In a year riven by political turmoil, economic malaise and rioting in the streets, a young, fresh-faced couple formally titled the duke and duchess of Cambridge (but affectionately known as Will and Kate) provided ongoing romantic relief—and distraction. The photogenic pair delighted the masses and were a boon to the media that tracked their every move, real and speculative. Their wedding gave the British economy—along with fascinator sales—a bump. More, it injected a much-needed adrenalin boost to the British royal family itself. Dutifully, smilingly, the duo restored a patina of glamour and vitality to an institution tarnished by divorce, scandal and tragedy.
Details of the preparations for their April 29 nuptials were meted out like a slow IV morphine drip on www.princeofwales.gov.uk: the Westminster Abbey venue, the guest list, the name of the wedding cake decorator. An estimated two billion people tuned in to watch the ceremony, a pitch-perfect spectacle of royal pomp amid government-mandated austerity. Millions clogged the streets, among them Jean Seaton, a professor of media history at the University of Westminster, who views the occasion as a rare moment of British unity: “People were enjoying it as a kind of celebration of themselves,” she says.
Part of the cheer stemmed from the faith that the couple’s love match was real, not staged like the prince’s parents’. The union of the blond son of a beloved princess to a comely commoner also suggested Buck House was evolving with the times. There was no discussion of virginity: the couple had lived together for eight years. The bride, derisively dubbed “Waity Katie” by the press before her engagement, proved her mettle over the years, coping with paparazzi and gossip. Her unwavering determination to play the role she now has, once a source of criticism, is her greatest strength—one necessary to navigate an institution known to destroy the women who enter it. “It’s a much more negotiated, tested entry [than Diana’s],” says Seaton, the BBC’s official historian. “She knows—to the extent she can—what she’s getting into.”
The former Kate Middleton has not made a misstep since walking down the aisle in a Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen gown that stealthily catapulted her into the princess pantheon in echoing Princess Grace’s wedding dress. She and her new husband adopted the MO of ordinary newlyweds. Four days after the wedding, William, second in line to the British throne, returned to his day job as a Royal Air Force search and rescue pilot, Catherine to keeping house in Wales, where she’s often photographed pushing a shopping cart.
Their first deployment—to four Canadian provinces, the Northwest Territories and Los Angeles—was quick. Huge crowds of every age greeted them at each stop, even in Quebec, where anti-monarchists unsuccessfully tried to steal the spotlight.
The couple aced the assignment while telegraphing a new, informal royal protocol: in P.E.I. they competed in dragon boat races, at the Calgary Stampede they donned jeans and cowboy hats. Together they exude a relaxed, happy choreography. During walkabouts, Kate appears born to play a role the British psychologist Linda Blair calls “powerful and pointless.” And the prince clearly delights in his wife’s popularity, often extending a protective hand to her back. By their final stop in L.A., they easily outshone the stars clamouring to meet them, which cynics might suggest was the point of ending the tour in Hollywood, in addition to giving the British film industry a boost.
The pair appear well-suited to one another and their new assignment, says Seaton: “I think this is quite a boring couple, but by golly that’s what you have to be.”
And a key part of that assignment, she notes, is buffering the monarchy from the succession crisis destined to occur when the Queen, now 85, dies. For now, that distraction is being accomplished in good part by the obsession over the duchess’s clothing—and the new royal politics it telegraphs. Less style setter than style exemplar, Kate has been roundly praised for recycling outfits and wearing items from mass-market chains Zara and Topshop. “It’s sending a signal,” says Susan Kelley, who operates the popular blog What Kate Wore, one of several that track the duchess’s clothing and links to sources. “It says, ‘I can be frugal, I’m not wasteful, I’m not one who spends money without thought or responsibility.’ ”
What Kate wears has also created a micro-industry, with retailers benefiting from customers who want to imitate her ladylike look. Her preference for sheer pantyhose has even been credited with reviving a moribund market segment, says Kelley.
Catherine’s status as the U.K.’s key fashion diplomat was recognized this month by Harper’s BazaarU.K., which put the duchess at the top of its 2011 “Best Dressed” list and proclaimed she “gave us the year’s—if not the century’s—most thrilling fashion moment at the royal wedding, and is shaping up as an amazing ambassador for British designers and the high street.”
The couple’s chief ambassadorial duty, however, is fronting for a monarchy badly in need of new blood and relevance. That was evident this August, when they visited riot-ravaged Birmingham after looting protesters destroyed parts of London and adjacent cities.
Looking ahead, the duke and duchess are expected to rival Brangelina as a global charity powerhouse. In October, the duchess, who will name the causes she’ll support next year, delighted guests at a dinner for the charity In Kind Direct when she filled in at the last minute for Prince Charles. Later that month, the newlyweds, recently named “most influential royals” by the Evening Standard, visited a UNICEF distribution centre in Copenhagen with Princess Mary of Denmark, a Catherine doppelgänger, to raise awareness of the organization’s famine-relief efforts in East Africa. While there, the duchess gave her second media interview—her first as a member of the royal family—in which she expressed concern the famine had been usurped by other news. “It was initially a big story,” she said, “but people have lost track of the situation.”
Kelley cites the trip as an example of how obsessive interest in Kate’s outfits translates into social awareness: “You want to see the fashion thing channelled into the greater good, which it is,” she says, observing that www.unicef.com crashed due to a deluge of online donations.
Yet what made headlines worldwide was not the cause but commotion over the duchess politely refusing to taste a high-protein peanut paste while helping to fill boxes with supplies. International media, which have relentlessly scrutinized Kate’s waistline for signs of an eating disorder or a pregnancy, interpreted the refusal as empirical proof of the latter, rather than simply to her disinclination to be photographed while eating. Not that they can be blamed: confirmation of Kate’s “baby bump” will be a publishing bonanza.
Frenzied pregnancy speculation has been further stoked by announced constitutional changes that will give female members of the British royal family equality with men in the rules of succession to the throne. That means the couple’s first child, boy or girl, would be third in line to the throne.
Buzz over that eagerly awaited announcement is destined to keep the focus on the young couple as the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee approaches. That bodes well for the family in the short term, Seaton says: “It’s an archaic institution that only survives if it lives on in people’s hearts; as far as it does, it means something.” If the affection summoned by Will and Kate during their halcyon freshman year can be sustained, then that archaic institution has a lot of life in it yet.