If you were skimming London’s newspapers a couple of weeks ago, you might have gotten the impression that the city was consumed by mayhem. But a day’s attendance at London’s hottest attraction—the Royal Wedding Dress exhibit at Buckingham Palace—shows that, while London undeniably has serious problems, its strengths remain substantial.
“Kate’s dress,” as everyone calls it, is the gown that Catherine Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, wore in April to marry Prince William, the late Princess Diana’s elder son and the heir to the heir to the throne. The April ceremony in Westminster Abbey attracted huge—and peaceful—crowds, while 2.5 billion people around the world watched on television. To capitalize on such interest in the newest generation of royals, someone hit on the idea of displaying the dress in Buckingham Palace’s State Rooms, which are open from late July through early October, when the Queen summers at Balmoral.
Kate’s dress reflects traditional British qualities: controlled creativity and pride of craftsmanship. Sarah Burton made a garment in the signature style of the late Alexander McQueen, whose London label she manages. (Even as the dress went on display at the palace, record crowds lined up for hours to see McQueen’s own couture collection at New York’s Metropolitan Museum.) The understructure of the dress is expertly manufactured, via padded hips and a bust almost imperceptibly defined with artificial boning. For the bodice and sleeves and to accent the skirt and train, English lacemakers and seamstresses applied a design of emblems of the United Kingdom: the thistle, shamrock, rose, and daffodil. The gown is signature Kate, too. The dress seems form-fitting, yet it defined rather than revealed her form. The only flesh-and-blood Kate that the massive wedding audience saw were her hands and a modest sliver leading to the neck and face. Kate didn’t get lost in her wedding dress, as Diana once did. She remained demurely, confidently private.
Listen to the voices of the British women who make up a good part of the audience circling the platform on which the gown is mounted, and you can appreciate the delicate dance that Kate must perform with her admirers and critics. She must give them enough of herself but not too much. “She’s so slender,” says one woman. “She got lucky up top,” says her companion. The women are also protective, however. They approve of the understated tiara (if there is such a thing) that the Queen lent Kate for the ceremony as “not too overwhelming” and “just right” for the young princess. I didn’t hear catty jokes about how Kate reached her late twenties without ever having much of a real job; she’s certainly got a job now. The public’s good-natured interest in Kate is a sign of how successfully the monarchy has corrected its course after the disastrous Diana and post-Diana years. It’s unlikely that Kate will be taking to the airwaves with personal and marital woes. The royals and the public understand their mistakes and have moved on.
The audience for the dress is global. The palace regularly has to turn away potential customers; as of this writing, tickets are sold out until September 1 and then for every weekend in September. Why do so many people pay the equivalent of nearly $30 a head to see the dress? Perhaps because of the symbolism here: marriage is important, as are order and protocol. These constants are the trademarks of the spiffed-up monarchy, also on display to an audience of thousands every other morning during the Changing of the Guard. No country or city is in danger of failing if it can persuade millions of tourists to spend their dollars and time experiencing its history.
The London tourists are relentless: each day, the geese in St. James’s Park are fed by people speaking every language on the planet. And it’s not just tourists. At the St. Pancras train station in London, from which people make the trip to Paris, France’s border guards do a cursory job of checking passports. In Paris, though, at the Gare du Nord, British guards are vigilant about travelers making the trip in the opposite direction. Why? It’s partly the French being French and the British being British. More important, though, is that once illegals have gotten to London, they have no desire to return to Paris. On the Paris side, would-be Londoners scheme to get across the Channel. They’ve trekked from Africa and Asia across Europe—and they won’t stop before they reach England.
Outside Buckingham Palace, London is still London. On a weekend night, girls celebrating a “hen party”—a bachelorette party, that is—stand outside a Piccadilly club, sporting distinctive headbands. “Are you aware that you have penises in your hair?” asks a policeman affably. “Are you going to wear those on the big day?” The girls giggle. One afternoon, two girls in full face and body niqabs and abayas—Muslim garb—laugh and find their balance, hand in hand, as they disembark from a nausea-inducing ride at the temporary fun fair beside the enormous Ferris wheel called the London Eye.
The violence and thuggery of two weeks before, which led to four deaths—twice the number of British tourists murdered in Florida four months ago after ending up in the wrong neighborhood—were horrific. But the riots got so much attention because they were a spectacular aberration committed by a fraction of a fraction of the population. London, relative to much of the rest of the planet, is still a beacon of First World order, culture, and business. This is a city with a murder rate one-fourth of New York City’s, after all—its lowest in 33 years. Ordinary citizens, too, have aided their neighbors throughout the country. One riot victim in Birmingham, Indian-born store owner Ajay Bhatia, celebrated his new British citizenship last week as he was cleaning up the mess that looters left. “The community here has rallied around me in a way I did not think was possible,” he told Prince William. “That is what being British is about. I love this country. I don’t feel ashamed. I feel proud.” Replied William: “That’s the main thing. This is a wonderful country and we have much to be proud of.”
To be sure, London has an underclass problem, a property-crime problem, and a quality-of-life problem. The city needs to confront these problems head-on. Like New York, it isn’t perfect—and like New York, it bears a special burden because the world depends on it to maintain its success.