To see and be seen

The guests did not just observe the spectacle—they were part of it, a dizzying mixture of fame, fashion and faux pas

To see and  be seen

Getty Images

As their Bentleys and Rolls-Royces crawled up the stately thoroughfares lined with thousands of spectators, guardsmen armed with fixed bayonets watched over the royal wedding guests. It was that kind of day—one of contradictions, of whimsy and moving spectacle. A guest list that in the last days threatened to cast a pall over the whole affair—snubbed past prime ministers, slighted foreign presidents, all those despots—dissolved on the Westminster Abbey steps into a confection of colour, occasional poor judgment and elegance. And in an England otherwise made austere by hard times, many of the 1,900 invited used fashion to make their statements.

Carole Middleton strode in wearing an ice-blue wool crepe coat dress, the kind of thing Jacqueline Kennedy might have worn had she been a British royal rather than a bona fide fashion plate. The bride’s mother reportedly got her first choice of colour and outfit, followed by the Queen, who opted for a primrose dress complemented by Queen Mary’s True Lover’s Knot brooch—an appropriate touch. Elsewhere, though, there were real missteps. Sarah Ferguson, the duchess of York and ex-wife of Prince Andrew, being herself a prior Windsor slip-up, wasn’t invited, but her two daughters, the princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, in beige and blue respectively, wore garments (particularly those towering, vertiginous hats) that suggested a recent sojourn in the Land of Oz.

Lesser royals arrived in buses like tourists across the tarmac from a charter flight, including Montreal-born Autumn, wife of Peter Phillips, the Queen’s grandson. England rugby captain Mike Tindall, engaged to Peter’s sister Zara, made his debut at an official royal event wearing his incomparably broken nose. And there were others from the farther edges of the royal orbit. Prince Albert of Monaco came with his fiancée, Charlene Wittstock—Europe’s next major royal wedding. Earl Spencer, whose last memorable appearance here came during his sister Diana’s funeral (when he delivered a eulogy stinging to the Windsors), now found himself shunted to the side with his Canadian fiancée, Karen Gordon (her hat: giant, pink, spaceship-like); William found a moment to chat with them briefly.

Here was David Beckham, impossibly handsome in Ralph Lauren Purple Label but wearing his OBE medal on his right lapel—the wrong side, experts said—with his very pregnant wife, Victoria, in a blue dress so dark she could have been at a funeral. David Cameron, the British prime minister, arrived in tails after threatening to wear a suit. His wife, Samantha, kept it simple in a green Burberry and—a break from tradition—no hat. Foreign Secretary William Hague’s wife, Ffion, rolled up in a wheelchair, and House of Commons Speaker John Bercow walked in hand in hand with wife, Sally, in a bosom-revealing dress (she once told a reporter the role of Speaker had transformed her husband into “a sex symbol”).

Elton John, judging by his waddle trussed up tight in an unforgiving corset, came in tails, a tie of sharp purple and a yellow waistcoat, his Canadian partner David Furnish more subdued in metallic greys. (During the ceremony, the pop singer appeared to fumble over the words of Guide Me, O Thou Great Redeemer, the final hymn sung at Diana’s funeral.) Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, the socialite and TV presenter, had complained in the ramp-up to the wedding that her family dog “chewed my royal wedding invitation.” Many worried the same could be said of her nose. A reformed drug addict whose cocaine habit destroyed the cartilage separating her nostrils, her new nose was complemented by a pointed blue hat that might have been borrowed from an episode of Star Trek .

In an age of Internet and Twitter feeds, the notion of standing on the street seemed quaint. Yet they came, with flags, silly hats that echoed those of the royal entourage, and open bottles. Long before the digital age, this is how national memories were created—how the monarchy endured.

Kim Marriott was among the hundreds of thousands who lined the streets. She made the two-hour drive from Dorset to stand behind a low cement wall on Whitehall Street. Standing precariously on the wall was her husband, Robert, steadying their 11-year-old son Jacob. “It’s history,” said Kim. “He needs to see them. When he’s our king and she’s our queen, then he can say he was there when they were married. Here, in the crowd.” Soon the wedding had drawn to a close and the sun broke through the grey sky as the landau rattled by, slowing in front of the children as it manoeuvred the narrow gate that led the procession toward Buckingham Place. Kim saw little of this, just a flash of colour and the backs of the couple. “Watch it, watch it!” she’d shouted to her son over the din. “You must take it all in!” Then to her husband, the keeper of the camera, “Did you get it?” Jacob and Robert scrambled down to the sidewalk. Kim gave an excited shiver. “Was she gorgeous?” she asked. Jacob nodded. “Was he handsome?” Another nod.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.