Kate Middleton loves being sensible. Sure, she has a wardrobe that can create entire news cycles, plays sports almost exclusively in wedge heels, and wears more fascinators than the average human, but her style is consistently practical and appropriate. She’s also frequently applauded for re-wearing clothes like a mere mortal … but is she really?
On Tuesday night at the National Portrait Gallery in London, the duchess wore a black floral dress. It looked familiar, but something was different. The dress, by Alexander McQueen, first made its appearance on the duchess at the 2017 BAFTA awards. Back then, it was off-the-shoulder. Two years later, it had cap sleeves. And the sleuths over at What Kate Wore, a blog dedicated to Kate’s wardrobe, noticed that the placement of the flowers on the bodice were completely different. After much deliberation in the comments section, they decided the most likely explanation was that the duchess had reworked the bodice and removed the crinoline from the skirt, but kept the bottom part the same. (Neither the palace nor the designer have confirmed this theory).
Kate is known for recycling timeless styles in her wardrobe. One of her most recognizable styles, a sharply tailored Alexander McQueen dress, is a frequent re-wear. She wore it in a pale yellow to Meghan and Harry’s wedding last May, shortly after giving birth to Prince Louis. She had previously worn the dress in white at Princess Charlotte’s christening in 2015, at Trooping the Colour (the Queen’s annual birthday parade) in 2016, and at a ceremony in Belgium in 2017. In July 2018, she wore a mint-green version of the dress at the Royal Air Force’s 100th birthday celebration. There’s also another McQueen dress she wore in fuchsia to Princess Eugenie’s wedding, which made its first appearance in bubblegum pink at Trooping the Colour in 2017. In both cases, it’s been praised as a “rewear.” But it’s obviously not the same dress.
This raises a lot of questions. Why would anyone with ready access to brand-new evening gowns take the time to rework one just slightly? When she got the gown, did she ask for another one with different sleeves? Or a bolt of fabric for the royal seamstresses to work with? Did she have the same dress remade in different colors, or somehow … dyed? Point is, it seems like a lot more effort than just re-wearing the same outfit. Not to mention a waste of resources.
The fashion writer Elizabeth Holmes (no, not that one) is known for her social media series So Many Thoughts, in which she gives her takes on the royals’ outfits. She pointed out Kate’s McQueen BAFTAs dress was not quite a re-wear and wrote, “It’s attempting to get credit for a repeat — to be celebrated for frugality! — and I was all for it when she did it at H&M’s wedding bc postpartum etc etc BUT this time around it serves only to expose the excesses of royal life … ”
Holmes clarified to the Cut that wearing an entirely new dress is, in her mind, a very different thing from wearing a reworked dress. “What I found interesting is the appearance of a repeat,” she said. “I think what it reveals is that the royals want less focus on their clothes. It takes the spotlight off of what they’re wearing and puts it on the cause.”
The palace is tight-lipped about the inner workings of royal wardrobes, but here are some theories about this peculiarity. First, who among us hasn’t bought a sweater in multiple colors because it’s flattering? It’s how humans dress. You could also argue that reworking instead of just re-wearing a dress gives the occasion its own gravity. It signals that Kate didn’t just throw on an old McQueen sitting in her closet. There’s also a precedent for these wardrobe hacks — Princess Diana was also fond of reworking dresses. And finally, the female royals are so scrutinized for their style that it makes sense to go with a formula you know works. When Meghan wore a Givenchy skirt that was slightly sheer, that faux pas was the (gross) story.
It all comes back to the optics. “Sensible dressing is a big part of the Duchess of Cambridge’s brand. She’s sending a message that she’s not going overboard,” Holmes said.
So maybe it makes sense for a royal to have a closet full of identical dresses and a seamstress to change up evening-wear to make each event feel special. But can we stop calling it a re-wear? A re-wear implies a level of practicality and frugality that is absent from the royal wardrobe in every respect. In this case, they’re not just like us.