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Great expectations: A duchess' wardrobe enthralls, but doesn't surprise on Kate's 1st US trip
Even in a town where celebrity-studded awards shows are commonplace, it was the most anticipated event of the season.
It wasn't Prince William's match at the charity polo game Saturday. It wasn't the visit to Los Angeles' Skid Row on Sunday.
It was the unveiling of the Duchess of Cambridge's travel wardrobe.
Much expectation followed the young royal couple as they took their first state trip to Canada and the United States, with royal-watchers wondering how they would handle themselves, celebrity-hounds delighting over the mix of real and Hollywood royalty, and fashion observers waiting for new looks from a duchess whose picks can clear stockrooms within hours of an appearance.
To many, the former Kate Middleton's sartorial choices hit just the right notes ' even though she didn't pack any surprises.
She brought all feminine looks, among them: a pleated lilac floor-length gown designed by Sarah Burton of Alexander McQueen, a vibrant green Diane von Furstenberg shift with a waist-tie, and a silver silk dress with hand-painted flowers by British designer Jenny Packham.
"It's like our first ladies," said Kate Betts, a contributor editor for Time magazine and the author of "Everyday Icon: Michelle Obama and the Power of Style." "We're always going to think of them as role models ' people we look to as some kind of example, either by the way they dress or the way they speak."
The duchess eschewed bright colors and bold prints even in sunny Southern California, though she donned the floral Packham for a charity polo match in Santa Barbara.
That designer also made a yellow silk dress that the duchess wore in Canada. But Kate is known for repeats: She prefers drapey dresses by the Brazilian designer Issa; the cream Reiss dress she wore in her engagement photo showed up again in Canada; and her nude-colored leather pumps and straw box-clutch from British upscale fashion brand LK Bennett were frequent sights during the 11-day trip.
"She's repeating things to make sure people understand she's not overspending in this very difficult economic moment," Betts said. "It's very age-appropriate. She's what, 29? People that age don't have thousands of pairs of shoes. It's not something someone that age does or cares about."
For the celebrity-studded black-tie BAFTA dinner Saturday, where the royal couple were the honored guests, she wore the McQueen gown and a pair of Jimmy Choos platform sandals.
Avril Graham, a fellow Brit and executive fashion and beauty editor for Harper's Bazaar, said she wasn't surprised that Burton, who made Kate's two dresses on her wedding day, was responsible for the BAFTA gown.
Graham said its simplicity and bejeweled waistband recalled the reception dress, and praised the duchess for resisting "the temptation to overdress, over-glitz a la Hollywood red-carpet glam."
Betts also declared it a hit, saying that the duchess stuck to her usual "easy and fluid" style.
"It was fluid and beautiful, almost like a T-shirt. It had a very American feeling to it," she said. "When I looked at what the celebrities were wearing at the event, it seemed too uptight and over-done and over-styled compared to her."
The running theme among the outfits was a ladylike figure-flattering silhouette, in luxurious neutral fabrics with knee-length hems. The dresses nipped in at the waist, either with darts, a waist tie or a waistband, as with the light-gray frock by London-based designer Roksanda Ilincic that Kate changed into during the flight from Canada.
The knee-length dress had asymmetric draping from one shoulder with folds at the collar, a cut that both Betts and Graham loved.
"I love the ease of her style. I love the fact that she's wearing dresses, which actually when you think about it is a very American thing because if you look back at other royals, they wore suits," Betts said.
Betts noted that even though the duchess has primarily worn British labels because "she has to wave the British flag too," she likely chose the Diane von Furstenberg dress for a reception Saturday "as a nod to American fashion."
"She really has to be a style ambassador for the U.K.," Graham said, noting that William's late mother, Princess Diana, at first wore British designers exclusively.
Graham called the duchess' choices "spot on," saying she displayed a "cautious selection that's worked well in her new role" but that Kate would take away from the trip a learning experience to be more adventurous in the future.
But don't expect Kate to dress down, Graham added. Even though the royal couple visited an arts center Sunday in Los Angeles' gritty Skid Row, the duchess stayed prim in navy pumps with a matching crochet blouse and a white pleated skirt ' an ensemble that didn't come from a glamorous fashion house but the U.K. high-street brand Whistles.
As a royal in a senior role, Kate's not allowed to have a bad fashion day if she's somewhere representing the crown, Graham added.
Celebrity stylist Robert Verdi said he was fascinated by the duchess and liked that her style "isn't vulgar," although he thought the McQueen gown at the BAFTA dinner was "a little matronly (because) you don't get a bust line."
He also called soft colors of her other dresses "a little mother-of-the-bride... you could see it on a silver-haired mom at a wedding."
But Verdi said they were minor missteps considering "she had been thrown" into the international spotlight yet managed to stay true to her style and respectful of the crown.
The secret, he said, is the blind eye she turns to labels, whether they're off the rack or couture, and instead, consistently focuses on her own natural beauty.
"We don't know what's going on behind the scenes in the royal household but what's in front of us, which is what all we have to see and believe and understand, it feels positive," he said. "She's not a desperate housewife of New Jersey."
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