LONDON-Thinking I’d spend my time navigating the streets here as an opportunity to compare what they’re wearing on this side of the Atlantic with, say, what they’re (we’re) wearing in New York City, I first observed that the discrepancies are minimal. I suppose I could say that the gold-brown trench coat I had on was like nothing anyone else wore-not even like the Burberry trench coats, which you don’t see much anymore.
Truly, most people here are interchangeable with New Yorkers. Not to mention with Parisians. This only confirms the verity that cities with reputations as fashion centers don’t have much influence on street wear. Okay, there often is a trickle-down effect in play, as Miranda Priestly chillingly explains in The Devil Wears Prada. She has little to say, though, about the equally significant trickle-up effect.
But then, just when I was about to forgo the subject as promising column material, I realized I was thinking along the wrong lines. The eye-opener occurred when Kate Middleton, patron of the charity Place 2B, alighted from a limousine in a high wind at the city’s Tower Hamlets to accept a bouquet from 9-year-old Tierney Potter.
Don’t you know the Duchess of Cambridge suddenly became involved in a spin on Marilyn Monroe’s billowing skirt scene from The Seven-Year Itch? She made headlines across the nation as a result of her having to deal with a wardrobe malfunction that allowed a momentary glimpse of royal blue-and-white undergarment.
Not an ill wind for your correspondent, to whom it became clear that the real street-fashion story here is what the royals put on when they appear in public-when they, so to speak, pound the pavement. Not only that, but it struck me as likely that-with the possible exception of Michelle Obama-Middleton is the world’s most fashion-conscious personality (like her husband’s mother before her). There’s a good argument to be made for Middleton’s being today’s single most authoritative example of style in women’s dress-much more than, for instance, Condé Nast’s Anna Wintour.
At any rate, I wasn’t at Tower Hamlets to witness the temporarily disconcerted fashion plate myself, but many others were, just as wherever she goes, packs are on hand to see what she’s chosen to put on. Wanna know who designed that wind-blown, photo-flash-worthy, several-inches-above the knee skirt? It’s Orla Kiely, whom the Duchess favors. Max Mara designed the jacket she had on.
(Kiely also designed a dove-patterned dress spotted in public more than once. That one, the Daily Mail has dubbed “a fashion mistake” when Middleton wore it with “muddy” brown tights. She’d worn the little number-without the tights-to the Only Connect charity gathering the previous day, indicating, of course, that she repeats outfits for public consumption.)
Unsurprisingly, the London tabloids didn’t stop at simply covering MIddleton’s sudden uncovering. It was pointed out that, among other occasions, her Jenny Packham creation was tossed about at the Calgary airport on the couple’s Canada trip-not to mention that Diana, Princess of Wales, had a similar high-winds hitch at Gatwick. (Apparently, airport arrivals are trouble.)
Other accounts compared the heir-to-the-throne’s wife with that of her mother-in-law. Apparently, such windy incidents have never happened to Queen Elizabeth II in the 60-plus years she’s been out meeting the people.
The reason for her good fortune? She has weights sewn into the hem of her walking outfits. This appears to have been common knowledge for some time, so much so that the Queen’s favorite designer, Stewart Parvin, has spoken to the press about it. He’s explained that he uses curtain weights purchased at Sloane Square’s prominent department store, Peter Jones, for 1.50 pounds, or slightly more than two dollars.
The society dressmaker has said, “The beauty of a handmade outfit is that it hangs just right, but, of course, we have a few tricks up our sleeve. Surprisingly, it is nothing fancy. I use curtain weights, lead weights, from Peter Jones’s curtain department. We call them penny weights.”
Taking advantage of the impromptu opportunity to talk anarchic monarchic fashion, news reports also looked back at then Princess Elizabeth’s 1947 wedding to distant cousin Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten and, in particular, at her wedding dress, which was symbolic and influential in several ways.
Embroidered with spring flowers by designer Norman Hartnell to reflect post-war optimism, the dress was made of fabric purchased with ration coupons. The choice reassured the populace that the royal family operated under the same constraints affecting the woman and man in the street.
And what about Queen Victoria? When she’s thought of today, she’s usually remembered as the woman in perpetual mourning for her husband, Prince Albert. When he was alive, however, and she was much younger, she was also a royal taste maker.
Take as a prime example, the notion of a white wedding dress. When Victoria married Albert in 1840, she wore a white satin and lace gown, thereby helping to establish a trend that had begun gaining hold only a decade or so earlier in the century. If she hadn’t worn white, where would Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton, Vera Wang and Kleinfeld’s be now?
When Victoria took up black and ceased to set style, her daughter-in-law Alexandra, (another) Princess of Wales, took over for some time, establishing as fashion dos, jewel chokers worn with moderately plunging necklines. Amusingly, the Queen’s son and Alexandra’s husband Albert-affectionately known as Bertie and eventually King Edward VII-is credited with establishing the tradition among men of leaving the bottom waistcoat, or vest, button undone. Was it on whim? No. Since his waist had expanded to 48 inches, necessity was the cause of the minor sartorial adjustment.
Incidentally, the only time I saw a member of the royal family in person, I was on the streets, but she was riding through them. I was waiting for the light to change at the corner of Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, when a limousine rounded and inside was Elizabeth, the Queen’s mum.
She was sitting upright in the back seat, wearing a pink suit and a wide-brimmed pink hat. She went past too quickly for me to wave-not that I would have-nor was she waving. At me or at anyone along her way, possibly to Buckingham Palace. But it was obvious that she was aware she could be seen and was fully prepared to be.