universally symbolic act (what else is a wedding?) the combination has an exponential power: to reach people, and to telegraph a message everyone can read, both about England and the future. And the most obvious part of that symbolism – the thing everyone sees, the thing everyone can buy into, thanks to the high street copy machine – is The Dress.
That’s nothing to yawn about. Though it is a little jaw-dropping, on the sartorial pressure scale.
The UK hasn’t had an opportunity to communicate so much through one person on one day in 30 years, or since William’s father married his mother, and Princess Diana took such care to choreograph an event right out of the Hans Christian Andersen playbook. Why do you think people were so upset when it all went wrong? Because they had swallowed that happy ending, coach-riding-into-the-sunset thing, that’s why!
Which is also why speculation about The Dress has begun, and bookmaker Paddy Power is already taking bets on who will be the designer: Daniella Issa Helayel and Amanda Wakeley are odds-on favourites at 9/2. It’s also why the current raft of stories on “Kate Middleton’s style” are pointless and misguided. It’s not her personal style during her last eight years of dating that matters; it’s her “princess style”. Her wedding dress will be the unveiling of her public self. The questions she will have to think about, other than “does it flatter me and is it church-appropriate?” are much more complicated:
Does she (or do she and William, because they come as a package now) want to position herself as a modernising royal? In which case, she might look at a young, new- generation designer, and opt for fewer pearls than past princesses.
How much does she want to stand on her own, or acknowledge the royals who came before? Does she nod to her fiancé’s mother by using one of Diana’s designers (Bruce Oldfield?), or break with tradition?
Does she want to practice international dress diplomacy, à la Michelle Obama, and wear a foreign designer, albeit one based in London (ie, Brazilian Issa Helayel)? Or should she do her bit for Britain by copying Carla Bruni, who seems to wear only French?
Should she acknowledge the current austerity measures, and dress down (or as down as you can dress for a wedding), eschewing a long train and acres of fabric – or should she provide an escape from the depressing humdrum of real life?
Should she acknowledge Britain’s global fashion industry with big names such as Burberry, Stella McCartney or Vivienne Westwood? Or promote small businesses such as Erdem or Alice Temperley?
On top of these issues, I am sure there are internal royal factors I know nothing about to consider – not to mention what Kate’s mother thinks. Like it or not, how the probable future queen of England looks on her wedding day is not just a fashion issue; that’s the least of it, even in the age of democracy – maybe even especially in the age of democracy – when her role has been reduced to its figurative essence. It’s also political and cultural and economic. I’m sure she knows that. It’s time the rest of us acknowledged it too.
Vanessa Friedman is the FT’s style editor
More columns at www.ft.com/friedman
More on the royal wedding at www.ft.com/materialworld