Was it the black Armand Basi bubble dress with the yellow flower brooch? The cunning orange sheath with the pleated waist that she wore to receive the heir to the Japanese throne? Or the one-shouldered white cocktail number that she paired this summer in Mallorca with the chunky necklace? It wasn't that long ago that Letizia Ortiz, 37, tended to dress in the anchorwoman's power blazers and pastel cardigans. But somewhere along the line, the former journalist has become a fashion icon, coming in number two on Vanity Fair's renowned Best Dressed List for 2009. That's what being princess of Spain or at least getting used to the role will do for a person.
"Letizia always had personality, even when she was just a journalist," says Jesus Maria Montes-Fernandez, a prominent fashion journalist in Spain. "But when she first married Felipe she was too fearful of her new role, too afraid to make a mistake. Her clothes then were very strait-laced."
The scrutiny of Letizia's fashion sense began with the announcement, in November 2003, of her engagement to Felipe de Borbon, heir to the Spanish throne (press opinion on the white Armani suit she wore for the occasion was divided, but the suit reportedly sold out of Spanish stores within days). Once they married in 2004 and she became a princess, Letizia frequently chose sober suits in neutral colors and evening gowns (see one forest green number worn to a 2006 state dinner for Vladimir Putin) that made her look like a very expensively upholstered sofa. But even at the beginning, there was the occasional breakout number: in fact, she made her debut on the royal circuit by wearing a sexily form-fitting red Lorenzo Caprile to Frederic of Denmark's wedding just one week before her own.
These days, there's a lot more of that sort of thing. She appeared at a 2008 state dinner for Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in a raspberry-colored silk blouse and matching organza skirt. She's taken to pairing well-cut trousers with bright, ethnic print blouses this summer. And she recently gave the famously well-dressed Carla Bruni a run for her money, when she received the French first lady in a plum Felipe Varela bandage-dress whose horizontal lines emphasized (in the most ladylike way possible, of course) her fine figure.
"She's much more sure of herself now," says Montes-Fernandez. "Her clothing is still elegant, but it's more contemporary, even semi-daring for a princess. She's feels more comfortable with herself in the role, and her clothing reflects that."
There is one thing, however, that has not changed. If Letizia now dresses in brighter colors, tighter silhouettes, and with greater overall flair, she remains true to her signature high heel. Seldom photographed in anything lower than 3 inches, she is famous for her devotion to peep toes and platforms. So constant is that devotion, in fact, that when the princess wore ballet flats to a royal audience with students this summer, the gossip magazine Hola put the story at the top of its website. Whether her affection for the high heel is a fashion preference, or a necessity dictated by her husband's 6' 5.5" (197 cms) height, remains a state secret.
Spaniards are reveling in their princess' new status as fashion icon. "She has done more for Spanish fashion in the past five years than decades of catwalks and advertisements," writes Maria Jose Iglesias, a journalist whose columns appear in regional papers throughout Spain. The local edition of Elle magazine agrees; in May it ran a special issue on Letizia, declaring her "the best ambassador of Spanish fashion."
It wasn't always thus. Letizia's status as a commoner, as well as her previous marriage to school teacher Alonso Guerrero, offended some of the old guard in Spain. And the hothouse world of the fashion and celebrity press has criticized her for changing her hairstyle too often, speculated on whether the pressures of the palace have driven her to anorexia, and weighed in cattily when news broke that the princess had submitted to rhinoplasty in order, in the palace's version, "to correct a breathing problem." (Thankfully, everyone seems to agree these days that the surgery has flatteringly softened her features.)
Now that she has some practice and better outfits under her belt, Letizia's approval ratings have climbed (the fact that she has fulfilled her one non-negotiable duty as consort by producing two heirs, the equally well-dressed Leonor, nearly 4 years old, and Sofia, 2, didn't hurt either). In these vicissitudes, of course, Letizia bears a certain resemblance to another famed royal. But don't be looking for her to be taking on the mantle of Diana of Wales anytime soon, warns Montes-Fernandez. "For one thing, Letizia tends to focus on cultural issues rather than humanitarian ones," the journalist notes. "And besides, Lady Di was utterly unique."