04.29.11

Kate Middleton's Wedding Dress: Alexander McQueen's Royal Triumph

It was the most beautiful dress that was destined, doomed to be a disappointment—if only because so much was expected of it.

Gallery: Royal Wedding Day

The Alexander McQueen wedding dress that Kate Middleton wore to marry Prince William was a glorious sweep of ivory and white silk gazar with hand-embroidered English and French Chantilly lace and 58 organza-covered buttons snaking up the back. It had a discreet v-neck, long lace sleeves and a train that measured nearly nine feet long. Middleton’s slender waistline was emphasized by the gown’s narrow bodice and slight padding at the hips—a nod to Victorian style. It was a dignified acknowledgement of Arts and Crafts tradition but bore the streamlined, body-enhancing silhouette of contemporary fashion.

But what dress could live up to the tortured imagination of royal watchers and the breathless fantasies of the media? Even as the bride stepped from the Goring Hotel, where she had been sequestered from her groom, into the waiting coach that would ferry her to Westminster Abbey for the ceremony, eyes of the obsessed were straining to discern something, anything about the creator of the gown—as if the designer’s signature might somehow be visible to those who squinted really, really hard.

In the end, the McQueen gown, designed by the house’s creative director, Sarah Burton, and hand-sewn by the atelier, did not change Western fashion as the world knows it. It did not alter everything that defines modern femininity. And it did not force a reassessment of what it means to be elegant, sophisticated or sexy. But it was a gasp-inducing, slightly sexy gown worn by a beaming bride. It put a giddy smile on the young prince’s face and caused him to seemingly murmur: You look fabulous. And really, what more can one expect or hope for a wedding dress to do?

“It has been the experience of a lifetime to work with Catherine Middleton to create her wedding dress, and I have enjoyed every moment of it,” Burton said in a statement. “ It was such an incredible honour to be asked, and I am so proud of what we and the Alexander McQueen team have created…. Alexander McQueen’s designs are all about bringing contrasts together to create startling and beautiful clothes and I hope that by marrying traditional fabrics and lacework, with a modern structure and design we have created a beautiful dress for Catherine on her wedding day.”

Middleton wore her hair down, avoiding the mistake of so many brides who physically transform into nearly unrecognizable creatures of shellacked up-dos and thick makeup on their wedding days. Her demure Cartier tiara—if a little crown of diamonds can ever be discreet—exuded youth and ease. Created in 1936, the tiara was loaned to her by her future grandmother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II, who had received it from her own mother for her 18th birthday.

And unlike Princess Diana at her wedding, Middleton’s face was clearly visible behind her veil. It wasn’t shrouded behind a thick scrim of tulle. Middleton didn’t look like a shy bride, but rather a supremely confident woman.

It wasn’t a flashy Hollywood display of style but rather an example of how discretion and formality can be just as exciting as cleavage and borrowed gowns.

While the attention at any wedding always centers on the bride, it would be wrong not to cast a glance toward the groom in his grand military uniform. There is, folks say, something extraordinarily swoon-inducing about a gentleman in a uniform, and to see Prince William in his searing red jacket with its gold embellishments conjured up all that viewers expect in a royal wedding, particularly one that’s been cast as a Cinderella fairytale.

For months, fashion watchers had been engaged in a guessing game over who would design Middleton’s gown. Names from Bruce Oldfield to Alice Temperley were prominently mentioned and debated. Early speculation, however, had focused on the British design house Alexander McQueen and Burton, who designed the dress that Sarah Buys wore in 2005 to marry Tom Parker Bowles, Prince William’s stepbrother. In February, however, a spokeswoman for Alexander McQueen had vigorously denied—“No, no, no!”—Burton was designing the dress, as did Burton herself.

“The last few months have been very exciting and an incredible experience for my team and I as we have worked closely with Catherine to create this dress under conditions of the strictest secrecy,” Burton said. “Understandably, Catherine has been very keen to keep the details of her dress a secret, which is every bride’s prerogative, and we gave an undertaking to keep our role confidential until the day of the wedding.”

It’s OK, Sarah. The fashion world forgives you for your fibbing. Fashion insiders and fans had held out hope that Burton had been given the commission of a lifetime, as the collaboration would signal that Middleton was stepping out of her more conservative style and toward an aesthetic that was more daring and audacious. It would mean that the bride was taking on the responsibility of representing modern British fashion; it would mean that maybe, just maybe, she was warming to the notion of becoming a style icon.

Her choice of Burton certainly suggests sensitivity to contemporary fashion, but the design of the dress, to which Middleton contributed, is rooted in tradition, not the avant-garde. The gown wasn’t one of a woman aspiring to be a fashion icon, but rather one who was supremely secure in her sense of self.

The label’s founder, the British-born Lee Alexander McQueen, was a working class kid from East London who was renowned for his extravagant designs that were full of dark romance and a passion for British history. He was trained on Savile Row, worked in French couture at Givenchy and established a reputation as one of the most accomplished, emotionally stirring and technically skilled designers of his generation. In 2003, he was made a Commander of the British Empire. He committed suicide last year, at 40, and Burton, his longtime assistant, was elevated to creative director of the brand. His legacy will be celebrated with an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute that opens May 4.

For all the brashness that defined McQueen’s public persona, Burton is a far more reserved personality. Her work for the house has been characterized by the same kind of cutting and tailoring skills that had long defined it. But she brought a softer, gentler aesthetic to it. If Lee McQueen was focused on a woman’s power, Burton is more inclined to highlight her confidence.

Burton also designed the white, cowl-neck column gown worn by maid-of-honor Pippa Middleton, the bride’s sister. And Prince Harry was a splendid mix of military dash and tousled ease. The Irish milliner Philip Treacy must have worked into the wee hours creating the vast array of fanciful hats and fascinators that provided the finishing touches for the ensembles of so many female guests, although notably not Samantha Cameron, wife of prime minister David Cameron. She did not wear a hat of any sort.

Many of the older guests wore the broad-brimmed chapeaux that make one wonder how they manage to navigate the many hugs and kisses that a wedding requires. And pity the poor gentlemen who were seated behind them! The Duchess of Cornwall—Prince William’s stepmother—wore a champagne-colored dress and pale blue and champagne coat with lush embroidery by British designer Anna Valentine, one of her longtime favorites. Prince Charles was, of course, in uniform. He looked gallant. The duchess looked like a very proper British matron.

And shall we pause a moment and give the queen her due? She wore an Angela Kelly-designed sunshine yellow dress and coat with a matching hat. She could not have chosen a more optimistic and cheerful ensemble, from the color to the sunburst embroidery at the coat’s neckline. She also pulled out quite serious jewels: Queen Mary’s True Lovers Knot broach. Shall we all say in unison: Aww! And of course, she had her handbag: large, structured, ivory.

Let it be said that no one does old world pomp quite like the British, and the guests expertly played their part in creating a dignified yet extravagant tableau. As far as one could see, there were no eruptions of look-at-me garishness, no flashes of stomach-churning inappropriateness. It wasn’t a flashy Hollywood display of style but rather an example of how discretion and formality can be just as exciting as cleavage and borrowed gowns.

Yet for all of the gilded coaches, the soaring architecture, the trumpets and the squealing crowds, the most striking aspect of the wedding was the wedding party itself, particularly the women. They looked remarkably contemporary and sleek. Their dresses were stylish and memorable. And, of course, the bride’s gown was a true stunner. It was not a designer’s indulgence. It did not play to our culture’s need for grotesque ostentation. It did not overwhelm the woman—the princess—herself.

And with that Herculean act of restraint, Sarah Burton, exceeded all expectations.

Robin Givhan is a special correspondent for style and culture for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. In 1995 she became the fashion editor of The Washington Post where she covered the news, trends and business of the international fashion industry. She contributed to Runway Madness, No Sweat: Fashion, Free Trade and the Rights of Garment Workers , and Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections by Women Writers. She is the author, along with The Washington Post photo staff, of Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady. In 2006, she won the Pulitzer Prize in criticism for her fashion coverage. She lives and works in Washington, D.C.