Whatever your personal views on nude court shoes and coat dresses, it’s hard to deny that Kate Middleton’s – and now Meghan Markle’s – style is a constant talking point. After each choice of outfit, colour and brand has been dissected, after the Internet jury has passed its verdict as to whether ‘royal protocol’ has been broken (spoiler alert: it probably hasn't, even if the headlines tell you it has), then comes another favourite line of investigation: are the Duchesses paying sartorial tribute to another member of the royal family through their clothes, by referencing an outfit famously worn by Diana, Princess of Wales?
This idea of royal 'reference dressing' has long been a favourite prism through which to assess Kate’s outfits, and one which the Duchess of Cambridge does (consciously or not) seem to play to. Search ‘Kate Middleton Diana’ and you’ll be greeted with countless galleries placing the two women’s outfits side by side. Most recently, the Kate’s red dress with a white Peter Pan collar, worn to introduce her third child, Prince Louis, to the world on the steps of the Lindo Wing, garnered comparisons with the (also red, also white) outfit Diana wore to leave the hospital with a newborn Prince Harry (also her second son - coincidence?) Now, Meghan’s been the subject of her own ‘just like Di’ headlines, thanks to a buttoned Prada dress in pale pink (worn to the Queen’s Young Leader Awards last night) that bears a passing resemblance to the Princess’s Versace suit, worn in 1995 to greet troops in Canterbury.
Any similarity, however innocuous, between outfits past and present is a sub-editor’s dream - it plays into the same fascination with tradition that forms the basis of hundreds of articles about ‘royal protocol,’ for one - but are these comparisons something that the royals might consciously court? For both women, after all, getting dressed is is hardly a matter of grabbing the nearest clean item from their Kensington Palace floordrobe: every sartorial choice is carefully considered.
By embracing the fashion world, Diana helped write the rubric on how young royals could balance trends with tradition, and so her fashion legacy still looms large – in fact, with brands like Virgil Abloh’s Off/White pinpointing her ‘90s looks as a reference point, it feels more relevant than ever. It's no surprise, then, that Kate or Meghan might want to align themselves with her style - and, by implication, with her values.
But while there’s a convenient nostalgia in looking back at the ‘hidden’ references in a royal outfit, taking this approach to everything that Kate and Meghan wear can feel a little like trying to squeeze meaning out of your old GCSE set texts: why should we reduce each woman’s personal style to a series of throwbacks? Though Meghan does seem the type to have a perfectly curated Pinterest board of style inspiration (once a lifestyle blogger, always a lifestyle blogger), it’s difficult to picture her poring over grainy ‘80s pap shots in her down time. You can, of course, be respectful of traditions without being totally in thrall to the past. By balancing tradition and modernity, says branding expert Kubi Springer of She Builds Brands, Meghan ‘is reaffirming her personal brand as a young, empowered woman who also respects royal traditions, which to some degree is similar to Diana.’ But that’s probably where the comparisons can end. ‘Meghan appears to be going one step further to stand for change and her outfits are an outward expression of this,’ says Kubi. ‘She represents where the UK is today: multicultural, diverse, outward looking and breaking new grounds, and her style is a reflection of this.’