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Bridget Foley’s Diary: Finding The Dress

Legions of brides want to feel like princesses for a day. So for what look did Kate Middleton, about to become a real princess, strive? Will she pull it off?

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This story first appeared in the April 27, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

What scripture readings will William and Kate select to initiate their marriage?

If your name isn’t Alan Gilbert or Timothy Dolan (and maybe even then), you probably haven’t mused much about those aspects of the Royal Wedding. But anyone with any interest in the festivities, from merely passing to obsessive, has wondered about The Dress. That goes for fashion people and civilians alike, in time zones from the U.K. to the moon.

When Kate Middleton steps out of the state Rolls-Royce Phantom VI with her father on Friday morning en route to her new life as a future queen, she will spend her last moments as a commoner under the scrutiny of the world, judged not for her perceived strength of spirit or depth of character, but for her dress. And oh, yes, her hair and her makeup.

Is the look beautiful? Flattering? Elegant? Regal? Fashiony enough? Too fashiony? How does it compare with Diana’s? And on, and on.

What may not be judged immediately but will in the long run: how Kate’s chosen look holds up over time. Let’s face it, no matter how much one honors the memory of Diana, thumbs up on that dress is a hard case to make, and not because it’s dated. Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly scream Fifties in their bridal attire, but in photos both look utterly elegant today. Diana’s giant gown — an early example of Eighties froth — reads like a fairy tale through a fun house mirror.

Bitchy? There you go. Bridal gowns are objects of acute judgment. A bride in denial might better elope. After the relationship itself, the dress is the most important element of the wedding. Scratch that, the look is the most important element. (This week WWD is running Bridal Path, a series on celebrity brides. One category that didn’t make the cut despite plentiful material: Good Dress, Bad Hair, a malady to which current celebrities are sometimes prone.) Long after the music falls silent, the cake crumbs are swept away, and the champagne bottles fall dry, two things remain: a marriage (knock wood) and pictures starring a woman in white. The dress had better be up to it.

Not everyone agrees. I know a bride who reached for her deb gown to wear for her wedding, the dress she wore to a cotillion escorted by a young man other than her future husband. And not out of financial need, but because she had the dress and it was fine. While not everyone is obsessed with fashion, that attitude probably is unfathomable to most people, certainly to the vast majority of brides. Multiple cases in point: Those who have found their way into the reality spotlight via “Say Yes to the Dress,” the riveting series that provides the proverbial inside look into the dress selection process, set in Kleinfeld’s, the vast, legendary bridal emporium that in 2005 relocated to 20th Street in Manhattan from its more natural habitat in Brooklyn. Random viewings of five or six episodes of season five revealed Goth, Wicken Fairy and Egyptian Barbie brides. But the most prominently requested motif, “Princess,” reached across age and economic demographics. Just ask WWD editor in chief Ed Nardoza, who, while discussing this column wondered whether “these women know that the Disney princesses are cartoons?” (While Ed claims to glean his “Say Yes” information only in passing while his wife and daughter tune in, he can discuss Kleinfeld’s consultant lineup as confidently as he can the Yankees’ starting lineup.)

Legions of the untitled want to feel like princesses for a day. So for what look did Kate Middleton, about to become a real princess, strive? Will she pull it off? What were her goals and pressures along the way?

It’s difficult to begin to imagine what Kate must have gone through in selecting her dress. Nevertheless, I asked two relatively recent brides and one bride-to-be who hail from somewhat judgmental circles, either professionally or personally, to talk about the their dress quests, and to try to project their own thoughts and anxieties onto Kate Middleton.

First, they all said they wanted to look like themselves, an appealing departure from the ongoing princess diaries of “Say Yes.” “A wedding dress should be the halo on the angel, so to speak, not overwhelming, but reflective of the bride inside the seams,” said Sasha Dizard, who works in corporate communications at an investment bank. She will marry Seth Martin in October, the festivities at Brick Church and the Four Seasons.

W Senior Fashion and Market editor Carolyn Angel, who married Adam Shopkorn at the Metropolitan Club in 2009, waxed less poetic. “I remember going back to prom with my father looking at pictures of me in that dress, and saying, ‘Who’s that girl?’ [For my wedding] I wanted to look like myself.”

Pilar Queen, a literary agent at McCormick & Williams who married Andrew Ross Sorkin in 2007 at Angel Orensanz, wanted a dress, which, like the entire event would speak to “who we are as a couple. And then who I am.”

Ditto, Sasha and Carolyn. All three — each mid-20s, independent-minded and focused on her career — considered the groom, both his impressions of her and their identity as a couple. Hand to God, that would not have occurred to me. If my daughter were getting married, it would not dawn on me to ask, “What do you think Billy would like to see you in?” (May shed some light on why I was married for 10 minutes, but another story.)

So all of my modern brides suppose that Kate has taken into account the big reveal to William as she walks down the aisle. “A wedding is about two people, not one,” Sasha noted. “The statement is that you are the feminine component in your union, not that you are the star of the show.” (Easy for a blonde bombshell in a Vera Wang mermaid dress to say.)

Neither Carolyn nor Pilar went so far as to suggest that the spotlight shines equally on bride and groom. “I wanted the dress to be a reflection of the romanticism in me, of the kind of wedding we had, and by extension, of the kind of couple we are,” Pilar explained.

As for opinions that mattered during the search, Sasha offered a surprising “my father.” (Can you tell I don’t hail from a land where straight men talk fashion?) “Men just don’t connect to weddings as personally as women,” she said, “so you get a much more objective answer.” Pilar acknowledged indulging a request/dictate from her fashion editor mother (no strapless!) as well as opinions of said mother’s fashion writer friend. The result: a gorgeous, custom Badgley Mischka halter with subtle striations of gold through the lace.

As for Carolyn, she’s a fashion editor. Opinions surrounded her, and intimidated her not a bit. It didn’t hurt that Kate and Laura Mulleavy volunteered for dress duty. “I made a board of some of their dresses and what I loved about each one. A lot of it for me was about comfort on that day. I didn’t want to be uncomfortable, that was important,” she said. The result: A chic goddess in draped and twisted silk tulle. In the end each felt that they had not succumbed to bullying, and that they had made their own decision — an essential for a happy day.

While Carolyn wasn’t concerned about wedding day judgments — “Everyone there loves you” — Pilar maintained, au contraire. “You feel like the dress has to make everyone of your guests think, ‘Wow, this is the most beautiful bride I’ve ever seen.’ It’s supposed the best night of your life. It’s supposed to be when you feel the most loved and the most beautiful. Those are pretty high expectations.” Can she imagine how that’s magnified for Kate? “I can’t imagine it, especially in the footsteps of Princess Diana.”

Enter Mark Ingram of the tony Bridal Atelier and a co-founder of TheAisle.com. He has dressed countless brides over the years, and he says they feel the pressure of all eyes on them. “Some become truly freaked about,” he offered, increasingly so as the fittings progress. “They start looking at themselves from every angle because they feel they’re going to be examined at every angle by their guests.”

A major fear factor: what else? Looking other than skinny. “The more fashionable and thinner the girl, the worse it gets.”

A typical Ingram bride comes in with a goal similar to those of the women here: “She’s not going to be a different person on her wedding day. She’s going to be chic.” Many go for outright fashion as opposed to classicism, which raises the spectre of pictorial regret down the line. But, said, Ingram, “A fashion-forward girl is going to make a smart choice. She’s going to pull back 10 percent.”

That said, Ingram suspects that Kate will not go 90 percent full-on fashion, nor should she. “Kate should be true to her own aesthetic,” he advised. “But she also has to respect where she’s being married, who she’s marrying and what the situation is. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime, monumental moment in her life and for the world. She has to consider all of those elements, too.” But, hey, Kate, no pressure.