One thing that should really be appreciated about the Duchess of Cambridge is that she’s been in the public consciousness since she was 20 years old and, 15 years later, she’s remarkably light on having put a foot wrong. All things considered, she’s been discreet, good-natured and respectful of not only William, but his family and her own. To be honest, of all of her traits, that’s the one I find the most impressive. I cannot emphasize enough how glad I am that there’s not an extensive digital footprint of my own college or early 20s phase (untagged Facebook photos aside).
Particularly as the early aughts weren’t a great time for fashion, a fact I’ve been reminded of as I put together this post. The early photos are giving me uncomfortable flashbacks to some of the sartorial choices made in middle and high school.
Since marrying William, Kate has been included on dozens of “best dressed” lists, credited with sky-rocketing the profiles of countless brands and selling out items of clothing within hours of being photographed in them. She is best-known for having flawless hair and generally always looking perfect. This look back isn’t meant to undermine that, but rather examine the transformation she took in the span of a decade from a pretty typical undergraduate to suddenly being splashed across every front page as the future queen of England. The hair, the teeth, the makeup, the skin and, oh yes, the clothing have all changed dramatically. It’s also a nice walk down memory lane.
Now the first historic visual we have of Kate Middleton is when she walked in a St. Andrews University fashion show on March 27, 2002 dressed in a sheer skirt that she wore as a dress. It’s also the night that William apparently fell for her, though I can’t comment on the veracity of that (you be the judge from photo below). The only note I’ll add here is that 50, 100, 200 years down the line, all biographies of William and Kate will include some version of this photo and this story and that’s kind of hilarious. The sheer skirt that changed the monarchy.
Kate was on the radar of royal reporters from the get-go since her very memorable catwalk debut. She was also known to be a close friend of William’s and moved in with him as a housemate for their sophomore year of school. At some point, over the course of the 2002-2003 school year, they began a relationship under the radar. The Palace had successfully kept a pretty good media blackout of William while he was in school – in return for the occasional interview and photo call, they weren’t to harass him as he went about campus. However, the odd photo would emerge – and sometimes, he was accompanied by a brunette woman:
After over a year of rumors and denials, William and Kate were caught by parazzi kissing on a ski holiday in Klosters, Switzerland in March 2004. From that moment on, it was game on, though the media blackout was still in place until William graduated the following spring.
Kate’s university style was pretty typical of being a student and the trends of the time. Boot-cut jeans, camisoles, hair “styled” by being brushed, big scarves and comfortable jackets. Nothing too outlandish here – dressing for comfort and Scottish weather. What’s most remarkable about photos from those years is simply how young she looks, and how “undone” in comparison to how we usually see her today. Also, my God, this woman has always enjoyed a large belt.
2005 was the first distinct milestone in the couple’s relationship – at least as far as the public was concerned. William and Kate both graduated from the University of St. Andrews and moved to London. While William was holed up in his father’s official resident at Clarence House, Kate took over a flat purchased by her parents in Chelsea. The first few years out of school were rocky for Kate. While William was set with beginning military training that fall – a path he would continue over the next few years – Kate was professionally adrift. She was also constantly paparazzi fodder, which now had unfettered access to her. In October 2005, just four months after graduating, she would file her first complaint against the press, arguing that she had done “nothing significant to warrant publicity” – an argument that essentially said being William’s girlfriend didn’t make her a public figure.
2007 is usually described as “the” landmark year in William and Kate’s relationship, and for good reason. It was also a definite turning point in Kate’s style. But I would argue that 2006 was equally important and helps put some of the 2007 dynamics into perspective. Kate, left to her own devices, were she not being photographed every time she left her house, was pretty dressed down. I don’t think she was above dressing for comfort, wearing sensible shoes and throwing her hair up in a messy bun. I think her idea of a good jaunt in fashion was throwing on a chunky belt, the odd hat and some statement jewelry. Perfectly acceptable for an early 20s-something fresh from a college campus.
By the end of 2006, we see a marked shift. Kate is a bit more pulled together. Her jeans are darker, her makeup is applied, her jackets have become sleeker blazers, her hair is blown out. This makes sense – she was being photographed more regularly. After a year out of school, the media took note that the relationship appeared to have legs. That fall, Kate took on a position as an accessories buyer for Jigsaw in an arrangement that had her working four days a week with flexible leave to see William when he was in town (Kate’s “work shy” reputation has been a bit of a PR issue from the get-go). The problem with this was that the paparazzi now had a daily schedule that they could track her with. It wasn’t sustainable.
What it did do was start a period of time I like to refer to as: Kate Middleton Walking Down London Streets.
But the intensifying of the engagement rumors were prompted by some other factors, such as Kate attending a few higher-profile events alongside William. She showed up at the Cheltenham races in a fur hat, wowed at the Boodles Boxing Ball in BCBG and was perfectly poised at friends’ wedding wearing coat dresses and fascinators. Done up in these contexts, she appears more like the Duchess of Cambridge we know today – she still enjoys a good fascinator, a large fur hat and the occasional plunging neckline.
Tabloids were beside themselves when she attended William’s graduation from Sandhurst in December 2006 alongside her parents. It was one of the first concrete signs of the seriousness of the relationship, particularly for a man as guarded about his personal life as William has always been.
The following month was Kate’s 25th birthday and the media was in full-blown engagement-watch. On the morning of January 9, 2007, Kate walked out of her home to get in her car and go to work and a full on gaggle of paparazzi greeted her to record her every move as she walked down the sidewalk, got into her and drove off. Sadly for the paps, she wasn’t wearing a ring (I mean, duh – what did they think?). It was eerily similar to a situation that had played out with Diana during her relationship with Charles in the early 80s – a comparison very much made at the time. It was also one of the few instances where Kate appeared distinctly unhappy by the press intrusion; usually, she was good about keeping a fairly benign, if not cheerful, expression when being photographed.
And so now 2007, Kate’s annus horribilus. No engagement announcement was forthcoming, but the pressure stayed on – there were daily tabloid stories about the relationship. Two months squeaked by and Kate attended the Cheltenham races again, this time with William. In photos the couple seemed awkward with one another. Both dressed in tweed, they were accused of looking prematurely middle-aged. Kate was called out for assuming the mannerisms of the Royal Family by clasping her hands in front of her the way she is shown below. Essentially the narrative became that Kate, William’s family and the press were vying for an engagement, but William wasn’t ready yet (he was still 24 in March 2007). Within weeks, a breakup had been confirmed.
But now we come to Kate Middleton at her best. It is this time period, more than any other, that should underscore for you that this woman is made of sterner stuff than it perhaps appears today. Because Kate didn’t hide out after William dumped her. She didn’t stay in bed and she didn’t let slip her side of the story via friends to the press. No, while speculative stories abounded in which she was described as too “common,” grasping, social-climbing and dull, Kate hit the gym and invested in some thigh-skimming dresses. She went out, she didn’t hide from the camera, she was surrounded by a posse of friends and the Cheltenham tweed was replaced with sequins and lace. She also dropped one, if not two, dress sizes and has never quite gone back. Behold:
She joined The Sisterhood, a group of female athletes training to become the first all-women crew to cross The Channel in a traditional Chinese dragon boat (for charity). She started practicing with them on the water on a regular basis, which was naturally captured by paparazzi. But I’ve always kind of love these shots – she looks happy, she’s doing something independent and, not for nothing, it’s nice to see Kate, usually accompanied by William or his friends, in a group of women trying to accomplish something.
The breakup, which occurred in April, seems to have been on the mend by late June. By the time Kate attended the memorial concert William and Harry planned to commemorate the 10th anniversary of their mother’s death, it was well-known that the couple were back together. Kate dropped out of the dragon boat racing and it was pretty much understood that a reconciliation meant an engagement would be forthcoming at some point.
With marriage seemingly inevitable, 2008, 2009 and the first months of 2010 can be somewhat lumped together. The relationship was secure, Kate popped up at some increasingly “official” events as William’s girlfriend, and it was reported that she was “in” with his family. She had long-since given up her Jigsaw position and had begun quietly pursuing marketing and photography on behalf of her parents’ family business.
Fashion-wise, not too much changed, but Kate remained notably slimmer post-2007 than she had been while at University and directly afterwards. She also became associated with one particular designer during this time period, Issa, which made up some of Kate’s most iconic looks before and after her engagement. While Issa would be on display during Kate’s first official overseas tour as Duchess of Cambridge, the brand would soon be quietly put away thanks to connections with the al Fayed family.
2006-2008 also gave us period of time that I like to call: William & Kate Hit Nightclubs, Get Photographed in Cabs. While William was frequently away due to his military duties, when he was in town the couple were frequently photographed exiting popular nightclubs. Now, the couple were 24-26 at this time, so it’s not as though they were doing anything particularly shocking as compared to their peers, but it has left us with a trail of rather amusing images of the future king and queen tipsy at 2 am. To be fair, Kate isn’t known as a big drinker and the image of her in neon shorts was from a fancy dress charity event.
Now, sometimes the images were kind of adorable:
While other times, they were just flat out amazing:
Or good evidence that William is clearly more of a drinker than Kate:
But by the fall of 2008, these outings started to wind down. Perhaps mindful of optics once the Recession hit, the couple scaled down their appearances at trendy hot spots. They were also getting a bit older – Kate would turn 27 in January 2009, while William started training with the Royal Air Force around the same time. Priorities shifted.
The vast majority of sightings of the couple would come from their attendance at the weddings of their friends and polo matches, and there would usually be an accompanying tabloid story noting how long they had been dating and wondering when William would pop the question. In comparison to earlier days, though, Kate spottings were few and far between.
In 2010, the couple quietly moved to Anglesey, Wales together, living in a large farmhouse while William continued to work with the RAF. Being outside of London significantly limited their exposure and gave Kate a period of time where she was flying under the radar and protected without officially becoming a member of the RF.
Then October rolled around. The couple were reported to take a trip to Kenya with friends – Africa long being an important place to both William and Harry. They returned to the UK and attended a friend’s wedding, where the below photo was snapped and published in tabloids. Now I distinctly remember seeing this photo and it jumped out at me immediately. By this point, Kate had been being photographed around London and showing up in random publications for five years. It was hard to miss her and she was a recognizable figure. We know now that they were secretly engaged when this photo was taken, but I certainly didn’t when I first saw it – to me, Kate looked (and looks) markedly different. She’s tanner, her teeth are whiter and her hair is glossier. Something about her from this point on has always looked…different to me. As far as I’m concerned, this is the first photo of the Duchess of Cambridge:
A few weeks later Clarence House would confirm their engagement. Kate wore Issa, the brand most closely associated with her.
Her style during her engagement was an interesting amalgam of Kate Middleton and Duchess Catherine.
Her suede boots cropped up from time to time, she still dusted off a distinct fascinator and the above-the-knee floaty skirts and blazers remained a fixture. But there was an overall sheen – her hair was darker, her makeup more defined, her jewelry smaller and more conservative. The sheer tights made their first appearance. So, too, did the pumps and the skirt suit.
Kate also seemed ridiculously happy during her engagement – more animated in front of the camera, at ease and engaged. The version of Kate from November 2010 to April 2011 most reminds of Kate during the 2007 breakup and the similarity, I think, is that it’s Kate with a distinct purpose. Her relationship with William, while clearly the most important thing in her life, also isolated her from a lot of experiences due to the security risks, exposure and conflict – a career, meeting different people, moving to a random new location, making a life-shattering mistake. I don’t believe that Kate is subservient to William in their relationship, but I do think she has had to quietly compromise a lot more than he has. And I think he knows that.
On April 29, Kate and William were married at Westminster Abbey with a reception that followed at Buckingham Palace. She would wear two gowns, both Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen. Now, almost six years later, it is still McQueen who dresses Kate for many of her big, iconic moments and the brand has become synonymous with the Duchess.
The following day, Kate and William left BP for a pre-honeymoon weekend in Scotland (they would take a longer trip in May). Her “going away” ensemble – blazer and floaty dress – is one the last hints of the last classic Middleton looks. What would come next, the 2011/2012 time period, is often referred to as Kate’s style heyday – a better mix of the youthfulness of her 20s with the high fashion she now had better access to and reason to wear.
But I think the transformation of Kate’s fashion as duchess is better left separated out from Kate’s style while she was single. What becomes abundantly clear to me is that by 2010, Kate was primed and ready to go. There was no hesitation or awkward learning patch – this girl was on the mark and all set for the moment her engagement was announced. And while her clothing has improved and evolved, some of her best looks still retain a hint of “Middleton.”
Also, never forget, there once was a time when Kate wasn’t above Uggs: