Meet the woman behind the dress

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kate middleton dress auction
Photo: Extravaganzi

A dress has the ability to transfix the minds of millions. Keira Knightley’s green gown in Atonement, Marilyn Monroe’s flouncy white skirts, Jessica Rabbit’s skintight fuchsia ensemble: all reside comfortably within the pop culture sphere, both praised and parodied in the many years since their big screen debuts.

Although clothes are often tailored to suit the star, many dresses attract notoriety in their own right. Actress Elizabeth Hurley first achieved recognition as the wearer of Versace’s seminal work, a slinky silk cocktail gown that encapsulated new age feminism. Lady Gaga’s meat dress would have made headlines regardless of who formed the bread in that sandwich, just as Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack mini-dress requires no context to be viewed as a symbol of British pride.

In 2002, the St Andrews student body witnessed the formation of a new sartorial star, shining on the runway of the first DONT WALK Charity Fashion Show. This dress would remain our university’s secret until several years later, when the media unearthed photographs of the show. Clad in black lace and ribbons, Kate Middleton was, at the time, a mere student; when the dress was finally identified, her face could be found on every magazine in the country, and her clothing choices were legendary.

kate middleton dress fashion show
Photo: Extravaganzi

Easily the most daring outfit in the Duchess’s history, the dress became the watershed moment in the fable of Will and Kate. Tabloids erroneously identified DONT WALK as the setting of the future couple’s introduction, while others claimed the dress eradicated the final vestiges of their previously platonic relationship. Regardless of the true story, this dress has unquestionably assumed a position alongside the giants of pop culture fashion. The Saint spoke to Charlotte Todd, the designer behind the Duchess’ bold number.

In 2001, Ms Todd graduated from the University of the West of England. After completing a degree in fashion and textiles, she left university with a dress made as part of her second year coursework. “It was just a sample piece of knitting work,” she recalled. “I was using a knit machine and very fine silk thread. The thread kept breaking, and my stitches would drop. […] The fabric would drop off the bottom of the machine. I must have started it three or four times. It was never intended to be seen or shown, really.”

Ms Todd’s early designs took inspiration from The Art of Seduction, resulting in a collection of sheer, gauzy garments on display at London’s annual New Designers Exhibition. Here, they caught the eye of the fledgling DONT WALK Charity Fashion Show.

After being contacted by the committee, Ms Todd gathered a selection of her pieces for the show’s use, galvanised upon learning that Prince William would be in attendance. The see-through dress soon made its fateful pilgrimage to St Andrews. “I knitted the garment intending it to be worn as a long skirt and placed over a silk or satin underskirt or lining,” Ms Todd said. “I researched both gemstones and precious jewels, which led to me using shimmery, metallic and silky threads. I wanted the overall look to be sheer and iridescent.” Materials cost between £20 and £30: a paltry sum for what was then no more than an assignment.

Nine years later, the dress sold for £78,000 at auction.

“I don’t think I really realised what was happening until that first bid of £25,000,” Ms Todd said. “That was life changing money for me and my husband. The build-up to it was such a blur, and the day before the auction, I did 28 interviews with press from all over the world. But I will never forget that moment.”

After using the money to put down a deposit on her family’s first house, Ms Todd now focuses on her young daughters. She said: “I love textiles and have a keen interest in fashion still, but I’m not the kind of person who would be any good at making a career out of it.” It feels very strange that I can now Google my name and see images of myself [with the dress]. I feel very proud, but also very uncomfortable, when people mention that it was down to me and my dress that the future king and queen got together! It was all just down to a piece of luck after all.”

Ms Todd also discussed seeing the dress in the American Museum in Britain. She said: “It was displayed as a piece of royal fashion history in a glass cabinet, and all my friends and family got to see it. I did get very emotional then. I feel unbelievably lucky that my dress was in the right place at the right time that night.” I’m under no illusion that it was chosen because it was the greatest piece of fashion or textile design. It was, after all, just a tubular piece of knitting.”

Whether the result of luck or skill, the dress continues to transfix the world. Reproduced for multiple films and mentioned everywhere from Vogue to Vanity Fair, it remains a powerful piece of the royal romance mythos. Ms Todd concluded: “It’s nice that I have a bit of a legacy to leave on this world for my children.”

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