As many readers know, last weekend the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge marked the centenary of the Battle of the Somme by attending a vigil and a service of remembrance at the Thiepval Memorial in France. Members of the Royal Family and thousands of Britons united to pay tribute to the soldiers who bravely fought in the terrible battle, and who were lost in its horrid aftermath.
In the midst this somber occasion, it is difficult to turn our attention to that which is often discussed about Kate: her clothing. Many blogs and writing about the Duchess’ clothing did not post accounts of her outfit worn at the service of remembrance until long after the service had ended. It doesn’t feel right to focus on something as frivolous as clothing and shoes when the topic at hand is world war, sacrifice, and the loss of a generation of young men. It doesn’t feel appropriate to analyze lace patterns when you are listening to hymns of remembrance being sung, guns are fired in honor, and wreaths are laid. And yet, I would argue, what Kate wore to the service of remembrance is actually very important and worth discussing.
The importance of Kate’s clothing – of what she chose to wear to this memorial service — is not in the amount that it cost or where it can be bought. Instead, its importance lies in the message that her choices send to her hosts, the French government, and the British people. In essence, her clothing choice in this instance is a form of speech through which she maintains good relations between her country and that of France – the very definition of sartorial diplomacy. To not discuss Kate’s clothing in this instance is to silence her voice and to ignore the important role that she is playing for her Queen and her country.
A large part of the silence regarding Kate’s sartortal choices for the Somme service of remembrance are out of courtesy and respect for the memorial service. But some of the silence is because the exact designer and details of the dress she wore to the event are unknown. As described by a previous article on this site, Kate wore “a nude-over-black lace dress. The lace is confirmed to be from Sophie Hallette, although the designer of the dress itself remains unknown.” Emily Nash, the Royal Correspondant at Hello!, on Twitter stated that Kensington Palace refused to give details about Kate’s outfit to the press, due to the fact that the event was a memorial (Twitter, 7/1/16, 6:48am EDT). I had previously believed that the general policy of the Royal Family as a whole was to withhold information about sartorial choices but it appears that this is solely the choice of Kensington Palace, and thus William and Kate: Emily Andrews, the Royal Correspondent for The Sun, added that Clarence House gave detailed information about the selections made by the Duchess of Cornwall (Twitter, 7/1/16, 3:14pm EDT).
Let’s look at the dress Kate chose to wear to the memorial service in a bit more detail. I have to admit upfront that I am no expert in fashion (aside from enjoying it visually), so I am sure that there are details that I will miss. If you can think of any, please add them in the comments. The nude lace over black could be an indication of the “half-mourning” style of dressing, which came about in the Victorian Era. The Peter Pan collar first emerged in the early 1900s (I found a reference for it in 1905), so would have been found in women’s fashion in 1916, when the Battle of the Somme was fought. Peplum jackets were also in fashion in 1916, and this feature can be seem in the peplum feature on the dress as worn by Kate. To add further, the dress Kate has chosen to wear to the Somme memorial features French lace by Sophie Hallette, who is known for her work in tulle and lace. I would very much wonder if the dress designer is from the United Kingdom – thus the dress represents a union of French lace and UK craft. Adding to this, Kate wore a poppy and bleuet (cornflower) brooch on the dress, uniting the British and French symbols of remembrance. Does it matter who designed Kate’s dress? Yes. I believe that knowing who designed the dress gives voice to the thought and feeling behind the garment. Is the dress a representation of the unity of French and British skill, through French lace and British design? Or was this just some random pretty item that Kate yanked out of the closet while packing? I think it does a profound disservice to Kate to not answer that question.
Moreover, I believe that Kensington Palace and the writers who write about Kate’s clothing ought to discuss her sartorial selection at this memorial service – and others – because it is the only way the public does hear the Duchess’ voice at these events. On the evening before the service of remembrance at the Thiepval Memorial, William, Kate, and Prince Harry attended a vigil at the memorial as well. Similarly at this event, Kensington Palace did not reveal any information about Kate’s clothing choices (although it was eventually identified by incredible sleuths on Twitter and Facebook). The vigil was incredibly moving – the memorial was lit at night, hymns were sung, and soldiers stood by the Stone of Remembrance in watch over the fallen. During the vigil, the Duke of Cambridge read an address written by Sebastian Faulks, and Prince Harry read a poem by Lieutenant WN Hodgson of the 9th Battalion the Devonshire Regiment, entitled ‘Before Action.” According to the Daily Mail, the Duchess of Cambridge contributed to the vigil by “listening carefully.” We heard the voices of the Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry carry proudly over the French countryside and over the BBC broadcast. We did not a word from the Duchess of Cambridge. I certainly think that it is Kate’s right to decide when to speak in public – heaven knows, I’m no great fan of public speaking myself. But to ignore the only outlet of her voice that we have access to – her choice in clothing – is to silence her completely. I firmly believe that Kate gives careful thought o her clothing choices (this can be seen in any of her Royal tours, public engagements, etc), and I think we ought to pay attention to the messages that are conveyed.
I also wonder if there is a hidden message in the widespread rush to hide Kate’s clothing choices at certain events, and the strong moral weight given to the rationale behind doing so: it is wrong to discuss fashion at memorial services. Fashion is frivolous. There are more important things to think about. If fashion is voice, then I don’t think it’s frivolous. If fashion can unite two countries, then I don’t think it’s unimportant. If fashion can convey respect for loss and grief through color, then it matters. Fashion has long been regulated as a woman’s issue and female concern. To say that it is frivolous, a waste of time, and unimportant carries the message that the kind of diplomacy that some women choose to do (see examples below) is equally frivolous, unimportant, and a waste of time. But it’s NOT. Fashion is a multi-billion dollar global business through which we convey important aspects of our thoughts and feelings – of our very selves. Doesn’t it deserve our respect?
Lastly, I want to point out that sartorial diplomacy is not the sole provenance of the Duchess of Cambridge. She follows in the Anello & Davide footsteps of the Queen, who has masterfully used her clothing and jewelry choices to convey messages throughout her reign. From the embroidery on her coronation gown, to the colors she wears, to how she handles her purse, her clothing and accessories convey messages and meaning to everyone she meets. Wearing bright colors means that she stands out and can be easily seen, and wearing heirloom brooches at special events brings lost family members back to the forefront of memory. The Queen’s use of clothing to convey speech is even the current focus of three exhibitions in the UK, Fashioning a Reign: 90 Years of Style from The Queen’s Wardrobe. Outside of Europe, Michelle Obama has become well-known for her sartorial choices on state occasions, such as wearing a gown by Jason Wu at a state dinner for the Prime Minister of Canada (Wu was raised in Canada), wearing a printed Missoni dress when in Milan, Italy, and wearing Michael Kors at the State of the Union Address in 2015. The messages sent by these clothing items, worn by the Queen, the Duchess of Cambridge, and Michelle Obama, all give the message to those that views them that “You matter.” The clothing choices we see give voice to the thought and preparation that goes into every engagement, every tour, every commemoration. Those choices – and the designers, couturiers, jewelers, cobblers, hatters, and artists behind them – all deserve recognition. As do the women who wear them.
The Queen and Power Dressing: The Guardian, 4/2/16
Michelle Obama’s Diplomatic Wardrobe: New York Times, 4/29/15
Duchess of Cambridge and the China State Dinner: New York Times, 10/21/15
Duchess of Cambridge and the India Tour: New York Times, 4/18/16
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