Hats, heels and helping others: A reverse timeline of understanding powerful British royals

Tuesday, February 25, 2020 - 9:31pm

NOSELL

Entertainment Tonight & Flickr

On Apr. 29, 2011, Catherine Middleton floated out of a retired Rolls-Royce Phantom VI parked directly in front of the main entrance of London’s Westminster Abbey. The morning wind caught her delicate veil as she rose to stand on the red carpet laid before her. Gracefully, she switched the hand holding her spring bouquet to adjust the flying lace. As she stood poised for her royal entrance, her sister calmly adjusted the dress’s seven-foot train. Crowds roared in response to the scene and the BBC announcers literally squealed. This wasn’t just the wedding of a future king — it was the launch of Britain’s 21st century monarchy. 

She entered the church at 11 a.m., the sun barely offset from the top of the sky. In my California hometown, however, it was three in the morning. The sun hid quietly on the other side of the world and the night air rested silently in my backyard, but my TV whirred as it broadcast the event live from my family’s living room. I was certainly not the only preteen girl to pull an all-nighter that day in an effort to watch the Cambridge couple say “I do,” but nevertheless, popularity does not diminish impact. The new Duchess’s dress made my young heart melt. The layers of satin and lace and British poise composed a smooth cocktail of perfection that launched my continuing love for the Duchess of Cambridge. 

Two years later, Kate and Will stepped out of St. Mary’s hospital with newborn Prince George wrapped in a delicate white cloth. Kate wore a blue polka-dotted dress and the world applauded her for not trying to hide her postpartum body … but also wearing heels. Even through the small screen of a YouTube video, her mellow smile and long-fingered wave encapsulated the timeless elegance of the monarchy’s newest mother. I was hooked. 

I could go on. Her long winter coats on Christmas mornings. Her gowns at BAFTA awards and state dinners. Her sundresses on summer afternoons spent watching Will play polo (which is just about the most British phrase I’ll ever write). Her hats (actually, this one might be more British). Kate’s fashion is no doubt the strongest influence on my own wardrobe to this day, but not just for her clean lines of buttons, pleated skirts and sensible heels.

Through it all, her character shines through as a thoughtful mother and future queen. Her style is not avant-garde, but her activism is. She wears elegant coat-dresses while delivering poised speeches on mental health advocacy. She dons timeless evening gowns while pledging support for children’s physical education and classic blazers when promoting outdoor education. In essence, she is a picture of traditional beauty and a promoter of new causes. 

As my teenage mind formed this appreciation, however, I did not realize that Kate was not actually operating on her own. I did not recognize that her style was not completely hers, and her support for the underdog was not original. From the moment that her wedding veil caught the morning wind at Westminster Abbey, her existence fell under a melancholic cloud of royal legacy. 

I was not alive when Princess Diana died. I was born almost exactly a year after the fatal car crash that took her life in 1997 — still comfortably within the final decade of the 20th century but far enough toward the end to leave me questioning where I belong. There are many events that I’m told ended the ’90s — the loss of Princess Diana seems to be one of them. In my retroactive learning of her impact on England and the world, I see Kate’s story in a brand new light. The two women share far more than an engagement ring. 

Across the internet, fans place the two princess’s wedding attire side-by-side, pointing to similarities in their ivory color scheme and exaggerated dress trains. They talk about both couples’ use of a carriage after the ceremony and their equally iconic Buckingham Palace balcony kisses. After the birth of Prince George, the world spent weeks ogling the fact that both women had left the hospital in polka dots after their first born child. When Kate pulled on a red dress after welcoming her youngest child, fans lost their minds at the similarities to Diana’s reveal of Prince Harry in 1984. 

People point to gold accents on evening gowns and similar hat shapes at garden parties. They find shared fabric styles and color schemes. Sometimes the connections feel exaggerated, but the basis of them is not; Kate’s style is clearly influenced by Diana’s, and the world clearly loves it. This, of course, only encourages the Cambridge team to continue working under these influences, in and out of wardrobe. 

Princess Diana was the first royal to act as a non-royal mother. She took her kids to amusement parks and rode with them down the log flumes. Kate’s work with children today promotes those same values: love and nurturing. Princess Diana was the first British royal to touch an AIDS patient without gloves. She showed the world how to separate fear of an illness from fear of a person. Today, Kate visits hospitals and shelters to support those same values. She is a princess fulfilling the legacy of a woman whose potential was cut short. She is the re-launch of a show that was tragically cancelled and the sequel to a movie with a vicious cliffhanger. 

At the same time, I can’t help but wonder what this must feel like to her. Kate never met Diana, and yet the world often sees the two women as one. Does she enjoy the legacy, or does she ache for a moment that is entirely her own? I see myself in this question, too. Born in 1998, at the tail end of such a celebrated decade, I don’t know how to classify myself. Do I call myself a ’90s child — do I associate myself with President Bill Clinton and MTV and do I take Cher’s “Clueless” yellow suit as my own? Or do I learn about those years through the backward method of legacy as I did with Kate’s mother-in-law? What belongs to me, and what belongs to my predecessors? Frankly, I don’t have an answer. All I know is I find comfort in the fact that maybe, just maybe, this predicament makes me more similar to Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.