The week of William and Kate’s wedding, I went along to Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, a red velvet fantasia of old Union Jacks and mounted stags’ heads. Rules has a sense of tradition and romantic secrecy that can seem, on a warm spring evening, as bold as the restaurant’s polished brass. Charles Dickens drank his share here, and so did that frisky little Edward VII, who was forever sneaking the actress Lillie Langtry into the upstairs bar. Rules was always happy to bend the rules for royalty, and you can still see a secret door installed for Lillie’s quick exits when called upon to canoodle with the king.
For William and Kate, Rules was offering a new house cocktail on its menu, “Kate Middleton’s ‘Royal 29,’ ” which comes rather blue and racy in a short martini glass: “Tanqueray gin, Pinky vodka, Lillet, crystallised violet & rose petals, with a squeeze of lemon,” yours for £12 and a wink at the waiter. “When are you doing a Pippa cocktail?” someone asked the bartender. “Oh, soon,” he said. “Soon we will have the Pippa. Except we will call this the ‘Pippa 69,’ ” he said, leering. “You’re a dirtbag,” I told him. “I know,” he said in a bright Spanish accent. “She dirty.”
Rules has always been a good place to go to find out whom the nation fancies, even if one gets a quite different picture of the country these days from the riots in Tottenham and Croydon. Here, everyone has been talking about Pippa Middleton, the sister of the bride, who stole the show at the royal wedding in a manner that most ordinary sisters would find unforgivable. Kate’s dress, by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, was greatly admired on the day, but it was the rear at the rear that came out of the wedding its true heroine and passion topic numero uno. It was instantly named the shapeliest bottom in the kingdom. And the proprietor of that derrière? “She’s just the national babe.”
Pippa Middleton is not like your traditional fringe royal: Most members of “the firm,” as insiders call the extended family, are mothballed for years, disdainful of the limelight. Pippa is more like a contestant on a television talent or reality show. She turned up in the right dress. She has a nice face. And the story would end there—with howls of approval from Simon Cowell and with a hundred million sighs of “It could have been me”—were it not for the fact that Pippa’s lovely transparency is a window into a world of influence, and affluence as influence, a place where money and class meet fashion and retail and modern manners. All spring and summer, Pippa has been a tabloid sensation, selling newspapers like no one since Diana. And what the tabloids have dreamed up is a modern mystery play about how an ordinary girl can come to occupy the upper reaches of the aristocracy.
But above all, this is a fashion story. I mean: It’s a story about clothes, about what these people wear and what others wear as a result of what they wear. The Middletons and their set might love the grouse moors and Floors Castle, the charity balls and the slopes of St. Moritz, but unlike Diana, Princess of Wales, they promenade through those places in ways that can be understood by high-street retail—understood and monetized. Diana was good with the tabloids, cultivating single reporters and crying on their shoulders, but the Middletons use the press to create a commercial buzz, aiding British fashion but also building the image of themselves as style-makers. Kate Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, is said to have details of the outfits she is wearing every day leaked to the Daily Mail, the voice of “Middle England” and a seasoned vehicle for middle-class lust and prejudice. Kate once worked as an accessories buyer for the high-street clothing company Jigsaw—its founders, Bella and John Robinson, were guests at her wedding—and she has an instinct for what girls without large incomes can do to look nice. She knows where they must go: Jigsaw, Reiss, Whistles, L. K. Bennett (for shoes), and Hobbs, and has made herself an ambassador for these places much as Michelle Obama emerged as a smart-but-casual rabble-rouser for the virtues of J.Crew.
It was not always thus. I saw the queen once, when I was 10 years old and a Boy Scout, and she appeared like an explosion of lavender, with a matching hat and her feet crushed into grannyish shoes. For years, she has dressed like her mother, in pastel-colored suits by Norman Hartnell, and her daughter, Princess Anne, followed the same pattern, literally, wearing clothes you suspected were designed to look frumpy and sickly sweet, with a string of pearls and tan tights. This was fragrant mausoleum clothing. Then Diana came along with her Eighties Eurotrash Chic: The shoulders were padded, the lapels were diamanté, the collars were stiff and military, and the hats were St.-Tropez-ish, but Diana, at least, connected with aspirations to sexyhood. And yet, in the burgeoning early period of Galliano and Westwood, Diana stuck to Oscar de la Renta. Her idea of a hot British designer was probably Jasper Conran.
The Pippa Show
The princess-in-law is England’s most watched clotheshorse, and all summer, she’s been showing Britain just how much work off-the-rack dresses can do.
In the years since Diana, the old posh brands have poured down from the upper classes to the masses. Burberry, for instance, was once a label beloved of people who went hunting and shooting, but until very recently, its check patterns were a shorthand in Britain for “chav”—the denizens of the underclass who have lately been looting London’s retail stores. Outside of the exclusive couture universe, fashion labels, in Britain, as elsewhere, have largely become the preserve of the common people. Pippa and her gang won’t exactly be hitting the streets to join the young British looters in the latter’s war against the “Feds,” but at least the Middleton girls can rest assured that they had an impact on what was worth looting. Society works in mysterious ways, and the new royals have in common with the new rioters a love of shops.
It’s easy to enjoy the irony: Today, the British lower orders look for handbags bearing the name of expensive labels to “upgrade” their Primark dresses (Primark is a high-street store of preposterous cheapness). The upper orders, on the other hand, have set their compass by labels that don’t seem in the slightest exclusive or expensive, but neither do they seem cheap and nasty. For Pippa, that means white jeans like those available from Reiss. It means ballet pumps from Tory Burch, a red shift dress from Hobbs. And the whole thing signals a change in the meaning of glamour: For a young woman to be really glamorous now, she has to look like she could just be Anygirl.
And the closer you look to Anygirl, the more people give you credit for actually not being just any girl. You’re not special because you’re wearing a Galliano frock with feathers that cost a fortune; you’re special because you’re wearing a £79 houndstooth coat from mid-price Jigsaw and making it look effortless and fab and natively yours. That’s the Pippa vibe. It’s Me Being Special Because of You Looking Like Me Looking Like You. Diana would have seemed like a dinosaur next to Pippa, and so would many of the British public, who, before now, thought that if you wanted to shine, you had to wear things that others couldn’t afford. “Diamonds used to be a girl’s best friend,” said a girl I spoke to in Reiss. “But now it’s brightly colored little cardigans that look like cashmere but are really made of cotton.”
The U.K. press are in on the act, of course. The papers have a “Get the Look” function on their websites, where, at the click of a mouse, you too can buy the Middy look. The white blouse from Whistles that Kate wore in one of her engagement photographs, priced at £95, sold out immediately and was later reintroduced on high street with a £30 markup and called the Kate. The Nannette dress from Kate’s engagement pictures also sold out immediately. Anything worn by either sister is guaranteed to sell out within a day. There was even a run on the red dress Pippa wore to Wimbledon. “We’re all crushing like crazy,” said a hopped-up Grazia magazine in May. “It’s all about Pippa. Pippa’s smile! Pippa’s style!” Only the tabloids have to chase Pippa just a little bit more to find out about her choices.
But she doesn’t make it hard for them. Pippa has the same instinct as her sister; she wants to send a big message, the one saying that if you get it right, common is the new posh, and too much “show” is vulgar. And you can always tart it up with Manolo Blahniks and a bag from Anya Hindmarch. Or you can have a day off from your royal duty and wear a preppy dress by Sarah Burton or a sheath by Roland Mouret. You have your cake and eat it. At the same time, if you are clever, you manage to be Of the People whilst having a remorseless sense of entitlement. Welcome to Pippa’s world.
Long before the wedding, people knew that Pippa Middleton was on the rise. She was voted Tatler’s “Number One Society Singleton” in 2008. Tatler, of course, is the house journal of those who hang with the Wisteria Sisters, as the Middletons were known for a long time—“decorative, fragrant, and excellent at social climbing.” Its pages are full of people who should have been invented by P. G. Wodehouse but who were born instead into something called the real world. I give you Tigerlily Taylor, Lex Niarchos, Rufus Tiger Taylor, Edward van Outte, Lettice Spooner, and Drummond Money-Coutts. Just as there was little to distinguish the Mafia from the police in twenties Chicago, there is nothing, in Tatler, to separate the people being written about from the people doing the writing. Bylines include Gavanndra Hodge, Debonaire von Bismarck, and Dorrit Moussaieff. Taken together, these names make up a gallery of fabulous grotesques; they live in a scene that is part Downton Abbey and part Britain’s Got Talent. It is Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies for the Twitter generation.
The nightclub Mahiki sees itself as a Polynesian haven for these posh young people who can’t bear too much reality. The bar staff wear necklaces made of shells. The D.J.’s box is clad in a thick layer of faux bamboo. The young Windsors and their coterie are always knocking about in here, photographed spluttering and vomitous on the sidewalk after many a crazy night, and the Middletons have been regular patrons—Kate, famously, with another man during her breakup with William. If you could hand out T-shirts to this crowd, they would say LIFE’S A BEACH AND THEN YOU DIE. Favorite drinks include the Coconut Grenade and the Armada Treasure Chest, a hamper of piratical grog that can be topped with Cristal (£650). Prince Harry is reported to have run up a £13,000 bar tab in Mahiki in one night, a detail the customers intone with the deepest respect.
“Perfect Pippa” they called her here. She always turned up and was always well turned-out. Her boyfriends included the banker Jonathan Jardine Paterson and Billy More Nisbett, whose mother was a lady-in-waiting to Princess Anne. Other liaisons included one with Simon Youngman, a diamond heir, Alexander Spencer-Churchill, the scion of several posh houses, and her latest, Alex Loudon, 30, a cricketer and financier.
It’s funny how these girls—sudden fashion icons, sudden moralists, sudden “It” girls—are all university educated but on a perpetual gap year. None of them seems to have a sustaining job. They do bits of charity, they do bits of party planning, or, like Princess Diana, they look after children now and again. The first royal spat Pippa was involved in, it is said, also featured the ever-present misfit children of Sarah Ferguson: Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie denied Pippa a seat in the front row of a fashion show they had organized because Pippa had failed to invite Beatrice to her roller-skating charity disco. You couldn’t make it up.
But the whole thing took a bit of work for Perfect Pippa. Known as Panface at school (for being flat-featured), she was one of three children born to Michael and Carole Middleton of Bucklebury near Newbury. Before becoming party-product millionaires, the Middletons had worked for British Airways. In the cruel, heightened snobbery known only to the British upper class, Kate Middleton was known to Prince William’s friends, during their courtship, as “Doors to Manual”—as in, “Flight crew, doors to manual and cross-check.” Accusations of middle-classness dogged the Middleton-family ambitions for a while, and Carole Middleton made some upper-crust enemies by allegedly chewing nicotine gum during William’s passing-out parade at the officer-training college at Sandhurst.
One of the signature ironies of the British upper class is their obsession with school: They go on about school all their lives, they meet each other there or at university, yet education for them represents the victory of the social over the mental processes. Pippa studied English literature at Edinburgh University, where her friends and flatmates included Earl Percy, heir to the Duke of Northumberland and Alnwick Castle (which doubles for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films), and Lord Edward Innes-Ker, son of the Duke of Roxburghe, the owner of Floors Castle. The life of a posh student at Edinburgh is a well-worn track, but Pippa managed, by all accounts, to top up the fun. “It was all port and cheese,” revealed one reveler to the Daily Mail, “and no heating, because warmth was seen as vulgar. In fact, what was vulgar was always a topic of conversation: I remember someone saying chicken breasts were beyond the pale.”
Britain-watchers will find this obsession with commonness unsurprising. It has long been a hallmark of the English notion of style: To be common is to be vulgar, to be tasteless, to be without breeding. Pippa Middleton seems scarcely to know one person who is not a member of the landed gentry, but she might, with her background and her instincts, turn out to be a modern-day warrior queen for the virtues of commonness. The old notion of what is common won’t exactly fit with these girls, who seem to understand how life can no longer be all tantrums and tiaras, even for public figures. There has also to be a degree of street and tweet. Some like it posh, as Pippa does, but they also know that tradition won’t answer the call of the new social habits. Pippa may have been born common, but she knows enough to know that fashion and commerce will be her friends as she sets out to mix her worlds. Never in a million years—or in the half-century since she was Pippa’s age—would the queen have worn a pair of white jeans available from a shopping-mall store. Now you can click directly from Pippa’s fansites and Get the Look.