A new photo was released to celebrate Princess Charlotte’s seventh birthday, but there’s one detail that everyone missed.
For an institution that has been led for the last 70 years by a woman, the British monarchy has a pretty deplorable track record on the feminist front.
Queen Victoria thought women’s suffrage was a “mad, wicked folly,” Queen Alexandra called Emily Davison, who was killed after falling under a horse while trying to attract attention to the cause at the Epsom Derby, “a brutal lunatic woman,” while Queen Mary called suffragettes “horrid” and “tiresome.”
Aside from Boudica and Queen Elizabeth I, you would be hard-pressed to find any other figures in the royal annals who are even vaguely rousing for the feminists among us.
But change has a sneaky way of creeping up on even the hoariest of establishment stalwarts. And when it comes to the house of Windsor, there is one person stealthily leading the charge.
I present to you Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, the embryonic Mary Woolstenecraft of Mayfair.
This might initially seem unlikely given that we are talking about Kate, a woman whose author Hilary Mantel controversially once described as “a shop window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore”.
But m’lud, I present you with exhibit a): The photo taken by her and released this week of Princess Charlotte for her seventh birthday.
Now at first glance it looks suitably humdrum: A small child in an appropriately bucolic setting doing some sort of normal child activity.
The images dutifully put out by the Cambridges for each of their kidlets on each of their birthdays are true works of art in that they manage to satiate the public appetite for access to the kids while giving nothing away.
We might get hints of personality – Prince George in a rugby jersey or Prince Louis with a cricket ball – but by and large they have a certain sphinxlike quality. How much more do we really know about each child after seeing them, aside from the fact that they have grown?
But this latest shot of Charlotte is a departure from that. I’ll give you a minute to guess why. Take a look.
She’s wearing pants.
This is the very first time the young Princess has not been dressed in some relentlessly feminine dress or skirt for a birthday photo shoot.
For her first birthday picture, Charlotte was done up in two ensembles, both featuring tiny stockings, a tiny dress and a tiny cardigan.
When she turned two, we saw her in a yellow cardigan with a pie-frill collar.
When Charlotte hit three, she had to share the spotlight with a newborn Prince Louis, dressed in a near exact replica of the previous year’s cardigan-centric get-up.
(Does Kate spend her spare trawling the King’s Road for the damn button-up things?)
For her fourth birthday we got a shot of her in a gray jumper and tartan skirt and another of her in a floral sundress.
Come birthday number five and it was black and white gingham with ruffles for a series of snaps showing the tiny royal giving food to the elderly in Norfolk during lockdown.
When she turned six, quelle surprise, another floral dress!
Looking at the images up until this point, it’s hard not to feel sorry for the poor kid, forever being styled like some Benjamin Button-like version of a Norfolk Women’s Institute secretary. I refuse to believe that any child could run, play or tumble about the vast, perfectly manicured private estate where they live in such ye olde get-ups.
(It’s not just when the poppet is ‘on duty’ either. When the Cambridge family was snapped enjoying a day out at the polo in 2019, what was the little Princess wearing? Another. Flowery. Frock.)
But, drumroll please, here we get to the image that the palace released this week for Charlotte’s seventh birthday.
Sure, we got the usual Beatrix Potter-worthy backdrop of bluebells, the family’s new dog Orla made a cameo and the poor kid is still wearing the sort of shirt that one can see the Queen’s dwindling pool of octogenarian, pearl-clad ladies-in -waiting choosing … but the obvious headline-grabbing deviation from normal here is that she is wearing some sort of navy blue trousers.
Stop. The. Presses!
While this is hardly a shout-it-from-the-rooftops feminist statement, a statement it most definitely is.
Since the world first started regularly seeing the Duke and Duchess’s children, dating back to 2014 when they toured Australia with 10-month-old Prince George, they have been dressed like tiny, Victorian-era dolls.
Later, when Charlotte and Louis arrived, they too were shoehorned into perennially co-ordinating ensembles that were all so studiously old-fashioned they look like they had been nicked from the Victoria & Albert Museum under the cover of dark. (Kate is their royal patron of her – they would probably give her a key if she asked.)
Modernity has barely, ever, had a look in, not just with the Cambridge kids’ wardrobe, but Kate’s too. I think you would be hard-pressed to find any 40-year-old, outside of a closed religious community, who owns so many neck-to-ankle frocks.
But over the last year, Kate has quietly, and without any fanfare, been changing up that style MO, trading in her endless series of buttoned-up numbers for the sort of trousers’n’blazer combo beloved of working women the world over.
When she and William visited a Ukrainian cultural center in March, she wore a blue sweater and black pants from high street chain Jigsaw. Last month, when the couple went to the London headquarters of the Disasters Emergency Committee to meet aid workers involved in the war-torn country, it was in a tan Reiss blazer and another pair of black pants.
In fact, aside from the Cambridges’ (disastrous) tour of the Caribbean, over the last several months, the vast majority of outfits she has chosen for daytime events fall squarely under this new rubric of trousers as her go-to look.
This shift seems to reflect the change in tack in Kate’s own career. Over the last two years we have seen Kate significantly scale up her workload and really throw herself full throttle into her her legacy-defining Early Years work, including launching the Royal Foundation Center for Early Childhood. Research trips, a visit to the London School of Economics and setting up a working group of academics are now her bread and butter de ella, with only the occasional plaque-unveiling thrown in for good measure.
Kate does not want her work to make the monarchy look good (though boy, it wouldn’t hurt right now), but to actually do something and to affect genuine change. Under Kate (and William) royalty isn’t just about being a photogenic figurehead who can be wheeled out when a ship needs launching. It’s about being a force for demonstrable good in British society.
Her changing wardrobe mirrors this repositioning.
(Interestingly, Diana, Princess of Wales did this too in the 1990s. As she spread her wings, she started to don more and more pants suits and even jeans on occasion, a gloriously chic act of rebellion if ever there was one.)
After more than a decade as a member of the royal family, it looks like Kate has finally started to find the confidence and self-assuredness to do things the way she sees fit, rather than nervously hewing to tradition.
Pablo Picasso is often quoted as having said: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” (Though whether he was ever sober long enough to utter such a clever line is a matter for debate.) Whether he said it or not, the question is, is this exactly what Kate has been up to?
For a decade, she diligently applied herself to her royal apprenticeship like the swottiest head girl. But what for a very long time looked like a certain depressingly passive submission to palace status quo can now be read as something much cannier.
Based on the events of the last couple of years, it is starting to look like she has now banked so much credit with the Queen and has so firmly established herself as an unimpeachable Windsor success story that she now has the latitude and knows the ropes well enough to start shaping her own version of royal life.
Including ditching the stock standard princess look in favor of a much more professional and contemporary fashion sensibility.
When Charlotte was born in 2015, she made history as the first daughter of a future monarch to be born after the Queen changed the Letters Patent and did away with male primogeniture – meaning she would be the first princess who would not be bumped down the line of succession if any younger, male siblings were born.
God I hope she continues in this vein. Here’s what I want to see: Ten years from now, as the royal family gathers around King Charles III on the Buckingham Palace balcony for Trooping the Colour, a teenage Charlotte walks out to do her waving bit wearing, what else, but a pants suit .
Live the slacks revolution!
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and a writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia’s leading media titles