The Deeper Significance of Kate Middleton’s Ethereal 40th Birthday Portraits

The night before the Duchess of Cambridge’s 40th birthday, Kensington Palace released three new portraits of the senior royal taken by noted Italian fashion photographer Paolo Roversi. She wore three different looks by Alexander McQueen as well as jewelry from both the collections of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana. One image, in black and white, showed her staring off into the distance. Another, shot from the waist up, had her in a red off the shoulder gown. The third was a closeup of her smiling face.

In years past, the family has opted for more informal portraits—a 2018 Christmas card, for example, showed the Duchess in jeans. These, however, exuded an ethereal glamour and formality: these were not photos of “Kate Middleton,” as she’s more colloquially known, but of the future Queen consort of the United Kingdom.

They’re also embedded with significant symbolism and meaning.

First, in her choice of designer. The Duchess wore Alexander McQueen not once, but twice, but three times. By doing so, she cemented herself as a continued champion for not only the fashion house—she also wore a Sarah Burton design for her 2011 royal wedding to Prince William—but for British fashion as a whole. Between social media and the press pick up, her birthday portraits received a stratospheric level of exposure. (Each photo, for example, received well over one million likes on the Duke and Duchess’s personal Instagram alone, with one receiving almost two.) The portraits were also covered by almost every major English speaking media outlet, from the BBC to The New York Times.

The “Kate Effect”—or the phenomenon of items experiencing massive sales spikes after the Duchess wears them, is well known. A Reiss dress she donned for dinner with Michelle and Barack Obama was reported to sell at a rate of one per minute, whereas a Miu Miu cardigan worn for a Christmas carol service sold out in under two hours. One analytics service found that after Middleton wore a gold sequined cape dress by Jenny Packham, searches went up 809 percent for “gold sequin dresses.” Newsweek wrote that “the Kate Effect may be worth £1 billion to the U.K. fashion industry.” So championing a British brand in one of her most high-profile moments as a royal so far? That’ll likely resonate for some time to come.

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