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Style

The instant ‘it’ girl

It’s not every day Great Britain gets a new princess. But will Kate be as influential around the world as Diana?

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By Beth Teitell
March 27, 2011

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Does it matter to us – commoners like you and me, and Americans no less – whom Prince William marries? On the one hand, how could it? We’re not going to the wedding. They’re never coming over for a barbecue. There’s no chance our kids will go to the same school, giving us the opportunity to run into her at pickup.

And yet, because the prince’s bride, no matter who she is, is almost certain to be anointed an instant globe style icon, her taste will trickle down. So, yes, we have a vested interest.

I’m speaking as a person who’s been burned by a style icon – the lovely Michelle Obama – but also as someone who remains eager for sartorial inspiration. What did Obama do to me? I fell under her spell and rushed to copy her look – the gold skirt she wore on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno during the 2008 campaign, the flowery brooches, the cardigans. Forgetting that I never accessorize and look tacky in gold and boxy in cardigans, I bought them all. It wasn’t until after the midterm elections that I finally admitted defeat and packed a bag for Goodwill.

Just in time, it turns out, because suddenly in mid-November there was Kate Middleton standing arm in arm with the prince. It’s hard to say which got more attention, their engagement announcement or her royal blue Issa London dress, which sold out almost instantly, a frenzy that would be repeated a few days later, this time over the white dress from Reiss she wore in her engagement photos. William? William who? How can I get a dress like that?

Though it may seem incredible, considering that Middleton recently edged out Lady Gaga as the highest-ranking fashion buzzword of the season, as measured by The Global Language Monitor, and has single-handedly triggered, it was reported in a Forbes magazine blog, a 300 percent rise in sales of sapphires at gem vendor the Natural Sapphire Company, there are style authorities who question whether she has what it takes to go the icon distance (more on this in a moment).

But the people crave an icon. Jackie is gone, and so are Carolyn Bessette Kennedy and Lady Di and Audrey Hepburn. So here’s Middleton. She’s young, pretty, and sexy; in possession of good hair and nice legs; and about to come into a terrific title (at press time, still unknown, like her wedding dress designer). As Donald Rumsfeld might say, you follow the style icon you have.

With the big day approaching – the wedding is April 29 – fashion authorities spoke about what it means to be an icon, the similarities between Middleton and Obama, and the take-home message for regular women. Kate Betts, author of Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style, sees Kate’s accessibility as a significant part of her appeal. Her two most famous dresses, after all, come from stores where regular folks shop. “I think she’s doing that on purpose, much the same way Michelle Obama does, wearing something out of her closet for the engagement photo, not some special dress. All the details seem minute and irrelevant, but they add up.”

Even as some belittle the public’s fascination with Middleton’s every garment and grooming choice – the signature sweater-knit tights, the new highlights, the black boots – Catherine Allgor, professor of history at the University of California, Riverside and author of A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation, insists clothing has meaning. “The question of style is an ephemeral one, but when you add politics to it, it becomes everyone’s business,” Allgor says.

Which leads us to the million-pound question: Will Middleton be an icon equal to Diana? Probably not, says Allgor. “Diana wasn’t titled nobility, but she came from a protected class and seemed like a fairy tale princess from another land. Kate is more like us. I think people idealized Diana, but they can identify with Kate. She is going to be this wonderful modern bridge for the monarchy.”

What makes a style icon? Charisma and an innate sense of fashion? The combination of good bone structure and a high-status position? A good, discreet stylist? Robin Givhan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism while fashion editor at The Washington Post, says she’s not quite sure. “Honestly, in 2011, I think we often muddle a famous person who dresses in a non-embarrassing way with style icon. Often the mere fact of fame transforms someone into a style icon more so than that person being particularly adept at fashion or having a signature style.”

Givhan, now a style and culture correspondent for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, says Middleton hasn’t yet worn anything that’s made a “huge statement.” “There was a story about a group of girls who all wore a sapphire blue dress and turned up in front of Buckingham Palace,” she says, “but I would argue that the dress is iconic because of the event associated with it, not because of the dress.”

Pamela Keogh, author of Are You a Jackie or a Marilyn? Timeless Lessons on Love, Power, and Style, is even more doubtful. “I think ‘style icon’ is pushing it,” she says. “To be a style icon you have to change the way women look at themselves and their possibilities.” She points to Hepburn. “It’s hard for us to remember now, but before she came on the scene, women didn’t wear all black. She shows up in fitted turtlenecks and little ballet flats. Women simply didn’t dress that way.” And Jackie Kennedy, she adds, “lifted the curtain on the way American upper-class women dressed and disseminated that to the middle class.” By contrast, Middleton plays it safe, Keogh says. “Her look is almost a throwback. You’re not like, ‘Wow, what the heck is she wearing?’ ”

So what’s the lesson for the folks watching the fashion parade from home? Pointing to both Obama and Middleton, Betts says it’s this: “Wear what you feel comfortable in and what makes you feel confident. So many women rush around and feel like they have to be in fashion, but they’re not necessarily doing themselves any favors – the trends may not suit them.”

In other words, the next time a picture of Kate Middleton looking great in an absurd feathered hat goes global, don’t buy one.

Beth Teitell is a Boston Globe staff writer. E-mail her at bteitell@globe.com.