LONDON — No glitz, no glory.
Low-key Camilla Parker Bowles, who first met her fiancé, Prince Charles, more than 30 years ago on a windy polo field, isn’t the classic picture of a future princess. Yet the era of Camilla is dawning, and it couldn’t be more different from the Princess Diana decades. The news Thursday that Prince Charles finally popped the question to his companion sent royal watchers into a tizzy and the anti-Camilla crowd howling.
The wedding is going to be an ultradiscreet, private affair at Windsor Castle on April 8. After a civil ceremony, the Archbishop of Canterbury will preside over a service of prayer and dedication at the castle’s St. George’s Chapel.
Camilla will officially become a member of the royal family (women will have to curtsy before her), although, for obvious reasons, she won’t be referred to as the Princess of Wales. Her new title will be HRH The Duchess of Cornwall (just one of the scads of unused titles the Windsor family has lying around for just such purposes). If and when Charles becomes king, she’ll be called HRH The Princess Consort.
Duchess or not, Camilla-watchers insist her style will stubbornly remain the same.
“She’s not a glamour-puss,” says salon owner Jo Hansford, who, for more than 20 years, has watched a freshly shampooed Camilla grab a blow-drier to do the styling herself.
“I don’t think we’ll see a cropped hairstyle, or a Sharon Stone look in the future,” says Hansford with a laugh. “Camilla is not going to change for anyone. She’ll continue to be herself.”
She certainly has up until now. While Parker Bowles is more made up and polished today than she was a few years ago, she hasn’t exactly turned into a red-carpet siren. She increasingly poses for the paparazzi, but there is no sense she dresses for the occasion, as the late Diana did.
Her detractors may call her dowdy, frumpy or simply unattractive, but they somehow miss the point. As Valentino says, “Her style is so English that it cannot be changed. Even when she wears my clothes she has the laid-back attitude of someone who doesn’t care about fashion.”
But she knows exactly what she wants. Parker Bowles — in addition to Valentino — favors classic English designers such as Robinson Valentine, Paddy Campbell (who also designs for Cherie Blair, wife of Tony Blair) and milliner Philip Treacy. Both the house of Robinson Valentine and Campbell are known for simple tailored suits, dresses and eveningwear more suited to Ascot than the Academy Awards.
“She’s a very tasteful woman, and always had an eye for good clothes,” says Antony Price, who has designed eveningwear for Parker Bowles. “She’s an artist, she paints, you know, and she’s extremely good at choosing colors and fabrics.”
Camilla, ultimately, isn’t a clotheshorse; she’s just mad about horses. And even many British observers admit that attitude might be more suited to the times than another publicity-hungry princess. The Windsors tried that with the late Diana and by all the endless, endless accounts, it was a disaster on both sides. Hollywood glitz just didn’t work in a family and social class that values discretion above all and lives in a bubble of its own making. The symbol of Great Britain isn’t a bulldog for nothing; stolidity is in the blood.
Unlike Diana, Parker Bowles isn’t one for the spotlight. “She’s fidgety, lacking in grace and ill-at-ease in a crowd,” says one royal watcher. “But she’s good one-to-one — and a very good schmoozer — which suits Charles just fine. He wants a wife who knows her place, who’s the supporting act and not the main event, like Diana was.”
“There are certain things in life that cannot be polished — and Camilla is one of them,” says Christopher Wilson, author of “The Windsor Knot and Greater Love,” about Charles and Camilla’s long-standing love affair. “A hunting coat, tight jodhpurs, a whip slung over her shoulder —and mounted on a horse. That’s Camilla’s look.”
London designer Julien Macdonald says Camilla wears his cobweb-style tights under her trousers when she rides, which somehow fit perfectly with the image of the whip.
Camilla’s laid-back style applies to more than just her wardrobe, though. She prefers muddy Wellies to Manolos. She hunts foxes, tends to her gardens and raises money for the Osteoporosis Society. Her kids — Tom Parker Bowles, a food writer, and Laura Parker Bowles, who runs a small London art gallery —adore her.
Her children say she has always been a warm, hands-on mother, teaching them how to cook everything from scrambled eggs to roasts when they were growing up in the Wiltshire countryside. (Their father is Andrew Parker Bowles, whom Camilla married in 1973 and divorced in 1995).
“When she went out for dinner, if we were staying at home, she would say, ‘Here’s a chicken. I’ve covered it in butter, I’ve put the lemon up its arse. Put it in the oven for 20 minutes,’” Tom told WWD’s sister publication, W, earlier this year. He’s clearly put the cooking to good use — Tom is now the food writer for Tatler magazine and recently published a book of his food essays titled “E is for Eating: An Alphabet of Greed.”
“Tom and I have always been number one for my mother and father,” Laura told W in 2003. “And it’s a great feeling. I definitely take advantage of that, and use and abuse my mother.”
Princes William and Harry are said to be fond of Camilla, and happy for their father. And considering the solid relationships that have been forged, it wouldn’t be surprising if Charles called on Camilla to dispense a little bit of tough love to the increasingly wayward Prince Harry.
Camilla’s circle of friends is a tight one. She and Charles often socialize with Camilla’s sister and brother-in-law, Annabel and Simon Elliot, as well as with Annabel Goldsmith, Patty Palmer Tomkinson, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the Duke and Duchess of Westminster, Princess Alexandra and Queen Rania and King Abdullah of Jordan.
They will most likely be among the guests at the wedding, the details of which are still a mystery. Likely designers for Camilla’s wedding-day suit are the duo Antonia Robinson and Anna Valentine, who created Sheherazade Goldsmith’s wedding gown for her wedding to Annabel and the late Sir Jimmy Goldsmith’s son, Ben. Some speculated Thursday that the ring most likely would be a new buy, although the British press speculated it would be an heirloom. And it definitely won’t be a sapphire, like the one Diana chose from Garrard that subsequently stirred a jewelry trend worldwide.
The couple already live together at Charles’ country estate, Highgrove, as well as at Clarence House, the Nash-designed home of the late Queen Mother along the Mall in London. Camilla, who assisted interior designer Robert Kime in his redesign of the 1825 house, has a two-room suite there, in addition to a chauffeur, a gardener, two office assistants and bodyguards.
As for Highgrove, Camilla has been the hostess at the house for the last few years. Her horses are stabled there and she probably supports Charles in his passion for the beautiful gardens, interest in alternative healing and religions and passion for design. The Prince of Wales isn’t the easiest of people to live with, given his moods and quirkiness, but Camilla’s fun-loving sensibility lightens his weight-of-the-world mien. Those who have met her use one word to describe her — fun. She drinks, she smokes and she loves a good bawdy joke.
And, royal watchers say, she is the love of Charles’ life. He missed the chance to propose to Camilla the first time around, and now finally gets the type of wife more suited to his lifestyle —an upper-crust Englishwoman with a good pedigree who loves the outdoors and whose first priority is taking care of her husband.
“Camilla has replaced his smothering nannies,” says one royal watcher. “And that makes sense, because she is a nanny-ish figure, rather plain, and happier walking on the moors than dancing in the ballroom.”