‘Look but don’t touch’: The hidden message behind the royals’ white autumn wardrobes

Beige/white royal fits and what they mean
‘It has to look squeaky clean, and screams “no-dirt-on-me” innocent’ (Picture: AP/Getty)

Forget oranges and reds, the in vogue colour this autumn is white – and there’s a reason the likes of Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle are leading the trend.

‘It was already considered the reserve of the very rich, given how readily it shows dirt and how rare decent laundry facilities were,’ says designer and dressmaker Holly Winter. ‘You know someone in a white suit isn’t about to get down to some heavy manual labour.’

Just this week, the Princess of Wales opted for a barely beige matching skirt and jumper combo for a visit to Nottingham Trent, after previously wearing an all-white Alexander McQueen suit to chat with the England Rugby Team in September.

Adding her own take to the look, Meghan Markle opted for an all-white off-the-shoulder top and trousers ‘fit to a summit in New York on Tuesday. Because nothing says wealth like donning white to a capital city or dirty rugby ground.

In a year where neutrals and tailoring have been popular with the masses, A Listers have to take things one step further to stand out from the crowd.

Forget ‘quiet luxury’, this is unapologetic ‘loud luxury’. But apparently, the royal obsession with white in steeped in history.

‘In the UK, we only started wearing white wedding dresses after Queen Victoria chose the colour for her own nuptials, which was pretty mold-breaking at the time,’ says Holly.

‘She was the first British monarch whose wedding was photographed and could be shared around the world.

Catherine, Princess of Wales visits Nottingham Trent University
An off-white number worn on a visit to Nottingham Trent University on 11 October (Picture: Karwai Tang)
Catherine, Princess of Wales and Patron of the England Rugby Football Union Alex Mitchell of England following his side's victory in the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between England and Argentina
Meeting and greeting after England’s victory in the Rugby World Cup on September 9, 2023 (Picture: Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex (not pictured) participate in a panel during Project Healthy Minds' second annual World Mental Health Day Festival and The Archewell Foundation Parents' Summit
Meghan on a panel during Project Healthy Minds’ second annual World Mental Health Day Festival and The Archewell Foundation Parents’ Summit on October 10 (Picture: REUTERS)

‘As photography became more available to the masses, women quickly discovered that dress details such as lace were easier to see in sepia photographs on white dresses.

‘The Queen usually dressed publicly in a single, often bright, colour so that she would be easy to see in a crowd. And what’s brighter than white? So it actually can be a practical colour to wear.’

That would certainly make a lot of sense, given the royals get dressed for every public appearance knowing they’ll be in hundreds if not thousands of photographs by the end of the day.

''A Century of Queens Wedding Dresses'' Exhibition , London.
A mannequin of Britain’s Queen Victoria, wearing her wedding dress, in 2002 at the launch of the exhibition ‘A Century of Queens Wedding Dresses 1840 – 1947’ at Kensington Palace in London (Picture: Sion Touhig/Getty Images)
Queen State Diadem
The Queen would often opt for white dresses for special occasions (Picture: Tim Graham Picture Library/Getty Images)
British Royals In Malaysia, 1989
Queen Elizabeth II wearing the Girls of Great Britain and Ireland tiara, ahead of a State Banquet at Istana Iskandariah, the royal palace of the Perak Sultanate, in Kuala Kangsar, Perak, Malaysia, 14 October 1989 (Picture: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)
Max Mumby - Archive
Queen Elizabeth II attends a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral to mark her 80th birthday on June 15, 2006 in London, England. (Picture: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)
State Visit Banquet For President of Ghana
Queen Elizabeth II with the President of the Republic of Ghana, John Agyekum Kufuor at a state banquet at Buckingham Palace on March 13, 2007 in London, England (Picture: POOL/ Tim Graham Picture Library/Getty Images)
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Further to the fact that white used to be a colour for the non-manual-labour-reliant rich, Holly adds: ‘White has to be kept pristine as there’s no concealing a drip from a mug of tea or rub of make-up on a collar (the wise carry baby wipes for emergency spot-cleans and white chalk for quick cover-ups).

‘It has to look squeaky clean, and screams “no-dirt-on-me” innocent. You can read what you like into whether the wearers are trying to signal this.’

Holly also muses whether there could also be a certain ‘vulnerability’ to wearing the colour white, thus inviting trust.

‘You know how tempting it is to jump in a fresh blanket of pristine virgin snow,’ she explains, ‘so wearing it can say, “I’m trusting you not to wreck this for me; you in turn can trust me.”

‘There’s also the suggestion of look but don’t touch.’

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