‘A plastic princess designed to breed’ and ‘a shop window mannequin, with no personality of her own’. These were the phrases used to describe the Duchess of Cambridge by the historian Hilary Mantel in her lecture entitled “Royal Bodies” at the British Museum.
Unwittingly, embarrassingly and then unashamedly, I was once the victim of the ‘Kate effect’. The Zara Lace Tulip Dress worn by the Duchess to a concert in aid of the Prince’s Trust in December 2011 somehow found its way to me whilst I was frantically raiding the Clarenden Centre one pre-guest night afternoon. This was, of course, before the prototype design was smuggled into Topshop, Warehouse, Oasis, Dorothy Perkins, and, eventually, (I dread to even utter the word) Primark.
Are not ‘shop window mannequin’ and ‘fashion icon’ really two sides of the same coin? Is the difference between the terms ‘plastic’ and ‘composed’ not identical to the distinction between describing your glass as ‘half empty’ and ‘half full’? Put thus, Mantel’s argument is reduced to describing Kate as a composed fashion icon, yet with ‘no personality of her own’. At best, this is contradictory and at worst, this is simply absurd. In her capacity as the proponent of the ‘Kate effect’, the Duchess has persuaded young women to swap high fashion for high street, and bottom-grazing hemlines for those which graze the knee. She reportedly injects an estimation of £1 billion into the UK fashion industry. It seems that the Duchess is neither designed purely to breed, nor does she exude signs of lacking in personality. Fashion exists as a medium for expression. What the Duchess expresses may be more sedate and demure than the visual statements of others in the public eye, but this does not render void what she has to say.
The Duchess could be a Princess or a pauper; she may or may not be able to feel the pea under Hans Christian Anderson’s twenty mattresses and twenty eider-down beds; but regardless, she has proved herself to be a fashion icon of the twenty-first century, and this very attribute surely negates any of Mantel’s claims.