The Duchess of Cambridge is in archetypal transition.
First, she was the Girl Like Us who married her prince and, for the longest time, dressed like us too, in clothes from popular retail stores that many could afford. It was as if Kate Middleton was telling us through her wardrobe that she hadn’t changed much despite the fact that she had added an HRH to her name and lived in a palace. The only thing that had gone to her head was an occasional tiara.
But for the royal couple’s upcoming tour to Australia and New Zealand in April, the Duchess is undergoing what insiders are calling a “regal makeover” in an effort to project more majesty, a move which some may see as further evidence that she is little more than a womb and an image in service to the House of Windsor.
A memo from the Queen – delivered on a silver tray by a gloved and liveried footman, one imagines – asks that the 32-year-old Duchess wear longer hemlines (likely with weights sewn in to avoid the potential exposure of royal undies in a gust of wind) and serious bling. Angela Kelly, personal dresser to the Queen since 1994, has been brought in to help. Recently, it has also been rumoured that Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, has suggested that Kate cut off her Rapunzel locks.
The Australian tour is an opportunity to see how she will more fully inhabit her majesty. It was on Princess Diana’s tour of Australia in the early eighties, shortly after the birth of Prince William, that she made her own distinctive mark as a royal style-maker, especially with jewellery. In 1985, she famously wore an emerald-and-diamond choker, given to her by the Queen as a wedding present, as a headband across her forehead. It was Diana’s fresh way of redefining how royalty could be.
“On the Australian tour, we are going to see the personification of a princess,” comments Katie Nicholl, a London-based royal expert and author of Kate, The Future Queen. “There is a strong republican movement there and this is quite a deliberate attempt to portray the young, fresh face of the monarchy. There will be state dinners and Topshop [clothing] simply won’t do.”
Already, the change is under way. Last month, at her first official engagement of the year at the National Portrait Gallery, of which she is a patron, the Duchess wore a Jenny Packham evening gown and a diamond necklace that the Queen had lent to her. The long chain with 38 diamonds, including 13 emerald-cut diamonds and a pear-shaped one, was given to the Queen as a wedding present in 1947 by Nizam of Hyderbad, the last ruler of a large state in India. Told she could choose anything from Cartier, Princess Elizabeth, as she was known then, selected the piece, which had been designed in the 1930s.
Adornment with jewels has long been a way for royalty to convey authority, notes Carolyn Harris, an instructor in history at University of Toronto Toronto. “Queen Elizabeth I was famously painted wearing many strings of pearls and apparently some of those pearls were artificial,” she says in a telephone interview “What mattered was the appearance of majesty.”
In addition to the British Crown Jewels, the current Queen has a vast private collection of jewellery. And unlike clothes, hand-me-down jewels carry with them not only the weight of their legendary backstory but also the tacit understanding of approval and sanctioning of duty. Photographs of the once-maligned Camilla wearing the honeycomb-style Boucheron tiara, also on loan from the Queen, never fail to make the British papers. The image rankles some who still feel resentful of her role in the failed marriage of Prince Charles and Diana. Nevertheless, it underscores her position as future consort when her husband ascends the throne.
Jewellery as emblem of inclusion was also on display when the Queen lent Kate her Lotus Flower tiara for her wedding in 2011, which she also wore for a ball this past December. It was an anniversary gift from George VI to the Queen Mother and had been given to Princess Elizabeth for her 18th birthday. The sentimental, storied value of some of her pieces are as memorable and significant as their sparkle.
But the metamorphosis of Kate into serious royal is being closely watched because a large part of her appeal is her normality. She embodies the fairy tale of a girl whose life is forever changed by the man she marries, and we’re hoping it turns out to be happily ever after. Will she be a palace victim as some believe Diana was? Will she and Prince William be able to push back against the palace dictums? The fact that she wasn’t born to the bling – unlike her late mother-inlaw whose aristocratic family could dip into their own “jewel pool” – makes the donning of the royal trappings all the more poignant.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have made a concerted effort to appear like every other modern couple. He drove his wife and newborn home from the hospital himself. And their first official photograph with their baby was taken by her father, Michael Middleton, in an informal setting on her parents’ country property. As the Queen, now 87, passes more of the royal duties to her children, interest grows about how they will live up to the demands.
“Kate was determined not to have a dresser and I think it’s a way for her to keep her independence, to not have everything taken away from her,” says Nicholl in an interview. “She can’t just push George down the high street. So perhaps how she dresses has been her way to keep her identity. It is part of her charm.”
But the Duchess also understands the expectation of her role, Nicholl adds, and it comes without resentment. “I think she recognizes the need to change things a bit. What we are seeing is a move toward a more grown-up duchess. She is a mother now, and she has a lot more engagements. And whether Kate likes it or not, when she’s opening a hospital or planting a tree, the scrutiny is always going to be on her and what she wears. And there’s no margin for error.”
Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the Lotus Flower tiara as the Carier Halo tiara.