Time to polish the silver: Kensington Palace has officially announced that Prince Harry is engaged to Meghan Markle. If you’re interested, for the event she chose a white belted shawl coat by LINE the label, “a Canadian brand specializing in upscale and luxury knitwear.” Are you interested? If you care about fashion, you probably should be. LINE’s website crashed; the coat, now dubbed the “Meghan,” sold out; the designer promises that if you email personally, you might still be able to snag one for $626.50. Markle’s sartorial influence has only just begun.
In 2011, Prince Harry’s older brother William, presumptive heir to the throne, gave his promise ring to Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge. The dress Kate wore — a streamlined sapphire wrap dress –– sold out in minutes, presaging the “Kate effect,” and spurred such an impossibly high demand that the brand itself, Issa, eventually collapsed. “I left because I couldn’t take any more,” Issa founder Daniella Helayel told the Daily Mail. “I felt so stressed that my hair went white and started falling out. I was broken by the end of it.”
Two women, relative unknowns, suddenly gifted the power to make or break whole fashion houses. It’s a curious phenomenon, but not a new one. Much as we think of celebrities as the driving force behind fashion trends, historically, royalty were the real trendsetters. Sixteenth century queen Catherine de’ Medici was short. Also, her husband (King Henry II of France) was in love with another woman, and everyone knew it, so Catherine had to be smart. At 14, when she was getting ready to marry, she asked her personal cobbler to design her a shoe, something with pizazz, something that would (quite literally) make her stand a little taller.
And thus, the high heel was born. Catherine’s innovation spread throughout her realm and beyond, and that’s who can thank for the calf-skin leopard stilettos that are literally only useful for walking seductively to and from your closet. True icons of fashion have the ability to alter the course of history.
Today, “How to dress like Kate” yields over 25 million Google results: Google knows exactly which Kate you mean. By some estimates, the Duchess’s wardrobe contributes over £1 billion to the British economy, much of it fueled by an army of women (known as RepliKates) who snap up every Breton tee, fit and flare dress, and kitten heel Kate wears. But what is it that makes this particular princess such a galvanizer? How did a woman who is sartorially implacable and uniquely private develop her tribe?
Mallory Bowling (@lady.m.replikates) has been “informally RepliKating” since 2010, right around the engagement. The public fascination with Kate’s style, she says, helped to “legitimize” her own fashion choices. “RepliKating was a way I could channel the clothes I really felt comfortable in — colored denim, classic blazers, understated embellished blouses — with Kate serving as an inspiration.” She now has a collection of 75-100 “outfit pieces” that Kate herself has worn. To her, it’s the relative accessibility of Kate’s choices that make her such a popular fashion plate. By incorporating “high street” fashion into her wardrobe — mixing Zara and Topshop with Jenny Packham and Temperley — Kate enables “ordinary women” to literally play princess for a day.
Steph (@budget_duchess), a self-confessed “royal fanatic,” says dressing like Kate has actually made her a more selective shopper. “When I am putting together a RepliKate look, I look more closely at the outfit as a whole, and the amount of thought that has gone into it,” she says. She’s determined to RepliKate on a budget, and there’s a whole sport to be made of tracking down Kate’s designer items at regular human prices. “A couple of my best finds were Kate’s Aquatalia Rhumba Boots and her Stuart Weitzman Power Pumps at a local shop for only $6 each,” Mallory touts.
The RepliKates chief enabler is Susan E. Kelley. In the cult of Kate, she is a high priestess. A former journalist, she now runs What Kate Wore, which catalogues and sources all of Kate’s outfits and accessories and provides a safe space where commenters can engage in an encyclopedic dissection of the Duchess’s outfits. A comment on Kate’s recent appearance in an Orla Kiely shift: “There’s a developing last-century vintage theme in Kate’s daywear. This one ranks alongside the clean lines of the likes of the orange check Eponine two-piece or the Gucci shift. She’s actually had this [dress] long enough to have bought it during her first pregnancy so the theme maybe dates back a bit.”
Susan was running a retail marketing blog when she noticed that posts referencing Kate drew a far more engaged readership. She wrote more, and then more, and then nabbed her URL, and suddenly “princess watching” was her full-time job. She had an immediate familiarity with Kate’s style — “I had a Barbour jacket, and I had the wellies” — but doesn’t consider herself a RepliKater. Rather, she’s something like an incredibly niche fashion detective, tracking down the Duchess’s pieces with the help of the millions of women who have garnered a reputation for being some of the most knowledgeable in fashion. “There’s a woman in Poland who can identify all of Kate’s jewellry,” Susan tells me, “even from a distance.” The dull glint of a pearl stud is enough for her to know those aren’t just any pearls: they’re the pearls sourced from Queen Victoria’s necklace that was given to her by a Persian Sultan, etc., etc. Kate’s followers are, by turns, focused, fanatical, and full of sharp, unforgiving feelings about her fashion choices.
Susan has spent more time than most in the realm of Kate, and has her own theories about whatever magic sauce it is that turns a Banana Republic cardigan into a collector’s item. “When Kate came along,” Susan believes, “people were looking for something more traditional… By and large, she’s more conservative than what people were seeing, and I think people just wanted clothes that didn’t show as much skin, that left more to the imagination.”
Many of the women who look to Kate for inspiration speak about their admiration for Kate’s relatively modest dress; as if somehow, by slipping into a pair of her sensible pumps, they are slipping into a world that validates their own, somewhat demure, style choices. “I have always preferred more sophisticated looks over more risky looks,” says Steph. There is no sin, in other words, that a Cinnamon Bun fascinator can’t hide.
That’s one of the best things about fashion: the idea that how you present yourself to the world can project a clear image of who you are on the inside (or mask it, or change it). Jane Barr, who runs the wildly popular From Berkshire to Buckingham, admires not only Kate’s style, but what her choices communicate about her interiority. “What I liked about Kate is how she responded to her relationship,” says Jane. “I was young when [she and William] started dating, and it was a really emotional time for me. I was devastated by their breakup — and then inspired by how she got him back. The public was against her, and I thought that was so hard on her, and she was so strong. That’s part of what made me a huge fan. I’m still impressed, frankly, by how she handles herself. She’s discreet, she does her job well, and she has a very strong sense of how she wants to live her life.”
Susan echoes this. “It’s probably really hard living under the microscope. For someone in her situation, six years after being married, she hasn’t put a foot wrong. She hasn’t tripped, said something ghastly — I would think that takes a lot of work and concentration.”
And that’s what is most evident about Kate’s fashion choices: she’s safe. Even when branching out into new designers (like she did with this cataclysmically divisive Erdem) she remains relatively innocuous. The most interesting thing about her status as an icon of fashion is just how uninteresting she is — a pleasing quality in a fashion plate, if what you’re looking for is someone who enables you to project your own image onto theirs. It’s not hard to imagine what you’d look like in that well-tailored blazer, those smart riding boots: like yourself but better, yourself without the peanut butter in your hair. Like yourself, but with an entire country at your feet.
For her part, Susan is excited to see what Meghan will bring to the table. “Meghan can be a little edgier in her wardrobe choices than Kate can: Meghan is marrying the fifth in line to the throne while Kate is married to a future King and the mother of another, [which] automatically precludes [Kate from] wearing some of the more fashion-forward designs,” she says. Jane agrees. “Meghan has a very trendy and flashy sense of style, which I like, and makes for really great ‘fashion watching’.”
They are both, in the end, women poised on the edge of something huge and strange and ancient, both relics of a time when an individual could change the course of the world. With great power comes great responsibility to make sure your handbag matches your shoes, and all that. Both are committed to being more than fashion plates, but their influence as such will probably be inescapable either way. “I guess the ultimate lesson is that neither Meghan nor Kate are fashion stars purely for fashion’s sake,” says Jane. “Kate (and soon Meghan) channel history and mystery. They are living fairy tales, modern princesses. That’s a more complicated persona than just fashion star.”
Feature image by UK Press Pool/UK Press via Getty Images.