From Commoner to Royalty: Kate Middleton's Style Transformation

From Commoner to Royalty: Kate Middleton's Style Transformation
Image: Samir Hussein/WireImage/Getty Images

kate middleton in blue
Samir Hussein/WireImage/Getty Images

Kate Middleton's fashion sense always makes headlines, but recently, fans paid even closer attention when a fashion stylist said that the Duchess of Cambridge was tweaking her style to prepare for her ultimate role as queen consort. While he has a point (she has been looking more regal than ever), the truth is, Kate's style has been evolving for a long time. 

Ever since her romance with Prince William became news, we've watched her make tweaks to her fashion choices. Though some of that is undoubtedly because, well, everyone changes as they get older and enter different stages of their lives, Kate also had to think about her how she was portrayed in the media while she was dating William. Once she was engaged to him, Kate had to think about how to fit in to the rarefied world that is the royal family, and dress for the work that she would be doing as a duchess and future queen.

Kate Middleton has had the same stylist for many years, and has stuck to a classy and modest look since becoming a royal -- even while making changes here and there, and occasionally breaking out with an unexpected look. 

At the core of her wardrobe are probably 70 coatdresses (those ultra-safe pieces cover everything and never slip or fly up) and make her look well-dressed for any occasion, but won't exactly set anyone's world on fire. There are also many custom pieces, like from Alexander McQueen, one of the edgiest haute couture design houses that tones down some for Kate's pieces, focusing instead on exquisite tailoring and a striking detail or two. Along the way, Kate has added drawerfuls of skinny black jeans that she wears to more casual events, great blazers, affordable pieces, and lately, more dressy pants that help round out and diversify her look. 

Some people think that as Kate gets closer to becoming queen, she will only get more and more conservative. But we think that she's had enough time now to adjust to her life as a royal, find her footing fashion-wise and create her own style stamp, one that she sets the rules and boundaries for, and that she can evolve anytime she wants. As a valued member of the royal family who works hard and is beloved by the public, as the wife of a future king and the mother of another, and most importantly, as a grown woman who should be able to chart her own course, she's earned that.

Let's take a look at how her style has evolved since becoming the Duchess of Cambridge.

  • College Girl Attire 101

    kate middleton and her father shopping
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    At age 23, Kate dressed just like any other college student without a care in the world. On a 2005 shopping trip with her dad near St. Andrews University in Scotland, she wore a frilly tank top, ultra-low rise jeans held up by a wide belt, and pointy boots. And why wouldn't she? She wasn't yet royalty, and her relationship with William had been an up and down one. Flaunt it while ya got it is what we say. 

  • Flirty But Safe Club Gear

    kate middleton in retro dress
    Splash News

    Club wear in London clubs is ... different than in the US. While we might show more skin, and rock amped-up makeup and hair, when Kate was hitting the London upscale bar scene with sister Pippa, friends, or William, she often wore dresses like this short but fairly covered up psychedelic mini. Often, the most "outrageous" thing on her would be her drunky-drunk smile, which is, of course, not outrageous at all when the person is young, having fun, and not driving. 

  • A Diana-Like Look

    kat middleton in red coat
    Tim Graham Photo Library/Getty Images

    When Kate attended William's military academy graduation in 2006, she wore a red coat and big black hat, a conservative (and almost too grown up) look that emulated an outfit that Princess Diana wore years before, down to the asymmetrical shape of the hat. (Coincidence? Probably not.) With Queen Elizabeth in attendance (they didn't sit together and likely had not met), she may have wanted to dress to impress. In any case, Kate continued to be inspired by Diana's style, making it an unspoken hallmark of her own.

  • A London Prep

    Kate Middleton shopping in London
    Splash News

    Kate's club and street style in London (she moved there after graduation) was classic "Sloane ranger," the British version of American preppy style. Think Burberry, and ya pretty much have the idea: unassuming but expensive handbags, tweed, short skirts with boots, big, green outdoorsy jackets by brands like Barbour. But during Kate also became well-known for mixing pieces from mass retailers like Zara, H&M, and J.Crew into her wardrobe. 

  • *That* Engagement Dress 

    kate middleton and prince william
    Chris Jackson/Getty Images

    This is the dress that made Kate a fashion star. When pictures of her wearing this $500 Issa "Sapphire London" faux wrap dress in her 2010 engagement photos hit phone screens and newsstands everywhere, it sold out in a manner of hours, initiating the "Kate Effect." The future duchess also seemed to signal that royal fashion was about to look more like stuff the rest of us would wear. Her outfit wasn't super expensive haute couture, it wasn't stuffy, and had a universally flattering shape.

  • Iconic Wedding Dress

    kate middleton and pippa middleton at wedding
    Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

    Millions of people around the world were left breathless when Kate stepped out of a car at Westminster Abbey on April 29, 2011, and they got their first look at the instantly classic custom Alexander McQueen wedding dress. Designed by Sarah Burton, head of the British design house, it was a mix of the traditional and the modern -- and had a hint of two other iconic royal wedding dresses: Grace Kelly's lace top, and Princess Diana's wide skirt.  

  • A Royal Debut

    kate middleton, queen elizabeth, prince phillip in leicester
    Anthony Devlin/WPA Pool/Getty Images

    For her first outing with the Queen and Prince Phillip after getting married in 2011, Kate chose a belted teal dress with peplum waist detail. The fit was amazing, and she looked professional and chic. Was it a bit surprising that the skirt part hit above the knee and at mid-thigh when she sat? Yeah, but then again, if her majesty herself is smiling, why would the rest of us in the 21st century care? 

    Nevertheless, as the years have gone by, Kate's hemlines have dropped, with few exceptions.

  • Ye Olde Coatdress

    kate middleton in blue jacquard coat
    Carl Court/PA Images/Getty Images

    Imagine suddenly joining a royal family and not having a thing to wear. That wasn't exactly Kate's situation, but she did have to figure out quite quickly how to dress for occasions like Prince Phillip's 90th birthday celebration, to which she wore typical royal style: a coatdress.  During her first years as a royal, Kate faced criticism for dressing way beyond her age, and we can see that a bit here. The outfit may not exactly thrill fashion plates, but at least she was well-dressed and expertly tailored.

  • Active & Relatable

    kate middleton playing field hockey
    Chris Jackson/WPA Pool /Getty Images

    We're so used to seeing Kate participating in sports and other physical activities on official visits  that it's hard to remember that before she came along, no one in the royal family had ever done that before -- not even Diana, who famously sued tabloids for taking pictures of her coming out of the gym in workout gear. In her early days as a royal, when Kate wore stretchy jeans in colors like coral (seen here in 2012) and bright blue to events, and it was both a bit of a revolution and a refreshingly relatable look.   

  • Regal in Red

    Danny Martindale/WireImage/Getty Images

    Now that's how ya wear a coatdress. By her 2014 tour of Australia and New Zealand with William and baby George, Kate had found her footing fashion-wise. This gorgeous double-breasted Catherine Walker number is ladylike without being stuffy and falls just below the knee, the perfect length for descending airplane stairs without mishaps. Kate paired it perfectly with a retro pillbox hat. Through the years, Kate has worn countless coatdresses to events, with varying success, but this one hit the bull's-eye.

  • Harmonious Separates

    kate middleton in skirt and
    Mark Cuthbert/UK Press/Getty Images

    Some of Kate's most successful looks over the years have been those that include surprisingly affordable pieces. When launching a mental health initiative with William and Harry in 2016, she took a break from luxury brands and wore a pretty and eye-catching skirt by Banana Republic, and a simple white blouse. Is it just us or does she seem a lot happier out of heavy wool coatdresses and crazy hats? 

  • Sa-Fire

    kate middleton in canada holding princess charlotte
    Pool/Sam Hussein/WireImage/Getty Images

    Worn on Kate's 2016 Canadian tour, this is head-to-toe perfection, ranking high among Kate's trip  arrival looks. First of all, the Jenny Packham pencil dress, complete with unusual collar and slightly belled sleeves, is in Kate's signature color, which matches the fabulous gem at the center of her engagement ring. Although Kate has worn hundreds of fascinators, this one brings the together beautifully, and she wisely chose to keep the focus on the dress, by wearing nude heels. 

  • Red Carpet High Style

    kate middleton and prince william at the baftas
    Chris Jackson/Getty Images

    Whatever fashion changes or ups and downs Kate has undergone, she's consistently looked flawless when she hits the red carpet at the BAFTAs (the British Oscars), and that's largely thanks to her go-to designer house, Alexander McQueen. Standouts include a lilac Grecian column dress from a BAFTA event in Los Angeles in 2014, her 2019 white one-shoulder fit-and-flare, and this 2017 knockout tiered number with a Bardot neckline. Kate completed what remains her sexiest look ever, with cat-eye liner and a loose updo. Fire!

  • Chic & Comfy

    kate middleton
    Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Image

    Jeans, whether plain or in colors, were once a big part of Kate's wardrobe, but she phased them out years ago ... at least in public. Nowadays, when she wants to wear pants that will allow her to get physical -- whether she's racing, climbing, or kicking a ball -- she pulls on black stretchy skinny jeans. They're also great for climbing in and out of tiny planes, like she did in 2017, as part of an outfit that is among Kate's most fuss-free. 

  • Twisting Tradition

    kate middleton
    Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

    The duchess is not exactly a rule breaker, and that is apparent in her wardrobe, which is generally  conservative. But every once in a while, she pulls out something like this piece she wore in 2017, which is just a slight tweak: a playful Erdem dress that takes a traditional fabric -- tweed -- and gives it a bohemian vibe, with an an asymmetrical neckline, mismatched buttons, quirky brooches, and frayed hem and sleeves.

  • Outdoorsy With an Edge

    kate middleton
    Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Image

    It's one of Kate's signature looks: a green or brown field jacket and skinny pants. But this time, the look got edgier with Chloe combat boots, a shoe type Kate had never worn publicly. Fashion editors were quick to link this departure from Kate's usual uber-classy upper class look to a new stylist that she hired in 2019: her friend Virginia "Ginnie" Chadwyck-Healey, who came on while Kate's regular longtime stylist was on maternity leave. 

  • Fashion Forward

    kate middleton wearing trousers
    Neil Mockford/GC Images/Getty Images

    Kate's friend Ginnie also got credit for this look, which was #workgoals, and truth be told, more mind-blowing a change than couture combat boots. On a visit to a children's center, Kate rocked a coveted purple Gucci pussybow blouse, which she wore backward (look at the cuffs), floor-sweeping wide leg trousers (a rarity), and a structured lavender croc-print Aspinal handbag instead of one of Kate's may, many flat clutches.    

  • Honoring Culture

    kate middleton wearing shalwar kameez in pakistan
    Pool/Samir Hussein/WireImage/Getty Images

    Kate always finds a way to honor local cultures through fashion when she goes abroad on tours. But her entire wardrobe for her and William's 2019 Pakistan trip was on another level. She brought out stunner after stunner without putting a wrong foot forward, and was praised for it. Part of the reason is because women's traditional Pakistani clothing is already gorgeous and timelessly fashionable. For our money, the best outfit was a shalwar kameez and scarf by Maheen Khan in a green that complimented Kate's eyes, trimmed and decorated in gold. She wore it to visit Lahore's Badshahi Mosque, and it was not only respectful, but beautiful. 

  • One Simple Thing

    kate middleton in gucci dress
    Chris Jackson/WPA Pool/Getty Images

    The duchess looked amazing in this romantic, gauzy gown by design house Gucci. Though she usually turns to Alexander McQueen for formal dresses, this time was different, and the result was that she looked young and free -- she's not weighed down by tons of jewelry or a heavy tiara or stiff fabric. Kate's dress felt very her: not fussy and surprisingly, almost casual.  

  • Then again...

    kate middleton wearing royal sash and ribbons
    Victoria Jones/WPA Pool/Getty Images

    When part of the job preparing to be a queen, there are times that call for looking every inch a monarch. At those times, Kate does turn to Alexander McQueen's Sarah Burton, who designed this stunner of a gown in midnight blue velvet, which she wore to a diplomatic reception at Buckingham Palace in 2019. With its structured neckline that plunges dramatically, this dress is like something a classic Hollywood screen goddess might have worn. 

    Though the dress needs nothing, it's actually a beautiful canvas for her signature tiara, cascade of diamonds, and all the royal accessories that Kate has on: a sash denoting that she belongs to the Royal Victorian Order; a yellow ribbon and badge that marks her as a valued member of the royal family.

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