By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2010; C01
Now that news of the engagement of Prince William and Kate Middleton has been unleashed for public consumption, let the delirious obsessing, the breathless speculating and the earnest navel-gazing begin. We know Prince William proposed using his mother's 18-carat sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring. Now we can focus on that other crucial wedding planning decision: What will the gown look like? And what might it mean?
Britain's Daily Mail has already declared that the dress will be traditional but with a twist, which is fashion-speak for It will not be some avant-garde concoction made out of neoprene and stuffed with down feathers. The gown will have a high neckline and will cover the bride's shoulders. It will be embroidered rather than slathered in crystals or sequins. And rather than having a full, voluminous skirt, it will have a fishtail hemline - but not in a sexy or salacious way, of course.
This detailed description is based on . . . nothing. It's pure conjecture. It's a game. Shall we play along?
If the past serves as a guide, then Middleton will indeed be breaking from tradition if she selects a silhouette that makes any reference to her svelte figure. When Princess Diana walked down the aisle in 1981, she wore a gown of Brobdingnagian proportions stitched out of ivory silk taffeta and covered in 10,000 pearls and sequins. The dress's train trailed down the aisles of St. Paul's for some 25 feet. Designed by Britain's own Elizabeth Emanuel, the gown was a fairy-tale confection that might have been imagined by an ardent fan of "The Sound of Music."
While the dress would have overwhelmed even the most enormous personality, it practically obliterated the shy, 20-year-old Diana.
Royal fashion was not much kinder to Sarah Ferguson when she married Prince Andrew in 1986. Her dress was designed by Lindka Cierach and featured a 17-foot train. But really, the most striking aspects were the enormous puff sleeves that spoke so eloquently and unquestionably of 1980s style.
It seems almost certain that Middleton will choose a British designer for this historic dress. Not to do so would be akin to the American first lady passing over American designers for the honor of creating the inaugural gown. Such a decision would not go over well with the home team. A host of British designers are up to the challenge and, frankly, with the global recession and all, the British fashion industry could use a bit of razzle-dazzle attention.
Middleton will be 29 years old when she walks down the aisle. So it's reasonable to think that her gown might lean more toward sophisticated glamour rather than Cinderella sweetness.
It's sad that Alexander McQueen is no longer with us. (The English designer died earlier this year.) His romanticism and extravagance would be perfectly suited to the task. He knew his history and could well have come up with fascinating details of embroidery or some other flourish that could speak to Britain's past. He also had a naughty streak, which would be fitting for a bride who seems to know her own mind.
Designer John Galliano would be another high-profile choice for this all-important dress, but it may be that he is too closely associated with France's Christian Dior or that, frankly, he's too much of a celebrity in his own right. He doesn't really need the commission. But his spring 2011 collection, which he showed in Paris, was a perfect example of why he'd be a fine pick. Galliano's signature is the sensual bias-cut evening gown. He weaves fairy tales. And he can imbue a dress with deep, sweet emotion; he could stitch a dress that would make the world weep.
Names that have been bandied about in the British press include stalwarts such as Bruce Oldfield and Jasper Conran.
But an especially intriguing choice would be Vivienne Westwood. Her place in fashion history was secured when she took up the punk aesthetic decades ago. But she's also had a long love affair with the grand ball gowns that call to mind the ladies of the royal court. Thus, she is both a traditionalist and a subversive. Her work evokes glamour as well as stateliness.
There has been a smidge of speculation in the vast blogosphere of fashion gossip that Middleton might turn to someone like Oscar de la Renta or Vera Wang. But really, when there are so many fine British designers, why go across the pond in search of a creative spark?
If she decides to venture internationally, the most moving choice would be Donatella Versace. Her brother, Gianni Versace, famously helped Princess Diana find her own style identity once she and Prince Charles divorced. His work came to represent a period in Diana's life when her public identity was one of independence and strength - a time when she became the people's princess. Perhaps the happiest time of her life.
Middleton will, of course, forge her own identify. But it never hurts to have the people on your side.