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The extraordinary story of how two powerful women fell out, apparently terminally, over a fitting for a child’s dress for a wedding once again transfixed the world this week.
The women in question, of course, are Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, and the tale blew up again with investigative journalist Tom Bower writing in his new book, Revenge: Meghan, Harry and the War Between the Windsors, once again about the saga, and once again pinning the blame firmly on Meghan. That this story never appears to end neatly encapsulates the exhausting levels of dysfunction at the heart of the royal family—and the media fascination that attends it.
As a reminder, the initial version of the story, that appeared in U.K. papers via the Daily Telegraph’s respected royal correspondent Camilla Tominey, was that during a bridesmaids’ fitting ahead of Meghan and Prince Harry’s wedding in 2018, Meghan made Kate cry in a heated argument over whether or not the bridesmaids, who included Kate’s daughter, Charlotte, should wear tights. Kate thought they should, as per royal convention; Meghan did not want them to.
The gossipy vignette, which didn’t surface until six months after the wedding, would likely have soon been forgotten had not Meghan brought it up during her and Harry’s bombshell Oprah Winfrey interview.
In the program, Meghan said the incident had been “a turning point” in the relationship, saying: “[Kate] made me cry, and it really hurt my feelings.” She added that Kate sent her flowers and a note afterwards to apologize having “owned” her part in the incident, and that she had “forgiven her”—but that when neither Kate nor the palace stepped in to correct the record when the Telegraph story first appeared, she realized the palace machinery was not there to protect or defend her.
Here’s a sample of the dialogue with Oprah that ensued:
Meghan: Everyone in the institution knew it wasn’t true.
Oprah: So, why didn’t somebody just say that?
Meghan: That’s a good question.
In an article for Harper’s Bazaar, Omid Scobie, who co-authored the sympathetic Harry and Meghan biography Finding Freedom, wrote that in January 2020, soon after the couple had announced their exit from the royal family, Kensington Palace asked Harry to sign a statement denouncing a report that claimed William had “constantly bullied” the Sussexes in the preceding months.
Meghan’s reply is instructive: “Well, if we’re just throwing any statement out there now, then perhaps KP can finally set the record straight about me [not making Kate cry],” Meghan emailed an aide, according to Scobie, who cited a source.
That Meghan’s suggestion was high-handedly ignored—“The Duchess of Cambridge, she was told, should never be dragged into idle gossip,” Scobie wrote—is unsurprising to seasoned royal watchers. The hurt feelings of spare heirs or their wives are rarely a priority for the institution.
However it is clear that this story, which should have been highly forgettable, became something of a significant watershed for Meghan.
Indeed, Scobie writes: “Meghan was repeatedly told that it would not be possible to set the record straight,” which suggests that she repeatedly asked for it to be done.
One of the many fascinating things about the story is that it gives a rare insight into just how fast the relationship between Meghan and Kate deteriorated.
Meghan told Oprah that the incident happened “a few days before the wedding” which was on 19 May 2018. Less than six months earlier, over Christmas 2017, William and Kate hosted Harry and Meghan at their Norfolk country home, Anmer Hall.
“Meghan was this go-getting American woman who believed she had an obligation to voice her opinion, and Kate had basically modeled herself on the queen and signed up for a life of duty.”
— Duncan Larcombe
How did things go so wrong so fast? “They were just completely different people,” former royal editor of the Sun Duncan Larcombe told The Daily Beast. “Their styles couldn’t have been more different. Meghan was this go-getting American woman who believed she had an obligation to voice her opinion, and Kate had basically modeled herself on the queen and signed up for a life of duty with the aim of causing the minimum of fuss or controversy. It’s hardly surprising it blew up just a few months later.”
Scobie and Durand made a similar point in Finding Freedom, saying that, “Kate did little to bridge the divide.” One source told Scobie that Kate felt “they didn’t have much in common other than the fact that they lived at Kensington Palace.”
And for all the joyous appearance at Christmas 2017, when the “Fab Four” were photographed happily striding into church together, Kate and Meghan alongside each other, by February 2018 the cracks were starting to show in public.
At a joint appearance for their doomed joint foundation, Harry admitted “working as a family does have its challenges” and joked that disagreements came “so thick and fast” they were hard to keep track of.
In March 2019, in what is now often seen as a final effort to stave off disaster, it was announced that the Cambridge and Sussex offices were dividing, but it was to no avail. In the summer of that year, Harry finally confirmed the feud to ITV interviewer Tom Bradby, after the palace had spent more than a year rubbishing reports of it. Crucially, Meghan confessed to her misery during the same program, Harry & Meghan: An African Journey.
However, the saga of the bridesmaid’s dress came to fatally poison the relationship between the two women, and the episode continues to exert a strange fascination today, as Bower’s latest coverage of the incident reveals. (It may not be dispassionate: Bower himself admitted in an interview with Good Morning Britain that Meghan’s side did not engage with him in the writing of the book and he believes they were warned off cooperating with him by Meghan. Perhaps it is perhaps unsurprising that she comes out poorly.)
“Somehow, an argument over the coverage of the bridesmaid dress incident became an inflection point from which neither side was able to come back.”
Somehow, an argument over the coverage of the bridesmaid dress incident became an inflection point from which neither side was able to come back, revealing everything that went wrong with the relationship between the Sussexes and the Windsors in microcosm.
In this one story we see distilled the stuffy insistence on tradition versus the free-spirited Californian reformer; the brushing aside of the concerns of those who are down the hierarchy; and the goldfish bowl of royal life, where everything has to mean something, where every piddling argument ends up in the papers and where people who are supposed to be working for you are actually working for someone else.
It is quite possible, of course, that they both ended up in tears—especially as Meghan was a few weeks out from getting married and, as we now know, having enormously complicated issues with her father, and Kate was just three weeks postpartum (Prince Louis was born on April 23). Yet still, four years on, the blame game over the bridesmaid’s dress continues—and it is likely that Bower’s book will not be the last word on it.