Weighing in on what Kate Middleton wore on her wedding day

April 29, 2011

‘You look beautiful,” Prince William whispered to Catherine Middleton when he finally laid eyes on her standing before the altar of Westminster Abbey on Friday morning.

And indeed she did.

After months of speculation and denial, Middleton wore what everyone in fashion had hoped and prayed for: an elegant yet modern wedding gown, by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen.

The choice was apt for many reasons. McQueen, who committed suicide a year ago, is considered by many to have been the finest British designer of all time. Next week, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is opening “Savage Beauty,” a stunning retrospective of his work.

Burton, his longtime assistant, took over the house shortly after his death and has received boundless praise for her deftness in maintaining his bold cutting and dark, almost violent voice while putting her own feminine stamp on the line.

“Sarah Burton had been getting a lot of buzz with her collections, but she was still relatively unknown outside of fashion,” said Cameron Silver, founder of Decades, the vintage fashion boutique in Los Angeles. “Thanks to Kate Middleton, she is now a household name. And with the retrospective opening next week — well, Middleton’s choice was really smart.”

Sadly, the dress — a long-sleeved, corset-style gown in lace and satin — did not make the sort of McQueen-like statement that those fashion hopers and prayers had been hoping and praying for.

“Kate made a bold choice in choosing the house of Alexander McQueen, but then went very safe in her actual choice of fabrication and style,” said Lela Rose, an American designer known for her wedding dresses. Rose added that it was “a lost fashion opportunity to not have pushed the envelope further and done something more modern and fitting of where fashion is today.”

“McQueen was one of England’s best and edgiest designers,” said Paris-based Australian designer Martin Grant. “He left a real legacy. And what he always represented, bad boy, edgy and his image — skulls and death — it was a risky choice for a royal occasion, symbolically. At the same time, Kate Middleton is obviously willing to take risks, even if the dress wasn’t a huge risk. She could have so easily commissioned Bruce Oldfield, who is more English establishment and would have known exactly what to do. McQueen was a more modern choice.”

Los Angeles-based designer Jeremy Scott agreed that Middleton’s choice made a statement. “Choosing McQueen shows that Kate is aware of fashion and pop culture and felt strong enough to take on the house even with the recent tragedy of its namesake designer without worrying that it would overshadow her very joyous day.” But as far as the design of the dress goes, he added, “I don’t see how the dress will influence fashion, as it is not bringing anything new to the fashion conversation.”

“Princess Diana’s dress was a dress of a fairy-tale princess — still a dress everyone remembers,” said Valentino, referring to the voluminous taffeta confection that Prince William’s mother wore for her wedding in 1981. “Kate’s is a very pretty, modern dress that will be copied everywhere but lacks that fairy-tale element.”

From his Manhattan studio, designer Oscar de la Renta stated, “Catherine Middleton was wearing what she was supposed to wear: traditional and not ostentatious or over-embroidered or over-anything” It was, he added, “a pretty dress, beautifully executed. Discreet and elegant.” It may have been safe. But, he says, “it was exactly right.”

Middleton contacted Burton several months ago to commission the gown. Word leaked out in February, but Burton repeatedly denied it to help Middleton keep all details about the dress a secret from William. Together, Burton and Middleton came up with a gown with classic lines: a long-sleeved, lace bodice over an ivory and white satin gazar corset and full skirt that the palace press office described as “in the shape of an opening flower.” Much of the lace was made by the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace. The hips were padded and the silhouette was based on Victorian corsetry, both McQueen signature elements.

But there were many other references, too. The lace bodice, stovepipe sleeves and V-neckline recalled the gown that MGM wardrobe designer Helen Rose made for Grace Kelly when she married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956 — considered to be one of the most beautiful wedding gowns ever. “It was very smart to reference a style icon like Grace Kelly,” Silver said. “Kelly’s dress doesn’t look out of style 40 or 50 years later and I don’t think this one will, either — unlike Princess Diana’s, which really represents the 1980s.”

“And it referenced Queen Elizabeth’s gown in shape and volume,” added Grant, referring to the ivory duchess satin dress, designed by Norman Hartnell, that then-Princess Elizabeth wore when she married her distant cousin Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark in Westminster Abbey in 1947. It, too, had a wasp waist and a V-neckline, though it was far less decollete than Middleton’s.

The back of Middleton’s gown, with 58 gazar- and organza-covered buttons, a bustle and a nine-foot-long chapel train, was equally — if not more — lauded. “The folded bustle in the back was my favorite part,” said Rose. “I have seen similar details in Sarah Burton’s gowns for McQueen, and this was the most stunning detail to me.”

Valentino, who has made many a wedding gown in his day, including Elizabeth Taylor’s when she married Larry Fortensky, concurred: “I loved the little flounce on the back of the skirt.” New York-based designer Chris Benz found the train to be “modern and unfussy.” Said Silver, “I’m fond of dresses having two things going on, arriving looking one way, and leaving looking another.”

Middleton’s look was finished off with an ivory silk tulle veil trimmed with hand-embroidered flowers and held in place by a diamond tiara made by Cartier in 1936, which Queen Elizabeth lent to Middleton for the wedding — her something borrowed. The tiara was originally purchased by the queen’s father, the Duke of York (later King George VI), for her mother, Elizabeth. The queen’s parents gave it to her for her 18th birthday. Middleton’s diamond drop earrings were by London jewelers Robinson Pelham and were a wedding gift from her parents.

While Middleton’s dress has been deemed tasteful, her maid of honor, her sister Philippa “Pippa” Middleton, got to vamp it up: She wore a short-sleeved, figure-hugging ivory satin crepe sheath with a plunging cowl neckline, also by Burton. “Pippa’s dress was more daring because it was sexy,” Grant said. “But I wonder how appropriate it was. Her dress was like the consolation prize: She didn’t get the prince, so she got to be sexy.”

Middleton was trailed down the abbey’s center aisle by a clutch of tiny bridesmaids — young daughters of friends and family — in sweet white satin and lace dresses by British children’s-wear designer Nicki Macfarlane and crowns of lilies of the valley.

There was universal praise as well for William, glowing in his scarlet Colonel of the Irish Guards uniform with his rich blue silk Order of the Garter sash and Royal Air Force wings, and his best man and brother, Prince Harry, dripping in the gold braids of his handsome Blues and Royals officer’s uniform. “They were fantastic,” said Grant. “Who knew they had such style?”

William’s stepmother, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, wore an unremarkable champagne silk dress with a pale blue and champagne pleated coat by Anna Valentine, the same designer who created Camilla’s wedding ensemble when she married Prince Charles in 2005. Middleton’s mother was also appropriately conservative, in a pale blue dress and coat with a nipped waist by the house of Catherine Walker, a longtime, London-based designer who died last year. Walker was a favorite of Princess Diana’s.

As for the guests, Victoria Beckham — fashion designer and very pregnant wife of soccer star David Beckham— stood out in a short-sleeved navy tunic dress from her most recent collection, with a smart Philip Treacy navy pillbox hat perched on her forehead.

“And my gosh, what about those Fergie girls?” gasped Grant. Indeed, the daughters of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson — William’s first cousins — caused an uproar with their wedding attire. Beatrice chose an elegant flesh-colored haute couture dress and matching coat by Valentino designers Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli but topped it off with a swirling sculpted headpiece, also designed by Treacy, that was deemed so ludicrous by wedding watchers that within hours there was a Facebook group named Princess Beatrice’s Ridiculous Royal Wedding Hat, replete with snark.

Eugenie, meanwhile, was wrong from top to bottom: a gaudy Vivienne Westwood royal blue and green floral print jacket that appeared two sizes too small, with a royal blue satin asymmetrical pouf skirt that appeared two sizes too large, and gold platform pumps. “Was she wearing this outfit, or was it wearing her?” blasted the Daily Mail. That the sisters were seated behind the queen during the hour-long service didn’t help matters. As Silver noted, “They have always been a little eccentric.”

And then there was the queen, dressed in an Angela Kelly daffodil-yellow wool crepe dress and coat and a matching hat with a cluster of yellow silk roses on the band. On her coat she wore Queen Mary’s rather impressive True Lover’s Knot diamond brooch. Silver called the queen’s color choice “optimistic.” Grant said, “She stood out, as she should.” But de la Renta summed it up best:

“The queen,” he said approvingly, “was the queen.”

Thomas is a freelance writer.

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