The Duchess at 40 Part 5: Formalwear

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Hello-Hello, and happy almost-autumn! I am excited to be back with a fresh post after taking some time off from the site. Today I have the fifth (and long-overdue) post in the Duchess at Forty series covering the Duchess of Cambridge’s style evolution. 

The Duchess has worn a wide variety of formalwear looks. Early evening gown choices include (left to right) the black velvet Alexander McQueen design worn in December 2011 for the Sun Military Awards. Another Alexander McQueen creation first worn to a 2012 state dinner in Malaysia featured that country’s national flower, the hibiscus, in gold lamé embroidery. The Temperley London black lace ‘Amoret’ gown was seen at multiple functions. In this case, the photo is from a 2012 University of Saint Andrews fundraiser.   

The year 2011 also included two of the Duchess’s best-known evening looks. Below, the soft Alexander McQueen design first worn for the July 2011 Los Angeles BAFTA gala. On the right, the Jenny Packham pearlescent rose gown worn for the June 2011 ARK Gala.

We look next at other gowns worn in the early 2010s, starting with a style seen for the Duke and Duchess’s first night out after Prince George’s birth, a glittering gold design by Jenny Packham. The occasion was the September 2013 Tusk Trust Awards, and the dress was part of Jenny Packham’s diffusion collection for Debenhams. In December 2013 the Duchess repeated Roland Mouret’s ‘Ella’ gown at the December 2013 premiere of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. She chose Diane von Furstenberg’s ‘Zarita’ gown, a lace design with a fitted bodice and full skirt, for the November 2014 Royal Variety Performance. When attending an October 2015 gala dinner for 100 Women in Finance, she wore Erdem’s ‘Alouette’ gown in a vivid floral print.

Continuing a chronological overview, we show the Duchess in Beulah London’s ‘Juliet’ dress for a 2016 reception in Bhutan. The abstract print referenced Bhutan’s national flower, the Himalayan blue poppy. In the center photo, you see the Temperley London green lace design worn to a March 2017 National Portrait Gallery reception, and on the right, the floral Alexander McQueen dress seen at the February 2017 BAFTA Awards.  

The Duchess chose a Jenny Packham style with a sheer overlay embellished in sequins and crystals for the December 2018 Diplomatic Reception. At a November 2019 reception in Pakistan, she also wore Jenny Packham, a tailored design with crystal embellishment accenting the waist, cuffs, and neckline. The black lace Alexander McQueen gown worn to the November 2019 Royal Variety Performance showcased a black lace overlay atop a nude underskirt with sheer sleeves and velvet trim. 

More recent styles feature a broad selection of silhouettes: below you see the green Jenny Packham dress selected for a black-tie dinner in Jamaica this March; the sleek Roland Mouret design worn for the Top Gun: Maverick premiere in May; and another Jenny Packham design, the dramatic Goldfinger-inspired gown worn to the premiere of No Time to Die premiere last September. 

We take a closer look at details from the green and the gold Jenny Packham designs. 

Of course, styles vary according to specific events and locations. Below you see the Duchess in a Saloni dress at an April 2016 Kensington Palace reception in advance of the India/Bhutan tour; an empire waist Jenny Packham design worn for the February 2018 BAFTA Awards; the lacy Alexander McQueen gown worn to the 2019 United States state dinner at Buckingham Palace. 

In the photo above right, you see the Duchess wearing her Royal Victorian Order sash and badge associated with the Duchess’s status as a Dame Grand Cross of the Order and her Royal Family Order (on the yellow ribbon).

More on dress codes via this Elle story. 

Traditional for State Banquets, the white-tie decorations dress code is required for the guests of the Queen. Also referred to (particularly for male guests) as ‘full evening dress’, ‘tails’ or ‘dress suit’, it indicates the most formal type of dress code, as it exceeds regular white-tie by including decorations (for example sashes that indicate honours given by the Queen).

For women, a full-length ball gown is required, preferably featuring a fitted bodice and full skirt. Traditionally, long gloves have been worn, however, this is not seen as essential at modern white-tie events.

Below you see the Duchess wearing a Marchesa gown at the Spain state dinner in July 2017.

Four more formal looks the Duchess has worn over the years: a red Beulah London dress seen at one of her first formal engagements following her 2011 wedding, a 100 Women in Finance gala at St. James’s Palace. Next in the montage, a look that was something of a departure for the Duchess, eveningwear separates by Temperley London. The cropped top and skirt were adorned with “opulent embroidery motifs of Indian Chintz and lattice” and worn during the 2016 India tour. Second from the right, you see the embroidered floral Tory Burch frock worn in Bhutan during that 2016 tour. We wrap up this group with one of the more polarizing looks chosen by the Duchess, a floral Erdem design worn to a January 2018 black-tie dinner at the British Ambassador’s residence in Sweden.

Below, a closer look at the details from the Temperley and Tory Burch dresses.

Here you see another broad cross-section of formal styles worn by the Duchess. On the far left, the Amanda Wakeley design worn for the Duchess’s first official solo engagement in October 2011 when she hosted a reception on behalf of Prince Charles. Next, Roland Mouret’s vibrant blue structured cold-shoulder style worn for a June 2016 Kensington Palace party, followed by the white Self Portrait design seen at a 2016 screening of the film A Street Cat Named Bob, with its lace bodice and full skirt. On the right, the Gucci gown with ruched bodice and full skirt worn for a February 2019 Women in Finance engagement.

The Duchess uses a core cadre of designers for many of her formal ensembles. The designers worn most frequently are Alexander McQueen and Jenny Packham. At five out of six diplomatic receptions, the Duchess was in designs by Jenny Packham and Alexander McQueen.Unfortunately, we do not have full-length photos from all of the receptions. Below are headshots offering a glimpse of the dresses worn to each reception. We have no other photos from 2017, so the designer is a mystery.

At three out of four state dinners, the Duchess wore Alexander McQueen or Jenny Packham; she chose a Marchesa design for the 2017 Spain dinner.

Here are three Alexander McQueen designs: the white lace style worn for a state dinner in June 2019 (l); the deep navy blue velvet dress worn to the 2019 diplomatic reception (c); the Kingfisher blue gown chosen for an October 2018 state dinner(r).

Some McQueen styles have been structured, while others showcased soft, flowing lines. Below, the chiffon design embellished with hand-sewn rhinestones worn for a 2018 black-tie dinner in Oslo. It featured a sheer overlay that transformed into a cape covering the sides and back of the dress.

Here is another Alexander McQueen style, this one worn to the February 2019 BAFTA Awards. The one-shouldered design featured a draped, fitted bodice with a full, flowing skirt.

The Duchess wore Alexander McQueen designs in official portraits done for her 40th birthday.

The Duchess’s other go-to designer for evening gowns is Jenny Packham. A sampling includes the asymmetric silver satin gown worn for a November 2011 reception and dinner at St. James’s Palace; the red lace and chiffon style first worn to the China State Dinner in 2015 and repeated at the December 2016 Diplomatic Reception; the floral motif gown seen at a black-tie reception during an official visit to France in March 2017.

Here are two more Jenny Packham designs, the dramatic high-low dress worn for an October 2014 awards gala at the Natural History Museum and the sequinned illusion tulle gown worn to the November 2017 Royal Variety Performance.  

A better view of the ornate embellishment and the hemline.

This Jenny Packham design was worn for the October 2015 SPECTRE premiere. 

Below are closeups of the back of the dress showing the shimmering rhinestone belt and the extended row of crystal buttons/snaps at the wrist.

Just as new designers are added to the formal wardrobe, others are no longer worn, while still others are seen at daytime events. Beulah London remains a key component of the Duchess’s daytime wardrobe, but it’s been years since we have seen her wear a Beulah gown. We have not seen the Duchess in any Temperley designs for several years. More recently, we have seen her trying new labels when selecting formalwear. During the March 2021 Caribbean tour, the Duchess wore the green Jenny Packham gown shown earlier in the post while also debuting designs by Phillipa Lepley (l) and The Vampire’s Wife (r).   

One constant throughout the years: the majority of the Duchess’s formalwear designs are by British brands. 

The Duchess does repeat her evening gowns. Below, the lavender Alexander McQueen gown initially seen in 2011 that was brought back for last October’s Earthshot Awards.

Another iconic design making a repeat appearance was the blush pink Jenny Packham pink dress first worn for the June 2011 ARK Gala, seen again at a 2016 EACH (East Anglia Children’s Hospices) fundraiser. It looked like some of the fabric volume may have been taken out of the skirt for the second wearing.   

A favorite style for many readers: the rich teal design in silk chiffon that was first seen at a pre-Olympic Team GB dinner in May 2012 and then brought back in November 2018 for the Tusk Conservation Awards.

Another notable encore performance, Diane von Furstenberg’s ‘Zarita’ gown first seen at the November 2014 Royal Variety Performance and repeated for an Anna Freud Centre gala in November 2017.

Gowns first worn on tour make for strong second appearances. Below left, you see the blue Jenny Packham design worn most recently at a March 2020 Buckingham Palace reception that was first worn for an April 2016 gala dinner in Mumbai. On the right, the rich green dress seen most recently in November 2021 at the Royal Variety Performance; it was first worn to a 2019 reception in Pakistan. On that occasion, the Duchess also wore a dupatta, the traditional scarf or shawl.

A closer look at the intricate beading on both gowns. 

Modifications are made to some designs when they are worn again. The Alexander McQueen gown first seen during the 2012 Jubilee Tour featured a more structured shoulder when it was repeated at the 2020 BAFTA Awards. Some of the fabric in the sleeves was removed, and a lining was added to the sleeves.

Here you get a closer view of the embroidered hibiscus flowers.

More significant alterations can be seen in another Alexander McQueen design shown above when worn to the February 2017 BAFTA Awards. The bodice was altered, or an entirely new bodice was created, and sleeves were added to the dress when the Duchess wore it to a March 2019 National Portrait Gallery gala. (My theory is that a new bodice was made and attached to the skirt.)

It also appeared some volume from the skirt was removed, along with the crinoline or other structure supporting the skirt.

Some dresses have been worn three times, like the Temperley Amoret design featuring black French lace atop a blush slip lining. The sheer, bracelet-length sleeves were finished with scalloped eyelash lace, as were the neckline and hem. Other design elements include a keyhole back and a removable silk crepe bow belt at the waist. It was first seen at the War Horse film premiere in January of 2012; it was worn again ten months later at a Saint Andrews University fundraiser; the third appearance was in December 2013 at an event at the Natural History Museum.

An ink blue 2013 design by Jenny Packham design is also a ‘threepeat.’ First worn in October 2013 for a 100 Women in Hedge Funds dinner, the dress was seen again in February 2014 for a National Portrait Gallery engagement and again in November 2014 for a University of Saint Andrews fundraiser in New York.

Many gowns are as beautiful from the back as they are from the front, like the Jenny Packham worn to the February 2017 BAFTA Awards with its velvet band tied into a bow at the center back. 

The Jenny Packham from the 2015 SPECTRE premiere. 

And the Alexander McQueen seen at the 2019 BAFTA Awards.   

And that is our look at formalwear from the Duchess! (Who doesn’t love a party frock?!) When writing this, I initially included a look at some of the Duchess’s hairstyles, content I eliminated because the post was already lengthy. If you would like a post focused on that topic, it is certainly one I can put together. 

Previous posts in this series include Pre-Wedding and Wedding styles, the Duchess’s Daywear Designs, her Touring and Tiara looks, and the Casual/Sporting styles worn over the years. Today we look at formal styles, also known as party frocks here at WKW. The sixth and final post in the series is an overview with observations on wardrobe trends and changes we have seen over the years as the Duchess’s style evolved.  

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