What did you spend on clothes in the last month? If you’re the “average” woman, that figure was likely somewhere between $100 and $200. If you’re the Princess of Wales, however, you might add several zeroes to that total.
In the past few weeks alone, the former accessories buyer known as Kate Middleton has spent in the tens of thousands of pounds adding new items to her working wardrobe. There was a custom Burberry pantsuit to meet the Norwegian royals ($4,000, at least); a custom red Alexander McQueen coat ($7,000, minimum) with a Juliette Botterill fascinator ($900) for Saint David’s Day; the day before that, what seems to be another new McQueen coat, in cream this time, paired with a third addition to her collection of custom Gianvito Rossi boots ($2,300 off the rack.)
Her latest luxe look debuted at Monday’s Commonwealth Day service: an elegant navy printed skirt suit from the London-based, Quebec-born designer Erdem ($5,000), accessorized with former Princess of Wales Diana’s priceless sapphire and diamond earrings, and a wide-brimmed navy hat that caught a gust of wind and threatened to fly away faster than the plebes’ financial solvency amidst a cost of living crisis.
In fact, the only thing about Kate’s outfit that suggested she might be vaguely aware of the economic turmoil (inflation! pending recession! layoffs!) unfolding around us was the shin-grazing length of her midi skirt, which corresponds to the “hemline index” theory, which posits that the tougher the times the longer our skirts. In an era when a $10 cauliflower is starting to seem like a good deal, the totals for Kate’s wardrobe feel ludicrously out of touch, insensitive even. And it’s not just Kate: at the same service, Sophie, the newly minted Duchess of Edinburgh, was in a new $4,000 coat by Proenza Schouler.
These price tags have caught the attention of the internet: in the comments section of a Daily Mail article about what the “Wives of Windsor” wore to the Commonwealth Day service, one commenter wrote: “There is no need to buy such expensive clothes. What a waste of taxpayer money,” while another wrote, “3000 pounds for a dress while the rest of us struggle. I think it is time to get rid of these freeloaders.”
An Instagram post about Kate’s Erdem ensemble by royal account Royal Style Watch sparked the comment, “Yet again wasteful money on new clothes when she has 11 years worth to rewear.” Dress Like A Duchess, another Kate fan account, saw comments like “Yikes, all that tax money and she still can’t dress.”
Pearl-clutching over what royal women — and yes, it’s just the women, despite the fact that both Charles and William love a bespoke tailor-made moment — spend on their clothing is nothing new. Consider Meghan Markle’s particularly scrutinized wardrobe; her taste for custom Dior and Givenchy was catnip to the tabloids.
What does feel slightly different now, however, is the context: financial hardship, yes, but also the dawn of a new monarch, who’s promised a more modern, more “in touch” approach to running what is, to a large extent, a taxpayer-funded enterprise.
To be fair, Kate does often attempt to model fiscal restraint in this area: she mixes in the odd budget piece, like the Zara earrings she wore to the BAFTAs a few weeks ago, and she has a track record of rewearing her pieces, like the white Alexander McQueen gown she wore with said bargain baubles. That said: wearing a gown with a price tag in the several thousands twice doesn’t make for a fantastic cost-per-wear ratio.
Kate also brings back much older pieces, like the Brown Hobbs coat first seen in 2012 that reappeared earlier this year, and her Holland Cooper fair isle knit that popped up three times in three years. Of course, we don’t see all the other times she might rewear things to private events or just into the office at Kensington Palace.
As well, part of Kate’s job is to fly the fashion flag for Britain and harness the power of the Kate Effect — whereby anything she wears essentially sells out in minutes — to champion local brands from high-street (Ghost, Marks & Spencer, Boden) to high-end (McQueen, Jenny Packham, Catherine Walker, Burberry), which employ thousands of people.
However you thread that couturier’s needle, though, Kate and the broader Royal Family face a familiar dilemma: their work of walk-throughs and waves is a visual medium and, particularly in the case of younger women like Kate, a new dress or coat generates far more coverage than a suit we’ve just seen. This phenomenon makes Kate’s habit of ordering practically indistinguishable new versions of the things she already owns, like Alexander McQueen jackets and Catherine Walker coat dresses, particularly hard to justify.
When your job is to create a spectacle, it’s hard not to give the people what they want. And while there’s arguably some solidarity-building to be done with matching your outfits to the national mood, it’s a questionable strategy for the royals in the long run. After all, when your entire existence is justified by status-based exceptionalism, you’re not living up to your end of the bargain if you roll up to an engagement in sweatpants and a moth-eaten knit.
It would also be profoundly patronizing for these very, very wealthy people to cosplay as poor, especially when it comes to wearing things — like many of their eye-watering jewels — that are privately owned and not paid for out of taxpayer coffers. (That these were acquired with wealth accumulated through empire and colonialism is a conversation for another day.) This is why many people found Prince Harry’s “Spare” passage about raiding the sale racks at TJ Maxx profoundly irritating, a cynical bid for relatability from someone who inherited millions of pounds from his mother alone.
It’s thanks in part to Harry’s recent revelations that the royals find themselves in something of a crisis of mundanity — they’re “just like us” but in the most dispiriting, unglamorous way.
Exhibit A: his anecdote about drying his underwear on the radiators in his dire-sounding basement apartment at Kensington Palace, hair clippings from his upstairs neighbour raining down from above. Kate’s choice to double down on the trappings of royalty — beautiful clothing, gorgeous jewels, glossy hair that speaks of unlimited access to hairdressers and fresh vegetables — might be a deliberate response to that.
It also functions as an armour of sorts, a way of stepping into her new role as the Princess of Wales, knowing that she’ll be endlessly compared to the last woman to publicly hold that title — who, we all know, loved a bit of designer herself. All in all, it’s a tricky burden to wear.
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