It was not only the best kept secret in recent British history, but it was simply astounding—given the scrutiny of media attention—that it could be kept secret. Yet the English author of The Wedding Bible who knows everything about what’s going on in the British bridal industry didn’t know. Indeed, experts worldwide agreed that even in normal weddings, it's hard to keep so many things veiled in mystery.
But a mystery it was until Catherine Elizabeth Middleton stepped out of that gleaming vintage high-top Rolls Royce on her wedding morning. The duchess-to-be bride, a princess in waiting, the lovely Kate—shimmering, joyful, “modernly” romantic—was wearing the glorious “mystery”! Her gown, designed by Sarah Burton for the house of Alexander McQueen. (“What a great day for British fashion!” proclaimed those who know these things and the designer herself later said that it had been a lovely collaboration with the bride.)
A regally white sculpted vision, the gown was a combination of hand-crafted lace (made in secret by a team of skilled embroiderers at the Royal School of Needlework at Hampton Court Palace, a clandestined operation that would have made its original resident Henry VIII proud) and ivory-colored silk gazar that was not home-made because Britain's only silk farm at Lullingstone Castle shut down in 2004.
According to a report in the Daily Mail by Valerie Elliott, the delicate lace pattern “featured the four floral emblems of the United Kingdom—rose, thistle, daffodil and shamrock—and was made using the Carrickmacross lace-making technique, which originated in Ireland in the 1820s.” The lace was sheer and fitted over Kate’s shoulders and long arms so her every gesture was like a graceful, queenly command. Then applied over the strapless satin gazar bodice which was narrowed at the waist and padded at the hips, “a hallmark of the McQueen designs.” Fifty-eight tiny gazar and silk organza-covered buttons, fastened with Rouleau loops, closed the back of the gown and a dozen more were used at the wrists.
Both the sweeping, deeply pleated skirt with its arches “made to resemble an opening flower” and the almost nine elegant feet of train were lavishly appliquéd with the same hand-cut English Cluny and French Chantilly lace. “The dress was absolutely ravishing,” gushed Tim Gunn on the ABC News live broadcast about the Grace Kelly inspired confection, updated with Kate’s signature deep v-neckline and a bustle at the back waist.
With a nod to the Language of Flowers, Kate’s small shades-of-white bouquet included, of course, Sweet William (which stands for gallantry), lily-of-the-valley (which signifies a return of happiness) and hyacinth (which means constancy of love.) It also held a few green sprigs of English ivy and myrtle which are both Victorian-era symbols of fidelity. Like the last several generations of royal brides, the myrtle came from the mythological “royal myrtles” at the Fulham Palace gardens, grown from cuttings of the bridal bouquet of William’s great-great-great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria.
“When she came in with that veil over her face, it was almost ethereal, like she was coming through a cloud—an angel coming into the Abbey,” said wedding guest Michael Hintze, chairman of the Prince of Wales Foundation for the Built Environment. The single layer of silk tulle, edged with hand-embroidered flowers, was held in place by Kate’s something borrowed “halo”—an heirloom Cartier diamond tiara, circa 1936, loaned from the Queen (which had been an eighteenth birthday gift from her mother.)
It all fit so beautifully in the magnificent thousand year-old stone Westminster Abbey as the bride walked with her father along the “living avenue” of 20-foot high English Field Maples (later to be planted at Prince Charles’ Highgrove estate.) Then as Kate joined her happy prince in his scarlet tunic and blue sash of the Irish Guards, the two beloved friends were standing exactly where they wanted to be. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here....” spoke the Archbishop of Canterbury in those familiar and stirring words from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, calling forth the beloved in all of us to bare witness to this grand, yet deeply personal wedding ceremony.
“In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding,” declared the Lord Bishop of London in his address, and more than two billion viewers world-wide (and a million or so well-wishers on the streets of central London) were invited to share the intimacy and mystery of this royal moment like it was our own. Emerging into their day, chilly and breezy with bits of sun peaking through at right-on-cue moments, the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge rode away from the Abbey in the Queen’s open 1902 State Landau, showing why royalty can be powerful archetypes for the rest of us. “Theirs is a partnership of equals that came out of a deep friendship,” expressed author Katie Nicholl on the BBC telecast, “and has blossomed into a royal love story.” Thanks to the legacy of his mother, William married “his rock,” as he called Kate later in the evening when he toasted his bride, and can have a true life partner.
This lit with magic wedding day was also the festival day of St. Catherine of Siena whose words opened the Lord Bishop’s address: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” And I think that’s just what this Catherine, now Her Royal Highness, and her William will do! I look forward to watching their life unfold in real time.~