Inside the Cult of Kate Middleton and Her Superfans
11.30.17

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.”

Photo by Samir Hussein/WireImage via Getty Images.

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.

Kate Middleton in Aquatalia Rhumba Boots
Photo by Indigo via Getty Images.

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.

Kate Middleton in Orla Kiely.
Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo via Getty Images.

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.”

Photo by David Parker – WPA Pool via Getty Images.

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.

Get more Pop Culture ?
  • Amelia Diamond

    DIBS ON WHAT MEGHAN MARKLE WORE DOT COM

    • Does MR need someone to cover the royal wedding because if so I believe I am free

      • Amelia Diamond

        um yes

    • Owner

      I currently own the domain. I have been having trouble getting content published. It’s for sale or lease! Name your price. Motivated seller. Send me a line:
      MonroeaAppsLLC @ gmail . Com

      • Owner

        *MonroeAppsLLC @ GMAIL . COM

      • mia |-/

        omg

    • Suzan

      Amelia! Am I wrong to assume you’d have a thing for the equestrian look of Kate Middleton?

      Especially seeing the Wellington boot photo (but also that Erdem dress) I really had to think of you.
      Not being (intentionally) creepy! Just a daily MR-reader 🙂

  • Cristina

    Ugh I love Kate. I guess, as an American, she’s like the epitome of British fashion to me. She’s not regular degular shmegular, she’s British. You are automatically awesome.
    I wish I could get into Meghan as much, but I think it’s just because I was younger with Will and Kate and also… Will and Kate sort of stole the spotlight. Now I’m a real adult with not as much time on my hands to be on Royal Watch. (Literally came from work, stayed the night at a friends to watch the wedding, got up and went to work lol!).

  • Bee

    As soon as I saw the title of this article, I thought, “Oh look, an article about me on Man Repeller.”

    • Meemaw

      I love conservative dress. In fact I would dress daily like 60s Jackie Kennedy if I could get away with it. But Kate is Just.So.Twee. She looks like a doll wrapped in a doily, not like a 35 year old.

  • Adrianna

    I think it’s important to point out that these two women are skinny and conventionally/catalog-model pretty. Not in a critical or snarky way, but that those traits are still part of our fantasies, whether or not we’d like to admit it. And of course there’s the whole “oh she grew up middle class! That could be me!” aspect too

    • Kristin

      Catalog model is such shade! Straight out of ANTM (but I don’t disagree) —her wardrobe is a snooze..hair done, natural makeup, pearl studs, tailored everything…arent you bored of looking nice ?

    • Daniel Szilagyi

      She really did not grow up in a standard middle class family, they were in the very high end of middle class for sure.
      Anyone who has that fantasy that it could be them really needs to research

      • Adrianna

        Yes, I know. But William wasn’t instructed to find a virgin born into nobility when he was in his 30s.

  • Elizabeth Tamkin

    Kate Middleton never wears lipstick is that a royal no-no?

    • EmUhLee

      Also, she ALWAYS wears nude pantyhose, which is apparently required by the queen. You can tell in her engagement pic above.

  • Rachel

    My dad worked as head of security for Kate and William when they visited our city and when I asked him what he thought of them he said “They were fine. She could use a baloney sandwich, boy.” Thanks for the intel, dad.

    • Sorry, what does it mean?

    • Tessa

      If I could act as a dad-to-english translator: it means that they were pleasant, but she’s too thin. I imagine it’s the exact inverse of whenever I’m at a diner with my dad and he evaluates my meal by asking if I’m headed to the electric chair.

    • Kiks

      My husband was on security in Victoria last year and was positioned very close to them; he just said Kate was absolutely stunningly gorgeous in person.

  • “The most interesting thing about her status as an icon of fashion is just how uninteresting she is” THIS. I know the psychology of this was explained but I seriously don’t get the appeal. Maybe I could see it from a tailoring POV because everything fits her perfectly but overall I’m just like “Oh gr8 another peacoat how lovely.” I mean no offense to Kate of course.. or any of the women who are obsessed- my sensibilities are just too kitschy (tacky, on bad days) to enjoy her outfits.

    • Kiks

      I love how *she* looks in her clothes, and I love to admire the classic and demure choices…but if I wore the things she does, I would feel like I was in a costume.

      • exactly! I can really appreciate that pink twopiece situation but I would never in a million years wear it myself. somehow it’s strange that I keep following her every move, she dresses like her situation: under a microscope of epic proportions. I dress like a cross between an emo teen and a victorian sunday school teacher.

        • Kiks

          “A cross between an emo teen and a victorian sunday school teacher” I AM STEALING THIS FOREVER because that’s exactly how I dress too.

          So this is what it sounds like when doves cry.

          • and cry they do!
            it does get difficult too dress yourself tho, because nothing goes together haha

  • Autumn

    Not to be that annoying fact checker, but Catherine de Medici just made heels fashionable and popular, they weren’t invented for her.

    • Adrianna

      I thought that point didn’t sound right either

      • EXCELLENT POINTS ALL. I love MR commenters. It should really read “modern” high heel – there were definitely ancient versions of heeled shoes, but the shoe made for Catherine was the forerunner of what we know as a high heel.

        • Julie

          Also heels were originally invented for/worn by men, for horse riding or in order to appear taller, like little teeny weeny Louis the XIV. Fascinating. But I will now go and read up on Catherine de Medici with fashion glee!

    • I was going to say the same thing!

  • I absolutely love this piece! I’ve never been particularly “fangirl-y” about the royals’ style (just not my cup of tea ha ha ha ah ahahhahahaha) but this angle ignited the whole concept with mischief and excitement for me–I guess there’s a bit of a girl boss feel about these women altering history with their fashion choices, even if they don’t necessarily seem revolutionary. Catherine de’ Medici??? Kinda a beast*.

    Now my mind’s whizzing with possibilities of what these women and their successors could shake up in the fashion world…would be a good idea for a fiction novel 🙂

    Thanks for this, it made my day!

    *beast as in boss and/or person who is very good at something, NOT to be confused with beast as in animal

  • Harling Ross

    this is so good meghan

  • CayC

    I think that a lot of people see Kate as Diana’s heir, and Diana was definitely beloved for her fashion choices. She’s actually done a really good job of living up to fairly impossible standards.

  • Jul Mara

    I’m a little shocked that there’s such thing as “repliKates” and I never even knew / I’m not one ??? This is exactly the content I’ve been needing in my life

  • Alexa M

    Kate’s a sweetheart, but I know sixty year-olds with edgier style. I guess part of the point of her having such a relentlessly tasteful wardrobe though is that she can wear designer pieces again and again over the years without them looking outdated.

    • Sugar Bones

      “Relentlessly tasteful!!”

    • nelgracev

      Only the mediocre are always at their best 😉

  • Laura

    I like Kate enough, but I can’t help but to always go back to Princess Diana. PD’s style had that something, something.

    • Ciccollina

      And so did she. A fascinating woman.

  • Daniel Szilagyi

    Well the UK needs to boost it’s economy somehow after their incredibly short sighted version of leaving the EU, and if Kate/Megan help that and they notice you can bet they’ll use it to bolster the economy (although it’s quite sad)

  • garnishmywages

    I always loved how the old queen Mum dressed in one color, head to toe all matching. I did not see how that could actually be possible! I learned it was very intentional, the solid color made it easier for her security to keep track of her, cool.

  • Chess

    From supplementary reading to this I absolutely recommend the Hilary Mantel piece for the guardian about Kate, so so good. As was this!

    • yay Hilary Mantel! she wrote a piece about Kate?! brb googling

      • “Kate seems to have been selected for her role of princess because she was irreproachable: as painfully thin as anyone could wish, without quirks, without oddities, without the risk of the emergence of character.”

        DAMN that woman knows her way around an insult

  • Mary

    But you left out her evening wear, most of which is fabulous and classy and more daring than her everyday wear. Not to mention the wide range of occasions across which she dresses; it can be Kate Spade or Reiss during the day and then Erdem, Chloe, Self Portait, McQueen, Temperley, Gucci at night–all while looking confident, respectful, and at ease. Not sure we can say the same about Meghan and her overzealous waving and petting of Harry…

  • Such a fascinating article! Even my husband read it! Haha.

    http://www.shessobright.com

  • JennyWren

    I think one of the things I like most about Kate is how I don’t really know anything about her. The Royal family seems to be full of people who can’t help exposing their worst behaviour and impulses on an international stage despite one of the most efficiently secretive institutions in the world nannying them. Kate just seems nice but dull, but who knows what she’s actually like? Her wardrobe seems to more effectively shield and deflect attention than the palace has been able to, which you have to respect. There’s also something refreshing about competently executed anonymity in a world that’s currently full of an excess of personality. It’s like normcore, but less aggressively so.

    However, I do I think some of these ladies have their rose-tinted glasses firmly in place. The “public” as a whole has always been quite fond of Kate, it’s mostly two or three bitchy tabloids who’ve had the knife out, and that only now and then. Also, they seem to be forgetting the numerous incidents when she’s had her knickers exposed due to unfortunate drafts and breezes. Personally that doesn’t bother me, but it’s pushing it to say she hasn’t put a foot wrong.

  • She is more of a hair role model for me. So fluffy and shiny!!!!
    (But I’d wear all the dresses from the slideshow for work. We don’t all have a job where you can show up with a bra over your shirt and stuff)

  • Kate Middleton is perfect woman.. if you want visit indonesia for holiday.. please visit pulau seribu resort

  • Ciccollina

    I definitely think that the Kate phenomenon ties to the fact that her outfits are amazingly practical work-wise. When you grow older you stop having time for a work wardrobe and a weekend wardrobe so you invest more in pieces that can play in both space without being too corporate, so I think this is a big part of her appeal.

  • Meemaw

    I love conservative dress but this girl is Just.Too.Twee. She resembles a doll wrapped in a doily much of the time.

    • Gene Day

      She’s always seemed to me to be suitably attired for each and every situation. And we’re always seeing her at her job in these type of photos, always. She must have known what she was signing up for but I don’t envy her one little bit. Except for the nanny to help with children, I would enjoy that.

  • Tessa

    I live and work in DC, and the style here is sort of conservative to a fault. As a NYC born gal with a style that I would describe as “weirdo” I’ve actually been looking to Kate as style inspiration a lot recently just to see what will work in my office, at cocktail hours, etc. What strikes me is that it isn’t her style, per se, but it’s the style of women hoping to avoid creating a fuss. In politics (the space that Kate Middleton and I both occupy, albeit at CRAZY different levels) you want to control the position you’re taking, and Kate’s clothes do just that: they control the narrative.

    • Lil

      ^^^YES. Omg. I work in finance, and kind of similar because no one wants to rock the boat or stand out tooo much in fear of attracting subliminal judgement. Personal lives get left at the door, and with that so does originality lol

    • Senka

      I agree with that to some extent, but sometimes I have the slight feeling her look is too boring and safe even for those circumstances. I work in state administration, allbeit in a different part of the world and have always pushed the envelope a little bit. Knee lenghth looks horrible on me. I have thin legs and wide hips, so I opt for mid calf either pleated or pencil and get much better and fashion forward look without breaking any rules. I wear silk blouses with bow with slightly masculine suit or simply miss match the suit to get a more interesting appearance. Wide legged pants and velvet blazers too. As long as one is decently covered up and polished I see no point in looking like a robot. In a way I think she could do the same without breaking the royal etiquette. She’d be a cool princess.

  • Lil

    I love Kate!
    As fun as it is to keep up with trends and to be daring with your wardrobe, most of us can’t dress like that post college. How you present yourself to the world truly does convey a message. As a woman with a traditional finance job, I want to look cute, of course. But I want to be taken seriously, seen as confident, and respected for my work. So I love how Kate always look sophisticated.
    Also she focuses more on having great hair, skin, and makeup which are things that are more realistic for the average woman to invest in.

  • Bo

    Jesus Christ that thread about the Erdem gown is COOKED, I had no idea people cared so intently about what she wore. That being said I will wager that her engagement dress is the most iconic fashion moment of this millennium though. So evocative, so matching the late Princess Di’s ring; beyond compare.

  • Taylor

    SO fascinating. But interesting the massive effect her wedding dress had on the bridal industry wasn’t mentioned…

  • Senka

    Meghan cites Emanuelle Alt as her fashion icon, but hard as I try I simply can’t see it. It would be nice to see a cool, relaxed rock star princess that actually dresses like Alt. Or one, that like Kate is demure, but with a personal twist. I don’t really have big problem with the relative modesty and covered up aspect of her style, but without those completely out of style proportions she pushes, she loses me.

  • Puneet Dhaliwal

    Here’s a somewhat fitting reference point: I admire Amal Clooney’s style a lot. It’s sophisticated, yet personal. She wears suits/skirts/beautiful gowns, but is also seen vacationing in drapey but also well tailored ensembles. Kate, on the other hand, seems to be dressed in pretty much the same manner no matter what day of the week it is. What this does for her “image” is that it makes it seem like she has no engagements of her own (unlike Princess Diana, who was a Renaissance Royal)