The first clue as to how Catherine, duchess of Cambridge, intends to approach her pregnancy, stylistically speaking, was evident days before its sudden, clearly unplanned announcement. Visiting her girlhood alma mater, St. Andrew’s School, the princess showed off her field hockey skills with students while wearing a tartan Alexander McQueen coat and high-heeled boots. In retrospect, it indicated that the wife of the future British king plans to accommodate her pregnancy as if she’s any other healthy woman expecting a baby with a job to do.
Only, of course, she isn’t. The princess faces unique challenges navigating her post-conception world under unprecedented scrutiny. On one hand, she has to appear a relatable, modern mom-to-be; on the other, she’s fulfilling an archaic role as the vessel perpetuating the house of Windsor’s genetic code. Just as her 2011 wedding to Prince William recalibrated the optics of a British monarchy trying to adapt to the 21st century—the bride riding in a sleek Rolls-Royce, not a fairy-tale coach; charitable donations requested in lieu of gifts—so, too, does her pregnancy.
The fact that the royal household was forced to release news of the pregnancy before the princess had safely passed the first trimester reflects awareness of a new reality: that this is the first A-list heir to the British throne born into a post-TMZ world. It was only a matter of time before media jackals, present company included, discovered that the princess had been hospitalized, and so the palace issued a pre-emptive strike. It even named the hospital she was in, knowing that was destined to create a paparazzi encampment outside.
The palace also shared the sort of private details that would have been unthinkable in previous, more discreet royal generations: the princess was suffering from Hyperemesis gravidarum, a serious condition marked by severe vomiting that can lead to dehydration, kidney failure and even miscarriage, but can also be a marker of twins. Predictably, by day’s end, #hypermesisgravidarum was trending on Twitter and bookies were betting on names.
It’s a portent of the seven months to come. Kate isn’t just giving birth to the next British monarch; she’s producing the world’s most famous baby in an age in which pregnancy among the rich and famous is a mass-market opiate, with magazines paying hundreds of thousand of dollars for exclusive photos of celebrity spawn.
Already the princess appears to be bringing British royal maternity into the 20th—if not 21st—century. She didn’t get pregnant within months of her marriage, as William’s mother, Diana, did. Nor is she under the same pressure to produce a male heir, thanks to a commitment to end male primogeniture. Whether a boy or a girl, this child will be third in line to the British throne.
Mercifully for Kate, royal attitudes to pregnancy have changed over the centuries. Once, doubt over royal paternity could spark revolution, even depose a king, as happened after Mary of Modena, wife of James II, delivered a son in 1688. The king’s enemies claimed an imposter infant had been smuggled into the bed in a warming pan after Mary miscarried, and that a false prince had been presented to the people. It wasn’t until 1948, just before Prince Charles’s birth, that the tradition of ministers of the Crown being present at royal births was discontinued.
Traditionally, pregnant royals have been neither seen nor heard. Princess Charlotte, the only daughter of George, the prince regent, and later King George IV, was the first pregnant British royal to be immortalized in a formal portrait in 1817. (Her death during childbirth that same year occasioned unprecedented public grief.) No maternity portraits at all exist for Queen Victoria, who bore nine children. Queen Elizabeth II was seen publicly during her pregnancies but was notably absent from regal duty, missing the opening of Parliament, for one.
Princess Anne, known for her no-nonsense ways, was the first visibly pregnant working royal, carrying out her duties in practical, if dowdy, maternity wear, though that was not until the 1970s. Diana broke with entrenched royal tradition, too, choosing to give birth to her sons in a hospital rather than at home. But she was never a gestation style-setter. While pregnant with William, she favoured blowsy dresses and tent-like coats with bows and Peter Pan collars of the popular variety that used to make pregnant women appear infant-like themselves. It was still a decade until a pregnant Demi Moore proudly posed naked on the cover of Vanity Fair, ushering in the era of maternal clothing designed to celebrate fecundity, not hide it.
Kate, the most avidly followed royal in history, can’t change the part in her hair without triggering reaction. So it’s inevitable that her pregnancy—a period that sees even ordinary women put under the microscope for their behaviour and appearance—will only amplify attention and her influence. The day the pregnancy was announced, the popular blog What Kate Wore observed that it will put the spotlight on a new generation of British designers, among them Isabella Oliver and Tiffany Rose, who produce maternity clothes.
Based on Kate’s steady fashion track record, it’s unlikely that pregnancy will change anything with the exception of her body. Since her marriage, the princess has radiated supermarket-shopping photo-op normalcy. She may have Erdem or Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen to whip up couture for formal court functions, but she’ll likely continue to be seen in mass-market labels—maternity J Brand jeans and Zara—along with oversized sweaters from her pre-pregnancy wardrobe, just like most pregnant women.
Other European queens-to-be have already paved the way in mixing royal with real, namely Princess Mary of Denmark, Princess Victoria of Sweden and Princess Máxima of the Netherlands. The Danish princess, a mother of four who could be the duchess’s sartorial doppelgänger, was famously photographed for German Vogue in 2011 when pregnant with twins.
Of course, there’s more to consider than fashion choices. When Diana was expecting Prince William, the Queen’s press secretary invited Fleet Street editors to Buckingham Palace, where the monarch made a personal appeal to lay off the royal family, especially the pregnant Diana. This week’s announcement is a similar salvo, telegraphing that the princess’s health is fragile and to back off. It’s a reminder that though Kate is bound to be a pregnancy trailblazer, if she wants some semblance of a private life, she may go back to a time-tested tactic for royal moms-to-be: to disappear. The couple has already cancelled several appearances. Knowing what we know, who would blame them?