You've got to love the Paper Bag Princess.
She does not stop to mourn her wardrobe when the palace is incinerated. She outwits a dragon. And when her rescued prince throws a stink-eye at her tangled hair and dirty paper dress, she dumps the bum. It is a satisfying fairy tale.
But in real life, the princess ideal is as entrenched as ever. After childbirth – the kind of real-life battle that would cause dragon slayers to run for the hills – Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge appeared on cue, in a very pretty dress, with not a hair out of place. While technically not a princess, she is married to a prince. And she carries royal marketing heft.
Every dress she wears flies off the racks – an effect seen with Hollywood celebrities as well, but not with the same consistency. She is almost single-hande dly breathing life back into the royal brand. She and Prince William are hailed as a thoroughly modern couple. And yet, aside from her title, the Duchess has much in common with a run-of-the-mill trophy wife.
She is pretty. She is young. She is not responsible for the family income. She is a clotheshorse and a socialite. Her intellectual substance is immaterial to how her character is judged. Her body is constantly scrutinized, whether for its thinness or, post-pregnancy and in nauseating language, for her "yummy tummy." While the roles of wife and mother should not be minimized, the reality remains that a large business exists in marketing to consumers who are eager to emulate an old-fashioned female icon. Despite decades of feminist discourse, princess idolization has not changed substantially since the days of Grace Kelly.
"We have seen a significant increase in sales of polka dot dresses, influenced by Kate Middleton's dress choice earlier this week," said Jenny Duong, a spokesperson for British retailer ASOS. The retailer was not alone.
While Jenny Packham, the designer behind the Duchess's postpartum look, does not intend to sell the bespoke number, the hordes eager to emulate her still crashed her site. Retailers such as Desire, fashionbloodhound.com, and Asda all reported massive increases in sales of polka dot blue dresses in the hours after her appearance, Britain's Daily Mail newspaper reported. The George at Asda brand reportedly sold more than 5,000 dresses in similar styles in less than 24 hours.
Her progeny has now upped the ante for stylish infants: On Thursday, it was still possible to buy the $70 super-fine merino wool christening shawl that covered the newborn Prince; but the website of G.H. Hurt & Son included a disclaimer.
"Due to a well publicized event demand for this item has increased. Lead times may be slightly longer with this beautiful shawl," it read.
In her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter , Peggy Orenstein analyzed and shuddered at the hyper-feminized marketing of "princess mania" to young girls. "It was confusing: images of girls' successes abounded – they were flooding the playing field, excelling in school, outnumbering boys in college," she wrote. "At the same time, the push to make their appearance the epicentre of their identities did not seem to have abated one whit."
The Disney Princess franchise now draws $3-billion (U.S.) in global sales of items such as plastic tiaras, attachable Rapunzel hair, tulle gowns and wedding veils. The grown-up women who snap up Kate's latest espadrilles and wrap dresses could be seen as the natural next step.
"Rightly or wrongly, a lot of us were raised wanting that fairy tale for ourselves," said Susan Kelley, the Michigan-based blogger behind the website WhatKateWore.com, who also owns an e-commerce business named Preppy Princess.
Since its 2011 launch, the blog has grown to attract more than 20,000 unique visitors on an average day; in the last couple days traffic has doubled.
Issa London has capitalized on its fame from the blue dress Ms. Middleton wore for her engagement announcement. The dress sold out fast at the time and has since been reissued in a maternity version. And now the brand has signed a partnership with Banana Republic to expand beyond British shores, selling a line of clothing in its stores starting Aug. 8. The line will, of course, include a less pricey version of the engagement dress.
It's not that women are failing to question the princess ideal. Bic was met with a wave of criticism when it introduced pink "For Her" pens. In May, Disney was forced to backtrack after consumers raged at an online redesign of the princess Merida from its animated hit film Brave marked her addition to the Disney Princess collection. The redrawn character had tamed her wild locks and sported a much smaller waist and a more glittery gown with a lower neckline. She had also discovered eyeliner. More than 250,000 people have signed an online petition against the makeover.
However, even Brave producer Katherine Sarafian admitted that the film's spunky heroine was more marketable as a princess.
"We tried making her the blacksmith's daughter and the milkmaid in various things," she said in an interview with National Public Radio last year. "There's no stakes in the story for us that way."
For grown-up female consumers, particularly in this economy, the princess ideal represents an escape, said Bonnie Ulman, president of Atlanta-based marketing firm the Haystack Group and author of Hustle: Marketing to Women in the Post-Recession World.
"We're really looking for a bright shiny object, someone who represents and epitomizes the idea of hope," she said. "The only troubling aspect of it is when we lose sight of what reality is."
Blogger Ms. Kelley sees another trend as well: female consumers who are tired of celebrity culture that pushes a revealing, bling-obsessed style. There was a hunger, she believes, for a more classic, modest feminine look – less Kardashian and more Grace Kelly. However, a more old-fashioned view of a woman's role can go hand in hand with that.
"The role model has not changed," Ms. Kelley said. "I'm not sure it would fly, if Kate wanted to report to an office every day."