The Duchess of Cambridge has deployed a very canny strategic move and in doing so, highlighted just where her sister-in-law is going wrong.
Here’s what $29 can buy you: Five Pret-A-Manger ham baguettes. One Queen Victoria Christmas decoration from the Royal Collections Trust gift shop nestled inside Kensington Palace. About half a bottle of Buckingham Palace-brand gin. (Vale Princess Margaret – here’s betting she would have always been willing to go halves.)
Or, for that same relatively inconsequential sum, you could snap up the exact same Zara dress that Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge wore for an outing to University College London this week. Is it any surprise that her choice of shockingly economical outfit immediately made news?
Here was the future Queen of England pointing intelligently at slides while surrounded by boffins, exuding regal style, while frocked up in a look that cost only a smidgen more than a box of official commemorative Queen Elizabeth shortbread. (A steal at only $29.)
Not only that, Kate’s houndstooth number was one she had worn before. In fact, her entire outfit, including grey embossed Hugo Boss heels and Mappin and Webb diamond drop earrings, were pieces she has donned on previous occasions.
While the look might not have met with the approval of the reigning queen of fashion Anna Wintour (all that polyester! Her eyes!), the actual Queen, who values thriftiness as highly as a crisply ironed copy of the Racing Post, would surely have given the ensemble a big parsimonious tick.
What’s fascinating about Kate’s choice is not just how budget of a movie it was but that this all comes hot on the heels of Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s proto-royal New York takeover which saw the former Suits star roll out a wardrobe of extravagantly luxurious outfits with eye-popping price tags.
From cashmere to Italian leather, the actress-turned-brief-working HRH rolled around the city in a series of money-is-no-object get ups that would have seen Jackie Onassis green with jealousy.
In fact, while Kate has repeatedly deployed clothing, jewellery and shoes she has worn before over the course of the last year, over the pond, Meghan has taken a markedly divergent approach and has debuted more than $60,000 worth of clothing (not counting jewellery) in the 12 months to October.
Aside from a couple of slogan T-shirts, since October 10, 2020 on the 14 occasions she has appeared in some sort of public capacity (including their Big Apple trip, video calls, official photos and their ridiculous, hamfistedly photoshopped Time magazine cover) the duchess has worn 15 separate items of clothing that cost four-figures, including six articles that come in at more than $4000 a piece each.
The Marie Antoinette jokes just write themselves here.
This ultra high-end tack is a world away from the 40-year-old’s attitude when she was a working member of the royal household which saw her pair more designer goodies with high-street labels such as H&M, along with her regularly highlighting up-and-coming labels. (Her choice to carry a bag from the then-smallish label Strathberry for one of her very first official engagements quite literally made the brand.)
On a purely feminist, you-go-girl level, I’m all for Meghan’s current extravagant turn. Since landing on US soil, she and husband Harry have parlayed their royal dissident status into a slew of highly lucrative deals which could see the couple build a personal fortune the likes of which the house of Windsor has never seen before. (Not everyone has rich German relatives tucked away in their family tree.)
It’s her (not quite yet) hard-earned cash. If she wants to spend it on a roster of pared back, ultra-minimalist pieces from like The Row which cater to moneyed social X-rays, then she should knock her socks off. Have Black Amex, will shop.
But Meghan is not just a self-made woman with a bulging bank account and a walk-in closet the size of Rhode Island (I’m guessing); she and Harry are currently in the thick of trying to establish themselves as serious philanthropic forces, you know, the sort of people who spend a lot of time striding into Very Important meetings carrying Very Important Folders.
Which is to say, having escaped from the tweedy gulag that was The Firm, they are now striking out on their own and are working very hard to sell the world on Sussex 2.0, a re-imagined, repackaged version of their palace double act.
However, pursuing that genuinely lofty goal while wearing clothes and jewellery which, on occasion, are worth more than the median house price in the US makes for abysmal optics and comes across as profoundly tone deaf.
For example, the duchess wore what has been estimated as $528,000 worth of jewellery, including a $31,000 heirloom gold watch, a $9400 Cartier bracelet and a mysterious diamond pinky ring, for that absurd Time cover. Meanwhile, as of June this year the median house price in the US was $406,000.
Trying to elevate the lives of the less fortunate while done up.
Perhaps more importantly all those designer duds are a distraction. The more the razzle dazzle of the shiny Sussex circus, the more it takes the attention off whatever genuinely worthwhile thing that Harry and Meghan are trying to do. (Their hearts are in the right place and … They. Have. Folders!)
When Kate turned up in London this week wearing the sartorial equivalent of a sleeping tablet, she was depriving the attendant media and press coverage of being able to focus on anything but the reason she was there.
Trust Kate to turn being boring into something akin to a deft power move.
Imagine if Meghan had been similarly canny with her New York wardrobe, replaying any number of her greatest fashion hits from over the last five years. The message would have been clear – we’re here to work and not spawn 101 style stories; what matters most are the causes we are here to highlight and not aggressively burnishing our image.
Or imagine if she had only worn pieces that came from sustainable brands that came in at affordable price points.
Or if she had chosen to put the spotlight on up-and-coming designers of colour for whom even a moment of global exposure would have been life-changing.
Instead, the duchess chose to brandish the couple’s wealth like a cashmere cudgel.
What is inexplicable is that this lesson is one which Meghan seemingly understood perfectly well in the past. During the couple’s hugely successful 2019 tour of southern Africa (their whole woe-is-us documentary appearance aside) she chose a series of fabulous dresses and looks which were testament to her fashion chops but far from extravagant.
In scrupulously sticking to affordable brands like Banana Republic and J Crew, she ensured the camera lenses and media coverage remained firmly on the people, charities and organisations she was there to support.
So what are we to make of Meghan circa 2021?
In hindsight, her New York get-ups smacks of a certain status anxiety, like an urgent play to assert themselves as Very Important power players. What is so deeply frustrating is that this meretricious move is to their own detriment.
Because, there is a world of difference between enjoying the fruits of one’s success and flaunting one’s wealth like Croeseus after a Rodeo Drive bender. (Bet he would have appreciated a good cashmere jumper on The Steppes.)
At least during this initial period of firming up their Stateside brand and public identities, the Sussexes have to choose where they want the world’s focus to go. It comes down to, what does Meghan want to be known for? Her impeccable style or for what she and Harry stand for?
The potential for the duke and duchess to be dynamic forces for good is immense but at moments like these they feel like they can be their worst enemies.
So, put down the titanium credit card. Step away from the Moda Operandi app. The world has got 99 problems right now but finding another $4000 dress to snap up isn’t one of them.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles