Photographing the Duchess of Cambridge for the centenary cover of British Vogue was surely an obvious choice. Few people at present seem to inspire as much popular sympathy, pique as much interest and reflect the magazine’s focus on high style and high society, than the wife of Britain’s future king.
Deciding whom to photograph was evidently easier than deciding on how this was to be accomplished. The media commentary that has accompanied the shoot has generally been neutral or gently positive, but there was (perhaps inevitably) criticism. Daily Mail journalist Liz Jones was the most forthright dissident: she likened Vogue’s photographic spread to a Boden catalogue.[i] The comment is not without some foundation, but it is interesting – to me at least – for what it reveals about the importance of dress in Kate’s elevation to the ruling house of Windsor.
Prior to her marriage to Prince William in 2011 – as a would-be royal – Kate Middleton delighted the world’s media with her high street sartorial thrift, but now that the Queen of England is her mother-in-law, there is a sense that people expect more of the Duchess’ wardrobe choices. Whilst her preference for high street brands seemed to go down well with the press during her tour of India,[ii] the collaboration with the National Portrait Gallery – of whom she is a patron – and Vogue evidently called for panache over price: Liz Jones complains that, ‘[the photographs in Vogue are] too rural, too hunting, shooting and fishing, when we were waiting for something red carpet. A princess.’
British Vogue’s editor, Alexandra Shulman, clearly realised the difficultly of her task. The editorial that she writes to accompany the photographs in Vogue’s June issue repeatedly stresses how the photographic shoot with Josh Olins was low key. Shulman describes the January shoot, somewhat awkwardly, as ‘a day of unexpected informality’. Her intention to emphasise the Duchess’ humility and approachability – she ‘scarcely … checked herself in the mirror’, never looked at her phone, ‘not once’; and arrived wearing rollers in her hair – reads like special pleading.
The ordinariness of the Duchess is inadvertently called into question by Shulman herself, when she explains how fashion director Lucinda Chambers arrived with ‘10 suitcases of clothes’ and a ‘van-load of props’. At the end of the day, the Duchess’ ‘Land Rover sped away down the track’. The pleasant fiction that the photographs portray the Duchess as ‘the same as the rest of us’ is ultimately exposed by their accompanying captions which reveal Her Royal Highness is dressed in a good deal of Burberry, although a hat from Beyond Retro and boots from Dune are more accessible purchases, for those who wish to emulate the royal look.
According to Shulman, the tone of the shoot was dictated by the Duchess, ‘who was not keen to be shot in gala gowns and tiaras’ and preferred the countryside, ‘to reflect an element of her private existence’. A vintage bicycle and ‘the family dog, Lupo’ do provide a semblance of normality, but this shoot is no more real or authentic than the portraits produced in the sixteenth century for the Tudor dynasty. For sure, vogues and values have changed since Hans Holbein junior immortalised his royal patrons in oils (now over five hundred years ago), but the difference with Olins’ shoot is one of degree rather than kind.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Hans Holbein jr. and Anthony Van Dyck were required to project a view of royalty that was palatable to the British public and, as a consequence, become a vehicle to sustain the popularity of the institution of monarchy. Josh Olins’ shoot is no different (although relevancy might now be a more pressing concern than popularity). In short, if Vogue’s centenary photographic shoot was ‘informal’, it was intentional and not ‘unexpected’.
The Duchess would have been wary of appearing too much like the former Princess of Wales, with whom she is obviously and frequently compared (and much of the media coverage surrounding this recent Vogue shoot has been contrasted with Diana’s Vogue cover of 1981, snapped by Patrick Demarchelier). The Duchess would surely have also been mindful of her political status: she will become queen consort and, in turn, her son will become king. So, decorum, sobriety and motherhood might have been key concepts to convey for posterity.
More generally, the nod towards financial prudence within the Duchess’ shoot – the combination of designer and high street brands – chimes with attempts by British royals to empathise with their subjects during a period of economic stringency. During Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee, for example, BBC commentators suggested the decision to drive from Buckingham Palace to St Paul’s Cathedral for a service of thanksgiving – and thereby dispense with a carriage procession – was to cut back on pomp and so avoid the charge of insensitivity (the Queen was still chauffeured in a Bentley, but when it comes to royalty, the choice of a limousine does mark some economy over a gilded horse-drawn carriage).
In this sense, the Duchess’ demure shoot reveals much about how the institution of monarchy is evolving and, with this, how the clothes royals wear have to impart more ambiguous and polyvalent messages than those worn by their predecessors. In an age when the parliamentary state was still in its infancy, royalty could dress for distinction, but this is much less acceptable in a constitutional monarchy and during a time when globalisation and technology have levelled traditional social and political hierarchies. And yet, as much as royalty is increasingly cast as being inclusive and ‘the same as the rest of us’ – to borrow Alexandra Shulman’s phrase and to reference the recent spate of social media and television performances Britain’s royals have participated in – there is still a desire, even expectation, for members of the royal family to dress in a way that reflects the fact that the head of their family, and our country, rules by God’s grace.
For my part, I think I would have been more open about these interesting paradoxes, which are probably a major reason why the allure of monarchy endures, and presented ‘Kate’ and the ‘Duchess’ – trench coat and tiara – in adjacent images to show how the different sides of royalty can be ‘worn’ by one person, as they always have been. This approach would have been more convincing than the sequence of polyglot images that awkwardly combine suede and sapphire and blur the distinction between conduct and character, which the Duchess of Cambridge – and British royals more generally – have been so adept at delineating through their considered clothing choices.
[i] L. Jones, ‘Is Kate auditioning to be the catalogue queen?’ http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-3567529/Duchess-Vogue-cover-star-LIZ-JONES-dares-say-s-bit-Boden.html#ixzz49fRp9qzd. Accessed: 23 May 2016.
[ii] H. Minn, ‘Kate Middleton wears Topshop and Zara on royal tour of India with Prince William’, http://www.ok.co.uk/celebrity-news/528904/kate-middleton-wears-topshop-zara-india-royal-tour. Accessed: 26 May 2016.