The April 29, 2011 nuptials of Prince William and Catherine, Princess of Wales, may have heralded the world’s ongoing infatuation with the royals. Much credit could be given to then Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, designed by Sarah Burton, the British creative director of homegrown luxury house Alexander McQueen. Middleton’s handcrafted English lace gown, with a floral motif commemorating Great Britain, also signified the monarchy’s next era to the world.
“[The Waleses] would have realized that this was really a once-in-a-generation opportunity to cement them as the future faces of the Royal Family,” says Bethan Holt, fashion news and features director at The Telegraph and author of The Duchess of Cambridge: A Decade of Modern Royal Style. “There had been this slightly difficult generation with William’s parents, so they really represented a fresh start, and the dress really helped to deliver that message because it did tie both the modernity and the history together.”
The global influence of Kate Middleton’s wedding dress, which was rumored to cost $434,000 (and, per tradition, was probably paid for by her parents, Michael and Carole), has continued to inspire replicas over a decade later. Official royal photographer Hugo Burnand, who documented the day, confirms the impact, firsthand. “I’m literally over at my workstation editing [photos of a] bride,” says Burnand, who also shot King Charles III’s 2023 coronation. “You can see: Catherine’s dress is there.”
Setting the Stage for a Future Queen
Middleton’s first wedding dress may bring historic royal gowns to mind: Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco’s Brussels rose-point lace dress and more poignantly—and perhaps intentionally—the late Queen Elizabeth II’s 1947 pearl-embroidered confection by Norman Hartnell.
“The silhouette is very, very similar,” says Holt. “I think that was a very purposeful decision by Kate to do something that would really place her as a future Queen, even though at the time of her wedding, she was a long way away from that.” Like Queen Elizabeth’s sculptural ball gown, Middleton’s skirting blooms like a flower, thanks to Burton’s masterful placement of satin gazar arches and intricate pleats.
However, her dress marks a “departure” from the late Princess Diana’s voluminously ruffled wedding dress by Elizabeth and David Emanuel. Holt surmises that the then 20-year-old may have been “swept up” in the fantasy of a princess wedding with her 1981 ball gown. “Whereas I think Kate, her attitude has always been much more measured, much more long-term, much more sensible,” says Holt. “I think it’s something that she would have thought about for a long time and really studied the history of it.”
Making a Modern, If Not “Subversive” Statement
Leading up to the nuptials, bookmakers took wagers on Kate Middleton’s wedding dress designer. Top odds went to British couturiers and socialite favorites, like Bruce Oldfield. A day before the wedding, a covert Burton was even snapped by paparazzi—and identified by eagle-eyed fashion journalists—entering Middleton’s hotel room for a fitting. But Kate’s ultimate selection of the house, founded by the enfant terrible of British fashion, still felt unexpected.
“That was a slightly more risky decision in that McQueen had this reputation of being a brand that caused controversy,” says Holt, referencing the late designer’s infamous Fall 1995 “Highland Rape” collection, symbolizing the historical plundering of Scotland by England. “But Kate really leaned into the appreciation of craftsmanship and tailoring that the brand had, and worked with Sarah Burton really effectively to create a really, really beautiful gown.”
The dress bodice, with a narrow waist and slight padding at the hips, exemplifies the traditional techniques of Victorian corsetry—also a McQueen signature. Burton incorporated another trademark with an “exaggerated” flourish at the back of Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. “There’s this Victorian bustle detail, and it just gives it that slight edge. I almost want to say, it’s a punky edge,” says Holt, adding: “Because it’s just subverting the idea of a classic wedding dress with a slightly more upscale silhouette.”
Fashion historian and professor at Savannah College of Art and Design Sarah Collins points out that Middleton’s choice of Burton emphasizes the message that the new guard will still respect tradition. “[Burton] was known for corsetry and utilizing historical references, as well as, often pushing the boundaries of fashion,” says Collins. Middleton’s unconventional decision perhaps also opened the door for future sister-in-law Meghan Markle’s wedding dress, by British designer Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy (also where Lee Alexander McQueen was chief designer from 1996 to 2001).
Celebrating British Art and Culture
For the English and French Chantilly lace, Burton enlisted the Royal School of Needlework, which has held a close relationship with Buckingham Palace since its founding in 1872. “It’s showing that the Royal Family really supports traditional craftsmanship,” says Holt. A crack team of 19, including Anne Butcher—now Head of Studio and Teaching—hand-embroidered the appliqués adorning the skirt, train, bodice, and sleeves, plus Middleton’s ivory duchess satin shoes and the silk and organza trim on the veil.
Burton envisioned a unique theme paying tribute to Great Britain with four national flowers: “the English rose, Welsh daffodil, Irish shamrock, and Scottish thistle,” says Butcher. The RSN team precisely hand-engineered the appliqués using the Carrickmacross process, which originated in Ireland in the 1820s. “The lace is worked by applying organdy fabric to a delicate net background and edging each motif with fine cord-like thread,” explains Butcher, who, along with her colleagues, washed their hands every 30 minutes to maintain spotlessness.
But, the entire time, Burton’s identity remained a mystery. “We are used to keeping secrets,” says Butcher. “We knew the project was the wedding dress of the Princess of Wales, but we didn’t know who the designer was. We were as excited as the public to see the completed dress on the day, and find out the designer that had created it.”
Dazzling in “Something Borrowed”
To hold her 16.5-foot-long silk tulle veil in place, Middleton borrowed her grandmother-in-law’s Cartier “halo” tiara, boasting an ancestral history of its own. “It was a symbol of acceptance and welcome into the Royal family,” says Collins. Created in 1936, the demure halo—gleaming with 739 brilliant and 149 baton diamonds—was shared amongst generations of royals: the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret, Princess Anne, and, of course, Queen Elizabeth II, who received it on her 18th birthday.
“Kate was always very conscious of honoring the Queen; being respectful to her,” says Holt. “So by choosing a tiara that was really personal and precious to her would have been quite an important decision—and I’m sure one that the Queen appreciated, as well.”
Starting Trends With a Second Wedding Dress
After the ceremony, Kate Middleton debuted a second wedding dress, resplendent with a sweetheart neckline, a wide silver crystal-embellished belt, and a soft mohair shrug—again custom-designed by Burton.
Collins thinks that Middleton’s playfully chic sweater illustrates the idea of a people’s princess—and one who continuously sets fashion trends. “While most can’t afford intricate lace and lavish satin, a button-up cropped cardigan is relatable,” says Collins. “It subtly underscores Catherine’s commoner background.”
The candid photo of Middleton, on her way to a VIP reception hosted by the Queen, in the layered ensemble also offers a peek into the private lives of the royals. “That look was showing us what Kate, the girl who was marrying a boy called William, would have worn to her wedding, not what a future queen was going to wear for the wedding to a future king,” says Holt. “It was much more about her own personal style.”