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How Kate Middleton’s £30 see-through dress changed royal history

She has the model’s gait down to a tee. Turning around, hips swinging, Kate Middleton glides serenely along the wooden catwalk during the Student Charity Fashion Show at the Fairmont St Andrews hotel.

Aged 20, she was sassy and confident, but it was the dress that those present on the night of March 27, 2002, will for ever remember. A see-through creation – or a ‘tarty teabag’, as one commentator bitchily called it – revealing her lithe figure and black underwear.

This lace slip, that cost just £30 to make, was credited with kick-starting an intriguing love story.

Few were better placed to enjoy the finer points of Kate’s performance than an open-mouthed Prince William. He’d paid £200 for a seat at a candlelit table inches from the runway, later declaring it was money well spent.

Few were better placed to enjoy the finer points of Kate’s performance than an open-mouthed Prince William. He’d paid £200 for a seat at a candlelit table inches from the runway, later declaring it was money well spent

Until that night, he thought of solid, dependable Kate only as a sympathetic and sensible friend. For it was her wise counsel which had helped him through his first-term ‘wobble’ when he felt miserable and was torturing himself about whether to quit the university at the Scottish seaside town.

During her daily routine, Kate rarely deviated from what one friend described as ‘a very public school look of Ralph Lauren shirts, V-neck jumpers and jeans’.

Yet here she was, a butterfly emerging from chrysalis, leaving little to the imagination.

As she sashayed past, 19-year-old William apparently turned to his Old Etonian friend Fergus Boyd, now a financier and godfather to Prince George, and is said to have observed over the pounding music: ‘Wow! Kate’s hot!’ – a curious remark given that she was already widely known at St Andrews as Beautiful Kate.

Others recall the teenage Prince expressing his admiration in ‘earthier language’.

Accounts of what happened at an after-show party vary. It is generally agreed that, having had a bit to drink, William complimented Kate lavishly, then made a clumsy pass: a kiss on the hand, according to one account; a bolder move, in another version, with him ‘leaning in’ for an amorous ‘smacker’.

Either way, Kate decorously rebuffed him.

Nevertheless, it marked a turning point in what had always been a platonic friendship, and within a few weeks both had quietly dropped their respective partners.

They had both started at the university six months earlier, and the Prince had already identified Kate as a possible flatmate for the house-share he was putting together for his second year. They got on well and shared an interest in sport and the outdoors, as well as a ‘naughty’ sense of humour.

Crucially, too, for the Queen’s grandson, Kate was someone he could trust.

A see-through creation – or a ‘tarty teabag’, as one commentator bitchily called it – revealing her lithe figure and black underwear

A see-through creation – or a ‘tarty teabag’, as one commentator bitchily called it – revealing her lithe figure and black underwear

It is more than likely they would have got together anyway but their mutual friends – key bit-part players in the Royal romance and all present at the fashion show – concede that the dress stirred William’s interest and made him see the Berkshire-born beauty ‘in a different light’.

The dress had been borrowed by the organisers of the DONT WALK charity gala, a St Andrews fund-raising effort for the families of victims of 9/11, the atrocity that clouded the start of term the previous September.

DONT WALK was taken from the apostrophe-free pedestrian crossing signs in New York. Hundreds of students volunteered to help, and one managed to pull in Yves Saint Laurent as a sponsor.

Charlotte Todd had designed Kate’s outfit for a project appropriately called ‘the art of seduction’. Together with the passage of time, the fashion show’s place in Kate and William’s story has made it seem as though she alone wore a risque creation that night – and did so with the sole intention of catching the eye of the future King’s – when, in truth, lingerie was something of a theme.

Kate’s outfit was designed for a project called “the art of seduction”

Head teacher’s daughter Rebecca Emmerson-Keeler, 20, for instance, reading English and philosophy, showed off underwear and suspenders during her catwalk appearance, while international relations student Ana Martiningui from Sao Paulo, Brazil, appeared in little more than a silk slip and high heels.

Another student, Jenny Lederer from Boston, Massachusetts, said of the packed hall that night: ‘A lot of girls here are like “I’m here to meet the Prince and marry the future King of England”, and that’s kind of their whole purpose for being here. I am lucky enough to share my social anthropology lectures with him.’

Others spoke of the chaotic scenes backstage. Designer Charlotte, who later decided against a career in fashion and worked at Bristol aquarium, recalled: ‘I didn’t know who Kate Middleton was and I didn’t put her in it. It was just pure chance.

‘I made it as a skirt, but others pulled it up on Kate and she wore it as a dress. Maybe if it hadn’t been see-through, William might not have noticed her.’

For years afterwards, the dress remained at the back of a wardrobe at Charlotte’s mother’s home. Charlotte said she realised its significance only when the couple announced their engagement in November 2010.

Then there was Carley Massy-Birch from Devon, William’s first proper girlfriend in St Andrews

Then there was Carley Massy-Birch from Devon, William’s first proper girlfriend in St Andrews

‘The dress is a part of fashion history – the moment William could first have fallen in love with Kate – and that makes me really proud,’ she said. ‘That picture has been used so much over the years. I always wonder whether Kate is embarrassed about it, or liked it.’

At the time, Charlotte said she was reluctant to part with the dress, hoping it might be put in a future collection of Kate’s Royal outfits, saying the only person she’d give it to was Kate – ‘maybe in exchange for a wedding invitation’.

Sadly, none was forthcoming and Charlotte sold it at auction in 2011. To her astonishment, the bidding reached £78,000, which she used for a deposit on a house. The new owner, an anonymous memorabilia collector from Jersey, said it was ‘of historical importance – probably more important than Queen Victoria’s bloomers’.

The communal home of William and Kate and their friends was St Salvator’s Hall of residence in the heart of the university campus. It was there, on the weekend of his arrival, the young Prince had found himself surrounded by upper crusts with whom he would form lasting friendships. Some he knew already. As well as Fergus Boyd there was Ollie Chadwyck-Healey, another Old Etonian.

Meanwhile, in the girls’ wing of ‘Sallies’, as the students called it, Kate’s friends included Lady Virginia Fraser, daughter of Lord Strathalmond, an underwriter for Lloyd’s. Lady Virginia would soon pair off with Chadwyck-Healey, eventually marrying in 2012.

At first, there seemed little prospect of romance developing between William and Kate, not least because they were both dating other people.

When he arrived in St Andrews, William, having gone out with Beaufort Hunt master’s daughter Rose Farquhar the previous year, had just enjoyed a summer romance with Arabella Musgrave, daughter of Cirencester Polo Club manager Major Nicholas Musgrave.

Then there was Carley Massy-Birch from Devon, William’s first proper girlfriend in St Andrews.

Kate, meanwhile, was seeing fourth-year law student Rupert Finch, a handsome sportsman whom many friends considered her perfect match. But the fashion show changed everything

Kate, meanwhile, was seeing fourth-year law student Rupert Finch, a handsome sportsman whom many friends considered her perfect match. But the fashion show changed everything

She was in the year above him, an English language and creative writing student whose bottom, friends used to joke, ‘had been sculpted by the gods’. They met when William auditioned for the role of Zooey in a play based on JD Salinger’s Franny And Zooey.

‘William was very taken with her, which was completely understandable,’ said one of her friends.

Carley later said: ‘I’m a real country bumpkin, I think that’s why we had a connection.’ She added: ‘It’s such a small place that it was impossible not to bump into William, and after a while there was nothing weird about seeing him around.

‘We got on well, but I think we would have got on well even if there had been nothing going on romantically. It was very much a university thing – just a regular university romance.’

Kate, meanwhile, was seeing fourth-year law student Rupert Finch, a handsome sportsman whom many friends considered her perfect match. But the fashion show changed everything.

William, bored with his art history course, had switched to geography and became more settled, enjoying an element of freedom he hadn’t had in England. Locals got used to seeing him shopping at Tesco, on one occasion emerging with a 12-pack of toilet roll.

As 2002 rolled by, William and Kate fell in love and, later that year, with Fergus Boyd and another friend, Olivia Bleasdale, the foursome moved into a grey stone Edwardian house in the centre of town.

William and Kate were careful not to appear as a couple in public. They rarely left the house at the same time and observed a strict no holding hands rule when out. All pretence was abandoned, however, behind closed doors and in the company of their most trusted friends. 

As 2002 rolled by, William and Kate fell in love and, later that year, with Fergus Boyd and another friend, Olivia Bleasdale, the foursome moved into a grey stone Edwardian house in the centre of town

 As 2002 rolled by, William and Kate fell in love and, later that year, with Fergus Boyd and another friend, Olivia Bleasdale, the foursome moved into a grey stone Edwardian house in the centre of town

Then, in their third year, Kate and William secured more privacy when they moved into a rented cottage on the Strathtyrum Estate just outside St Andrews, which was owned by Sir Henry Cheape, a friend of the Royal Family. For the sake of appearances, perhaps, two of their closest friends, Ally Coutts-Wood and Oliver Baker, joined them.

Yet before the end of their third year, the secret would be out.

While a media blackout on William’s comings-and-goings held at St Andrews, skiing holidays at Klosters were a different matter.

It was in April 2004 that the couple were photographed there, gazing adoringly at each other.

The ‘just good friends’ line would no longer wash.

But with Kate thrust into the limelight, her background scrutinised unsparingly, the relationship suffered its first serious setback that summer as William made a series of holiday arrangements which did not involve Kate.

The secret was out. The “just good friends” line would no longer wash 

Returning despondent to Berkshire for the summer, Kate followed her wise mother’s advice to give William some space.

Reports at the time suggested that Kate delivered a series of ultimatums. Not true, recalled one of her friends last week. ‘Kate was way too cool to do something like that,’ she said.

Instead, Kate let it slip that she was thinking of moving out of the Strathtyrum cottage for her final year. She even looked at a rented flat in Hope Street with her friend Bryony Daniels, who is now a successful hatmaker. The strategy clearly worked. The couple were back under the same roof at Strathtyrum for their fourth year.

At the Class of 2005’s graduation ceremony, the university’s then principal, Dr Brian Lang, told students in his speech that they had been studying at the nation’s top matchmaking university. ‘You may have met your husband or wife,’ he speculated, mischievously.

William, in a £29.50 hired gown, was said to be too nervous to walk across the auditorium to collect his degree. Instead, he popped up on the stage via a side door. As his name – William Wales – was announced, he walked forward with head bowed.

In primrose yellow, the Queen, who had never attended the graduation of a close family member before and ignored a heavy cold to travel, could not hide her pride.

Charles kissed his son warmly and patted him on the back before William scurried off to congratulate Kate, looking glamorous in heels and black skirt. Needless to say that on this auspicious occasion, the skirt, though on the short side, was tastefully opaque.


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