Even before Kate Middleton – now the Duchess of Cambridge – stepped out in her bridal gown, designed by Sarah Burton, the creative director of Alexander McQueen, it was dubbed "the dress of the century". It was certainly among the most perfectly judged.
Featuring an ivory silk Chantilly lace-appliquéd bodice, sweeping silk gazar skirts, a high lace collar and long, narrow, lace sleeves, and with a train measuring a relatively restrained eight feet long, it was, at first sight, the height of understatement, whispering of Austerity Britain and, quite touchingly, Queen Elizabeth II's own Norman Hartnell-designed wedding garb. Make no mistake, however, this was the finest haute couture.
Clarence House said that Middleton chose the house of McQueen "for the beauty of its craftsmanship" and that, above all else, was there in spades. The lace – which also finished the bride's slippers – came courtesy of London's Royal School of Needlework. The four emblems of the United Kingdom – the rose, the thistle, the daffodil and the shamrock – were all incorporated. Embellishing flowers were cut from more English and French lace and the dress itself was constructed to resemble an opening bloom.
The seamstresses responsible for creating it washed their hands every 30 minutes, by all accounts, and changed their needles on a three-hourly basis to ensure they remained sharp.
"It was such an incredible honour to be asked," said Burton, who was filmed smoothing the bride's train as she left for Westminster Abbey and again upon her arrival. "The dress represents the best of British craftsmanship and I hope that by marrying traditional fabrics and lacework with a modern structure and design, we have created a beautiful dress for Catherine on her wedding day."
That the bride-to-be herself had input into the design in question was clear – anyone expecting anything even remotely radical or overpowering would have been disappointed. Instead, this was a sensitive collaboration between client and couturier and, although touches of excellence were everywhere to be seen, they never came at the expense of ease of movement and elegance, achieved by discreet draping and folding and underpinnings that were quite obviously as complex as they were light.
The bride's fine silk tulle veil was lovely in its simplicity; it was held in place by the Queen's diamond "halo" tiara, made in 1936 by Cartier. The shield-shaped bouquet comprised lily-of-the-valley, hyacinth, sweet William and myrtle, the herb of love – picked at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, where Queen Victoria herself planted a sprig from her own wedding posy.
Manchester-born Burton, 36, has had quite a year. Only months after Alexander McQueen himself died, she succeeded him as the artistic force behind his label. News first broke that she might be responsible for the design of Middleton's dress in March, but was repeatedly denied.
"It's been the experience of a lifetime working with Catherine Middleton to create her wedding dress," Burton said. "I have enjoyed every minute of it."