She stepped out of the Rolls-Royce and the world took a collective breath.
Finally we could see the dress – anticipated for weeks, months, some might say years – that Kate Middleton would be wearing to wed her prince. As she entered Westminster Abbey, the soon-to-be Duchess of Cambridge made fashion history with a look that would change wedding style forever.
The elegant design, by British designer Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, was markedly distinct from the strapless gowns that had dominated weddings in the 2010s. The year was 2011, and Kate’s delicate lace sleeves, cinched-in bodice and fuller skirt were a complete departure.
Bridal boutiques have been referencing the look ever since.
Just last year, I was searching for my own wedding dress when the shop owner showed me a satin, boat-necked number she dubbed ‘The Meghan’, for its similarity to the Givenchy wedding gown worn by the Duchess of Sussex in 2018. She then gestured towards an entire rail of lacier, long-sleeved gowns, “for those who prefer the Kate Middleton look.”
On the occasion of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s 10-year anniversary, designer and dressmaker Holly Winter reflects that the royal wedding marked a pivotal shift in wedding style that continues to influence dresses today.
“As Kate stepped out of the car to reveal her dress, a BBC pundit practically squealed, ‘This is such a fashion moment!’ And it really was,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Naughties bridal boutiques were packed with huge tulle ballgowns and you’d be lucky to have found a strap, let alone a sleeve. I was no different – marrying in 2008 in a strapless gown, looking like I’d just got out of the bath.”
Winter kept an eye on eBay to see how long it would take for a replica Kate dress to appear – and someone managed it in just 12 hours. By 2012, she says, dresses with sleeves were in high demand.
Just as, three decades earlier, Princess Diana’s puffball dress had been copied by 1980s brides, Kate’s dress became the marker for brides of the noughties – and beyond.
Pinterest, the site many couples use to plan their wedding, has tracked the royal influence. Despite the pandemic sparking headlines about low-key wedding trends, the site has actually seen a 55% year-on-year increase in the search term “princess wedding dresses,” calculated from global searches between April 2020 and April 2021. The term “long sleeved lace wedding dress” has also doubled in popularity, while “Kate Middleton dress” is up 70% from last year.
Although Kate’s dress marked a change from the designs that dominated the previous decade, it was based on a classic style, says luxury wedding planner and royal wedding commentator Sarah Haywood – and that is the secret of its longevity.
The Duchess’s dress was heavily influenced by the gown worn by American actress Grace Kelly, when she married Prince Rainer III of Monaco in 1956, says Haywood.
“The shape, the silhouette, the sleeves… it’s very reminiscent of Grace Kelly’s wedding gown, and that’s quite astonishing,” Haywood tells HuffPost.
“Royal brides know that we’re going to be looking at these pictures forever, so it was probably important to go for something very classic, that later down the line, she [Kate] wasn’t going to regret.
“This gown will span the test of time, that’s one of the most successful aspects about it. You could wear this gown now, 10 years on, and it wouldn’t look out of place.”
Modesty is a must for royal brides and while it was based on a classic style, Kate’s dress was game-changing, in that it used lace rather than an opaque, all-concealing fabric, adds Winter.
“Consider the barely-there bodices and illusion panels of today’s bridal trends and you’ll see they’re simply a reinterpretation of Kate’s look, just extending the sheerness into the bodice,” she says.
Kate can also thank American celebrity loyalty for keeping the look popular. Kim Kardashian apparently asked designers to take inspiration from the Duchess during planning for her wedding to Kanye West in 2014.
“Kim loves Kate’s style and while she is planning on several gowns for her big day, she wants the one for the ceremony to look something like Kate’s dress,” a source said at the time. “The brief is demure princess and she’ll also wear a tiara.” When Kim’s Givenchy dress was finally revealed, it looked like she got her wish.
Stars including Sophie Turner, Kate Upton and Jacqueline Jossa have since worn long sleeve gowns with a silhouette reminiscent of Kate’s.
One possibly surprising legacy of Kate’s dress, says Winter, is that padding is still popular in bridal and mainstream styles.
In 2011, the palace released a statement describing how the Burton-designed skirt “echoes an opening flower”, complementing “the ivory satin bodice, which is narrowed at the waist and padded at the hips”.
“Kate’s padded hips came three years before Kim Kardashian ‘broke the internet’ with her booty. Since that time, I’ve noticed a real switch from brides asking me to design dresses that make their boobs look bigger to ones that emphasize their hips and bums,” Winter says. “I’ve had at least one bride wear padded knickers.”
On the subject of bums, Pippa Middleton’s rear was much discussed following her Maid of Honor appearance, and Haywood says her outfit sparked a trend for ivory, flattering bridesmaid dresses that are still favored by some clients.
Other elements of the day have stood the test of time, adds Haywood, such as a move towards brides wearing their hair down and bridal bouquets with flowers that have significance for the couple.
Kate’s bouquet was designed by Shane Connolly and drew on “the traditions of flowers of significance for the Royal Family, the Middleton family and on the Language of Flowers,” according to a statement released by the palace.
In fact, the details released by the royal family on William and Kate’s wedding gave us more insight into royal wedding planning than we’d ever had before.
“They told us about everything – why she was in the carriage she was in, why she was wearing what she was wearing, why the abbey was decorated in the way that is was, why they chose the words that they did,” says Haywood.
“Absolutely everything told a story, and that’s a big legacy of this wedding: storytelling. People these days when they’re marrying, they want to tell a story and they want that story to be woven into everything that they do.”
For some, the appeal of Kate’s dress isn’t about fashion at all, but the fairytale wedding between a normal-ish woman who married her prince.
Still, we look back on April 29, 2011 and remember watching the moment that Harry, as William’s best man, first saw Kate walking down the aisle, and turned to his brother to whisper: “She looks beautiful.”
The fate of the royal family over the next 10 years remains to be seen, but one thing’s for certain: that dress was certainly something special.
“Weddings are so steeped in tradition that only the most enduring fashion trends make it into bridal wear, and they tend to take longer to get here too,” says Winter. “You know that if a detail gets adopted by the bridal world, it’s a massive hit.”
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