Kate Middleton at 40: How the Duchess of Cambridge’s style went from youthful glow to timeless elegance

Written by Lea Dolan, CNN

Since joining the royal family in 2011, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge – known by many as Kate – has rarely failed in her unwritten obligation to appear manicured and immaculately dressed in the public eye. And while the Duchess is renowned for her preppy tweeds and tailored blazers, she has earned her true fashion credentials through a keen eye for second-hand outfits.
Take, for example, the gold Jenny Packham gown she wore for the 2021 premiere of “No Time to Die” that set the internet ablaze, or her Alexander McQueen wedding gown personalized with details so precise the dressmakers had to replace their sewing needles every three hours, according to British Vogue.

But even before becoming a Duchess, a young Kate Middleton kept her wardrobe well-stocked with assertive looks. For the Queen Consort’s 40th birthday, we take a look back at some of her best outfits, from her heady college days to the most formal royal occasions.

The Duchess shone in a gold gown for Bond’s latest London premiere. Credit: Chris Jackson / Getty Images

College years

As a pre-royal Kate studied at St Andrew’s University in Scotland, her social life seemed similar to that of many her age. Clustered in the backs of the cabs, she might have been wearing shorter hems than she now does, but Kate’s love of dressing up was evident from the start.

Kate Middleton wears glitter at a charity rollerblading nightclub in London in 2008.

Kate Middleton wears glitter at a charity rollerblading nightclub in London in 2008. Credit: Max Mumby / Indigo / Getty Images

Paparazzi photos taken of Kate in her twenties with glittering eyes suggest a penchant for sparkle: sparkly black mini-dresses and emerald green sequined halterneck tops were must-have looks. Even before she became one of the world’s most photographed women, her sartorial sensibility was daring – for example, if friends wore all-black ensembles for a night out on the town, Kate donned a baroque-print silk dress.

Royal engagements

Today, a decade after her wedding to the royal family, the Duchess is still looking for glitter. At the UK-Africa Investment Summit at Buckingham Palace in January 2020, she wore a shimmering red lace and sequin dress from Needle & Thread, and last year she arrived at the Royal Albert Hall in London wearing a dress from dazzling malachite color.

But not all royal engagements demand the same level of pizazz – on many formal occasions, the Duchess has gone for understated elegance. On the first day of last year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland, she stepped out in an actual blue Eponine coat dress that ended just above her ankles. With structured shoulders and single-breasted buttons at the waist, it was a master class in chic minimalism that impressed without distracting from the important issues at hand.
The Duchess wore a simple, structured coat dress for the Climate Summit.

The Duchess wore a simple, structured coat dress for the Climate Summit. Credit: Daniel Leal / AFP / Pool / Getty Images

Moments on the red carpet

When the occasion calls for opulence, the Duchess relies on trusted designers like Jenny Packham and Alexander McQueen. In 2011, just months after her wedding at Westminster Abbey, Kate established herself as an evening wear enthusiast by wearing a classic strapless black velvet McQueen dress to a military ball.

Her classic velvet McQueen with lace details cemented Middleton as a staple in the fashion space.

Her classic velvet McQueen with lace details cemented Middleton as a staple in the fashion space. Credit: Arthur Edwards / AFP / Getty Images

Since then, every event has been the occasion to launch a new silhouette, ranging from the empire waist and off-the-shoulder details to the powder blue Jenny Packham dress she wore to the “Specter” premiere in 2015. Her looks luxurious are also often used to communicate broader values, especially in relation to the climate crisis. In 2020, the Duchess was one of the few BAFTA participants to heed the recycled dress code from the awards ceremony, selecting an Alexander McQueen dress embellished in white and gold that she had worn for the first time at a state dinner in 2012.

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