COMMENT:

Hands up who has worn an item of clothing in recent months that did not have an elasticised waist? Uh huh, exactly. In these times of Covid-19, our wardrobes have shrunk dramatically as sales of tracksuit pants and pyjamas have skyrocketed.

But, like so many other things, there are different rules for members of the royal family. (To be fair, it's hard to see the Queen kicking back in her Bonds after a hard day poring over dull diplomatic cables and trying to keep Philip away from his beloved Land Rover.)

Throughout the pandemic, everyone from Her Majesty, to Prince Charles, Princess Anne and William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge has been taking part in official engagements via Zoom with nary a hoodie in sight.

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For the Windsors, working from home means pastel frocks, pearls and managing to project regal poise while planted in front of a laptop for hours.

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, wearing a face mask, as she leaves after a visit to Baby Basic UK & Baby Basics Sheffield on Tuesday. Photo / Getty Images
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, wearing a face mask, as she leaves after a visit to Baby Basic UK & Baby Basics Sheffield on Tuesday. Photo / Getty Images

This week Kate stepped out, appearing at an engagement in Sheffield wearing another in an interminably long line of banal ladylike frocks, in this instance the "flippy wiggle" dress from a brand called Suzannah. (She first debuted it at Wimbledon last year.)

Here's the kicker: It cost $3625. (She teamed the look with a pair of Tabitha Simmons pumps which, to be fair, she has had in the back of her cupboard since 2011 when she wore them on a tour of North America.)

Catherine went to the charity event in a designer $3625 Suzannah dress but no one batted an eyelid. Photo / Getty Images
Catherine went to the charity event in a designer $3625 Suzannah dress but no one batted an eyelid. Photo / Getty Images

The point here is that Kate wore an outfit worth $3625 to support a charity that helps struggling and vulnerable families.

Given Kate has achieved quasi-beatific status in the UK these days, there was not a peep out of the British press about her choice of outfit. However, it is impossible not to wonder what would have happened if it had been Meghan in her designer shoes?

I think we can safely say that some quarters of Fleet Street would have devolved into paroxysms of self-righteous huffing, Meghan's choice of an exxy look just another example of her lamentable performance as a Duchess. There would be news stories, opinion pieces and on and on the news cycle would spin, a whirling dervish of self-righteous condemnation and clucking.

Would Meghan Markle have got the same free pass had she worn such an expensive outfit to a charity event? Photo / AP
Would Meghan Markle have got the same free pass had she worn such an expensive outfit to a charity event? Photo / AP

(When Meghan wore a very expensive designer dress for a photo taken at one of her charities, it made headlines. The Daily Mail chuntered "Revealed: Meghan Markle wore $2500 Gucci tweed dress for Vogue portrait taken at Smart Works charity that donates clothes to disadvantaged women.")

So why did Kate get a pass?

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The reason, I think, lies in not what Kate has done or not done differently to her sister-in-law, but one simple fact: She has reached the other side of the baptism of fire that are the first few years of life as a Windsor wife.

These days Kate is the closest thing most Brits would have to a saint; the one-time assistant Jigsaw accessories buyer and charity roller disco organiser has now been elevated to the level of some sort of modern-day deity.

But this was not always the case. Cast your mind back to 2011: She and William got married (call the trumpeters! Release the doves! Crack open the good bubbly!); went on their first royal tour; were widely adored and then things started to turn.

Tucked away in a remote corner of Wales, Kate was cast as a work-shy snob more interested in buying wrap dresses and sunning herself in Mustique than the dull graft that is royal working life.

Kate Middleton wasn't always flavour of the month with the British press and had a rough trot after her dream wedding. Photo / AP
Kate Middleton wasn't always flavour of the month with the British press and had a rough trot after her dream wedding. Photo / AP

Then came babies, more floral dresses, an increasing royal workload, followed by more floral dresses. As Kate, who is quite shy, got more comfortable with her role, so too did her ambitions and eagerness to take on more work. The prevailing narrative started to shift, erasing the Lazy Kate storyline to Kate the Saint.

The Party Pieces scion is far from alone in experiencing this particular trajectory. After her marriage in the '80s, Diana, Princess of Wales, enjoyed a brief honeymoon of sorts and then things started to fall apart.

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In opinion pieces, Fleet Street columnists wrote that she was "so set in her ways and so sulky when crossed". While elsewhere it was reported: "It is amazing how people who work for her soon get fed up with doing so."

James Whittaker, then the most high-profile royal reporter, wrote in 1985: "More and more personal and professional staff talk of Diana being 'difficult'. Rather than merely being a beautiful and long-suffering adornment to the royal family, she is hard-headed, determined and frequently wilful."

Princess Diana visiting an Aids hospice in Toronto, Canada. Photo / Getty Images
Princess Diana visiting an Aids hospice in Toronto, Canada. Photo / Getty Images

Still, on she ploughed, determinedly taking on controversial causes (then) such as Aids and homelessness that she cared deeply about and slowly assumed quasi divine status.

Later, Sarah, Duchess of York, was lambasted for her fashion sense and weight and faced regular press maulings for her rambunctious and artless style of duchess-dom.

In the early aughties, it was Sophie Countess of Wessexes' turn. Her years as a newlywed saw her try and maintain her professional career running a PR firm. A sting operation run by one UK tabloid (an undercover reporter posed as an assistant to a Sheikh) was deeply humiliating and she was accused of having "ridden roughshod over ... convention" and having deeply embarrassed the royal family.

Look at the experiences of Windsor newlyweds over the past 40 years and there is not a woman among them who was not branded too quiet or too loud or too lazy or too much of a spendthrift or too showy.

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To marry into the British royal family is to sign up for what is essentially a brutal hazing by the media and the public; it is to docilely make yourself the most public and exposed of a target possible.

However, don't reach for a consoling G&T yet – there is a second half to this tale of Windsor wifely woe.

For Diana, Fergie, Sophie, and Kate, after those brutal royal apprenticeships; after surviving the censorious press and the constant, interminable criticism, something, as if by magic, happens: All the turmoil and all the brickbats evaporate as if by magic.

There is an added element of course to Meghan's stormy state to royal life. As the first bi-racial woman to marry a senior member of the royal family, her arrival on the Buckingham Palace balcony was met with a contemptible vein of racism from some quarters of the press and public.

Had Meghan held on she could have risen to royal saint status. But should she have to go through the hellish apprenticeship years? Photo / AP
Had Meghan held on she could have risen to royal saint status. But should she have to go through the hellish apprenticeship years? Photo / AP

However, I do still think that had Meghan steadfastly stayed in the royal fold, she too would, in the years to come, have experienced the same royal wife metamorphosis; her image miraculously shifting from interloper and failure to universally adored paragon of HRH-dom.

I wonder, would her status quo-challenging and protocol-busting ways have gone from being excoriated to lauded? Would the 5am email-sending zeal of the Los Angeles native have become the duchess standard? Would even the more conservative, hidebound quarters of British life have become cheerleaders for the woman who was dragging the monarchy into the 21st century – and genuine relevancy?

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The uncomfortable truth is that to marry into the British royal family is to willingly commit yourself to not only a lifetime of monarchical servitude but to knowingly put oneself through a modern-day trial by fire.

Being a female member of the house of Windsor might look like a life of expensive hats and state dinners interspaced with the occasional ribbon-cutting but I think the truth is that to become a duchess (or a countess) is only for the hardiest of souls willing to prostrate oneself, self-esteem be damned, at the foot of the monarchy.

I wonder, do all the pretty, expensive frocks really make up for having to do that?

Daniela Elser is a royal expert and writer with more than 15 years experience working with a number of Australia's leading media titles.