We've gone from a nation of sceptics to a Great Britain of believers - just how did Kate Middleton shake up the national psyche?
Rewind five years and our monarchy felt outdated, out of touch and utterly unrelatable. We knew the Queen packed an international diplomatic punch, and possibly that the royals were a huge pull for the tourism industry but they were more famous for Prince Philip’s faux pas (his description of Beijing, during a visit there in 1986 – “ghastly”) and Prince Andrew’s links to billionaire convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein than their place in modern society. But suddenly, thanks to the power of a young brunette, their position in the public’s perception has dramatically transformed.
When Kate Middleton married Prince William on 29 April last year it didn’t simply offer us an excuse to throw a party and enjoy an extra bank holiday, it seemed to inject Britain with a touch of hope. Not bad for a nation of sceptics. The recession may have been biting and the newsstands saturated with bad news but the romance gave us something to be positive about. One year on and the public voraciously consume news of Kate’s every move. Whether that’s her visits to her chosen charities, elegantly mingling with the Obamas and Sarkozys, handling intense press scrutiny with aplomb or winning admirers across the globe, Kate has pulled it all off with ease. Such is her success in her first year as the Duchess of Cambridge that the Reading-born 30 year old is now reportedly worth £1 billion to the British economy.
Perhaps Kate’s power lies in the fact that she’s provided a welcome antidote to what went before. Where reality TV stars with questionable morals once dominated the front pages, now Kate, with her dignified elegance, is providing a much-needed role model. Her quiet reserve in a celebrity culture where indiscretion has been the common currency is a refreshing change. And it’s with this reserve that Kate has created a new generation of royalists – of believers – in just 12 months. Stylist investigates just how she’s managed to pull it off.
ABOVE: Kate Middleton visits the Treehouse Hospice, Ipswich on 19 March 2012.
Kate the Friend
A huge dose of Kate’s power lies in her remarkable ability to make us feel like she’s one of us. And she’s done so most effectively via her appearance. It might seem a rather frivolous medium, but it’s a smart one. Words make up just a third of humans’ mutual communication, so we base a huge amount of our opinion solely on what we see. Unsurprisingly, she’s managed her appearance with military precision and it’s an incredible way to subconsciously manipulate us.
Kate made clear her fashion intentions early on – her engagement portraits may have been shot by Mario Testino, but the outfits were unashamedly high street. Seasons-old high street in fact – a cream Whistles blouse in one photo and a Reiss dress in another. “It’s a clever tactic, and one she has employed endlessly since,” explains Stylist’s fashion director, Alexandra Fullerton.
“Many women will have recognised at least one piece she’s been photographed in from Topshop, LK Bennett or Zara.” Clinical psychologist Jennifer Baumgartner explains that this makes us warm to her, as we feel part of her tribe and it also underlines that we have made the right fashion choices. “We are repeatedly presented with Kate’s choices and we find these items, which are familiar to us, more attractive. We then hear what she has chosen is ‘elegant’, ‘sophisticated’ or ‘beautiful’, and decide maybe that’s true,” says Baumgartner. And that, in turn, makes us feel good.
Equally, we very rarely look at Kate and think, ‘I could never have put that outfit together, I wish I had her stylist!’ Instead, we view her as an idealised version of ourselves – and think we could look like that, if we had a little more time to get ready in the morning. Psychotherapist Rachel Shattock Dawson explains, “The thing about Kate is there is no mystique – she is not a supermodel, she has created her own image through hard work. So we think we could perhaps look the same, if we put our minds to it.”
ABOVE: Kate Middleton visits the homeless charity, 'Centrepoint', in December 2011.
Then there’s the hair. Not since Jennifer Aniston’s ‘Rachel’ cut have we been so enamoured with one woman’s locks. But it hasn’t just made us want to visit the hairdressers more regularly; it’s also helped us to trust her. Studies show that members of US congress are more likely to have a full head of hair than their peers because it’s seen as a sign of reliability. It also makes us like her more. A 1999 study has revealed that long-haired girls in primary school are more successful than short-haired girls – they have more friends, are regarded as more popular and prettier. Akin Konizi, British Hairdresser Of The Year, explains, “Kate’s hair is appealing to the professional woman who wants to connect with her own femininity. And there is something about the fact her hair positively gleams with health that makes us trust her – you don’t get hair like that if you don’t look after yourself, and by extension, others.” Again, a 2004 study backs this up – long and medium-length hairstyles significantly improved our evaluations of women’s health status. A recent Mintel study found that we are buying more haircare products than ever, hinting at how much she may be affecting us.
Kate the Role Model
Once upon a time, Kate was criticised for her work ethic by a feminist culture which praised career women. Despite going to St Andrews University and getting a 2:1 in History of Art she never set a successful career in motion, spending just 11 months as an accessories buyer at Jigsaw after she graduated. Now, however, she is doing a sterling job of being a royal. And don’t think for one second that it’s not actually a job. Kate is already the patron of four charities, but she is also busy making discreet visits to various other charities as she plans to double these commitments in the coming months. While Prince William was away on a six-week tour of duty in the Falkland Islands in February and March, Kate made numerous public appearances, either alone or with the Queen and Camilla.
This new-found work ethic has left an impression on us – as Generation Y we are extremely career focused – 13.6 million women in the UK work and 76% claim it’s the most important part of their lives. Research shows that women trust women who do things effectively and are particularly impressed by women who are competent at work. Kate is pulling off her professional duties – be that accompanying her husband on a royal tour of Canada or visiting the areas of Birmingham affected by last summer’s riots – brilliantly, and the effect is that we feel safe in her hands, like we have someone to rely upon.
We have another reason to look up to Kate. Over the past 15 years a new breed of celebrity – the reality TV star – has reared its head. We are living in an odd, unsettling culture with strong women eerily absent from the public eye, replaced by those dogged by scandals and indiscretion. The result is we crave a solid and dependable role model who acts with decorum and makes us feel safe. And Kate fits that mould perfectly. As Shattock Dawson explains, “In a world where things currently seem so unpredictable, a person who is so clearly controlled is appealing.” Interestingly, studies show that during recessions we seek reliable and cautious role models to look up to, and it’s female role models which women are looking for. In 2006, Penelope Lockwood of the University of Toronto conducted a study where male and female students were given a fictional newspaper article about someone who had succeeded in their chosen field. While some read about a woman, others read about a man. After finishing the article, the female students who had read about the woman rated themselves more highly than those who read about the man.
ABOVE: Kate Middleton at the Royal Albert Hall
Kate provides us with a solid role model not just because of the professionalism she’s showing in her duties, but also by the loyal team that surrounds her. Not a single one of her inner circle has ever spoken to the press. Psychotherapist Lucy Beresford explains why this is appealing, “While we may not consciously be willing Kate to save us from our everyday lives, we recognise qualities in her, like loyalty and discretion, that we desire in our own friendships and relationships.” There is also something comforting about a public figure – and a royal – who shows no signs of skeletons in her closet. Royal historian and author Kate Williams explains, “Kate has the same quiet reserve, tact and ability to hide her feelings as the Queen, which is useful in the public eye.” As one newspaper journalist told Stylist, “There is simply nothing in her past that is threatening to come out.” After years of scandals that’s a big relief.
Kate the Princess
Another of Kate’s charms lies in the fact that we’re almost biologically programmed to buy into a fairy-tale ending. Stories such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty may seem terribly misogynistic and outdated but they’re the stories we were brought up with and consequently they’ve worked themselves into our psyche. When Kate admitted she “wasn’t very happy” about her brief split with William in 2007, she played a very smart move. Not only was she once again displaying humanity but she was also telling a story which appeals to us on a very fundamental level. Shattock Dawson explains: “Little girls are fed the idea of a fairy-tale ending – that if they remain steadfast and committed, through trials and adversity, they will ultimately win round their beloved. This is exactly what seems to have happened here.” It makes us feel good, hopeful even.
ABOVE: Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge at the wedding of Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall, July 2011.
We have previously been denied this kind of real-life princess fantasy that we so desperately want to believe in - Diana’s princess story met a tragic end – so this time we’re soaking it up. Rachel Johnson, editor-in-chief of The Lady, explains, “Unlike Diana and Charles, whose relationship was troubled from the off, Kate is radiant in the certainty that William loves her just the way she is, and that one day, he is going to make her his queen.” And we don’t believe in the dream just for their sake, but our own. “On a primitive level, we all have fantasies of finding the perfect person, so we’ll inevitably respond positively to a narrative that fits within that parameter,” adds Beresford. Their undeniable newlywed glow has rubbed off on the rest of the UK – new figures show last year the number of marriages increased at the fastest rate for a decade. Not only that, the couple met at university and lived together before they married – a relationship many of us can relate to.
Kate the Brand Ambassador
So is Kate really responsible for turning us into a nation of royalists? British opinion of the royal family is higher than it’s been in years, with 60% of Brits agreeing that it makes the country more respected around the world. Johnson explains, “There’s something about the Duchess of Cambridge that has had an astonishingly transformative effect on our expectations of the royals. If David Cameron has made it his mission to decontaminate the Tories, she’s single-handedly made the royal family less dysfunctional than ever: indeed, together with Zara and Mike and Wills and Harry, the Windsors are now arguably one of the coolest global brands around.”
But of course Kate isn’t the only royal who is responsible for this shift in public opinion. Where once the royals were funny caricatures who worked better on Spitting Image than on the international stage, they’re now thoroughly modern leaders. Prince Charles’ Prince’s Trust charity provides mentoring, support and financial grants to build the confidence of disadvantaged young people. Zara is married to a rugby player from Otley, Leeds and had a wedding which we would all have happily gone to. Prince Harry, who has previously been portrayed as an entitled playboy, has made no secret of his desire to return to a deployment in Afghanistan.
ABOVE: Kate Middleton visits the Olympic Park in March 2012, and plays hockey.
The royals are also giving us a reason to feel patriotic. In a world where US politicians are blocking healthcare reform and threatening women’s reproductive rights; Italy’s ex-Prime Minister is facing trials over tax fraud and paying for sex with an underage prostitute, while the Spanish king’s son-in-law is mired in accusations of a financial corruption scheme and his 14-year-old grandson is being investigated after illegally using a firearm underage (he literally shot himself in the foot last week), our royals are a paragon of good behaviour (for now). The result is we’re feeling a surge of “aren’t we lucky to be Brits” pride. Last month, a YouGov survey found that optimism levels in Britain are soaring and are set to hit their highest levels since the royal wedding last April. With the Queen’s Jubilee around the corner, another poll by British Future revealed that 68% of us believe it will boost our national mood with nearly three-quarters saying they currently have a strong sense of “British belonging”.
For years we’ve been accused of being a cynical nation: cynical about the relevance of an institution which was created in the ninth century, cynical about love when divorce rates were rising annually, cynical about our country as greed and selfishness took a fierce grip and resulted in one of our country’s worst recessions. But now we want to believe in a fairy-tale love story, we want to buy into the traditions and rich history that our royal family provide, we want the kind of role model who we can trust in but most of all we want to believe in Kate. A young woman who is just like us but who went on to marry a prince and did so without a title or a huge stately pile but with a big dose of dignity and style. That’s what’s made us all believers.