Kate Middleton and Prince William: Will fashion follow their lead?

From Queen Elizabeth I to soon-to-be-Princess Kate Middleton, royal trend-setters have balanced classic elegance with chic modernity, say experts.

Mario Testino/Clarence House Press Office/AP/File
In this Dec. 12, 2010 file photo, Britain's Prince William and Kate Middleton pose for their official engagement portrait in the State Apartment in St James's Palace, in London.
The Franklin Mint/Richfoto/AdMedia
Kate Middleton the doll, produced by The Franklin Mint under the name, 'Portrait of a Princess Doll.' The dress sold out of British stores when the engagement was announced.

Once upon a time, if the queen wore black – as Britain’s widowed Victoria did – so did everyone in the nation. Happily, copying royal fashion or lifestyle choices is optional these days.

Clearly, Prince William’s future bride, Kate Middleton is destined for fashion icon status. Replicas of her engagement dress sold off the racks of British clothing stores in under an hour.

On the other hand, few young hipsters sport the feathery headdress that Camilla Parker-Bowles wore when she married Prince Charles.

So, what determines the who, what, and where of modern royals as trendsetters?

It's all about the tech, says Cherie Kerr, a public relations expert. “Whomever is the most hip in terms of social media will become the trendsetter among the royals,” she predicts.

“Today's world is fast-paced and tech-savvy," says Ms. Kerr. "If it's Harry, who tweets a particular intercepted message while donning those cargo shorts, or Kate, who is seen in that smashing summer ensemble while texting her hubby,” the world will gravitate to that “royal tech hipster."

People will watch at who is wearing what as they use their gadgets, she says, adding that these tech-driven moments will define the new "cool." And while Kate is the darling of the wedding moment, Kerr adds that Kate's cheeky brother-in-law-to-be may steal some of that spotlight. “People will be wild about Prince Harry because he 'plays to the cool' of all his apparel and gadget choices,” she says, adding that they always showcase his particular style.

'Looking for guidance'

When it comes to taking cues from royalty, the reasons are more than skin deep, says Gwynne Gorr, royal weddings and collectibles expert from The Franklin Mint, based near Philadelphia. “People are looking for guidance in their lives,” she says, particularly when it comes to big life events like weddings. She remembers her own 1984 nuptials, just three years after Diana married Charles in a voluminous dress with large, puffed sleeves.

“I was just looking at the photos of my own wedding dress,” says Ms. Gorr with a laugh, “and I realized that it had a lot of those same design elements."

“Weddings in particular were all heavily influenced after that royal wedding, and they will be again after this one,” she predicts.

History of royal fashionistas

The role of royalty as arbiters of taste dates back to the origins of monarchy, says Elisabeth Cawthon, an associate professor of history at The University of Texas at Arlington.

In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I took an active role in changing the cultural profile of her countrymen and women. “There was a general sense at that time that England was a bit of a cultural backwater,” she says, “and the Queen set out to change that, bringing the cutting-edge in culture and fashion from the European countries.”

She also changed attitudes towards women’s dress, says Professor Cawthon. “Before her, it was the men who were the peacocks,” she says, but Elizabeth loved jewels, pearls in particular. “She had her dresses encrusted with quite spectacular jewels and women of the court followed suit,” she notes.

Of course, today’s royalty is just one subset of the celebrity pantheon, notes Cawthon. And because of their association with historical institutions of power, they are still regarded differently from other celebrities. Right now, as young and as remote from the throne as William and Kate are, they have floated into the general slipstream of global celebrity.

'Stability and timeless values'

But, she says, once they age and get closer to the actual throne, they will be looked at with different eyes. “They will be regarded as standard-bearers for something more timeless than the fleeting fashions of the moment,” she says. “They will not be expected to be wearing the most trendy, or experimental clothing. “This explains what many might call the extreme, almost dowdy look of the reigning Elizabeth,” she says with a laugh, adding, “despite the fact that those clothes no doubt cost plenty. They represent stability and the timeless values that the British people want in their royal institutions.”

Many of the sought-after royal replicas display that timelessness, says Mike Bisceglia of Stauer, a Minnesota jewelry firm specializing in reproductions. (For a mere $95,000, he'll provide an exact copy of the royal sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring.) “Classic fashion never goes out of style,” he says, adding that simplicity is the key to timeless taste.

He frequents museums all over the world gleaning tips from ancient cultures such as the Greeks, Romans and Egyptians. Royalty at its best embodies both the most sophisticated taste of the time, “but without losing a classic kind of dignity,” he adds.

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