If I had legs like Kate's mum, I'd flaunt them too... but does her daughter (and Her Maj) approve?

Should you have seen Kate Middleton's most recent evening dress in a shop window, your thoughts might have gone something like this: 'Wow! Which quietly elegant creature is going to wear that full-length, gunmetal gown?

'A sophisticated, stylish, well-heeled middle-aged woman on her way to a party, perhaps?' And what about the shiny, coral-coloured mini-dress in which her mother flashed acres of toned, tanned flesh?

On a mannequin, it would suggest itself as the perfect outfit for a confident, single twenty-something on a night out. Confusing, isn't it?

The long and short of it: Carole Middleton [L], mother of Prince William's girlfriend, Kate Middleton [R], arriving at a 'Art For Starlight Charity' do, upstaged her compartively modestly dressed daughter by wearing a short, red satin dress
The long and short of it: Carole Middleton [L], mother of Prince William's girlfriend, Kate Middleton [R], arriving at a 'Art For Starlight Charity' do, upstaged her compartively modestly dressed daughter by wearing a short, red satin dress

The long and short of it: Carole Middleton (l) at the Art For Starlight charity event, in a coral minidress, and daughter Kate in floor-length gunmetal grey

When Kate and her mother, Carole, stepped out together for a charity auction to raise funds for the Starlight Children's Foundation on Sunday night, it was as though 27-year-old Kate and Carole  -  who at 54 is exactly twice her age  -  had done a frock swap, a body swap and a role swap all in one.

Conservative Kate was playing at serious grown-up for once, hosting her own table at the event, while businesswoman Carole was her daughter's guest.

In a scene reminiscent of Eddy and Saffy from the TV series Absolutely Fabulous, serene Kate looked almost dowdy next to her bare-legged mum.

Looking at those pictures of pared-down Kate and pumped-up Mrs Middleton, I couldn't help wondering whether Carole had done it again.

Did she commit a social gaffe to rival the one when she was spotted chewing gum at Prince William's passing-out parade at Sandhurst, in the presence of The Queen?

Faux pas? Carole, 54, here with husband Michael Middleton, has gained a bit of a reputation for committing social gaffes

Faux pas? Carole, 54, here with husband Michael Middleton, has gained something of a reputation for social gaffes

Does her decision to wear a frock that looks as though it was designed for the new series of Strictly Come Dancing equal the faux pas of uttering 'Pleased to meet you' when she was introduced to Her Majesty?

Or has she struck a blow for all sassy, still sexy fifty-plus women for whom a night on the tiles is a chance to show that hot flushes and hot-to-trot are not mutually exclusive?

If you were to criticise Carole Middleton strictly in terms of style, you could, I suppose, argue that her super-shiny dress is the rather unfortunate shade of farmed salmon, and that it could most certainly have been underpinned with a more flattering bra.

And while one-shoulder dresses are in vogue, Carole's looked rather as though it had been draped with the winner's sash in a seaside beauty contest.

Kate hosted her own table at the event, while businesswoman Carole was her guest

Kate hosted her own table at the event, while mother Carole was her guest

But there's no denying Carole Middleton's fabulous figure and sensational legs, and a part of me wants to applaud her for proudly displaying her wares in a too-short skirt in a colour that is neither safe black nor boring beige - the can'tgo-wrong colours that are the refuge of middle-aged women up and down the land.

So what on earth is a woman of a certain age supposed to do?

As if it's not hard enough to find new clothes that flatter once you get to 50, there's the endless internal debate about whether your 'mutton radar' is working properly, or whether you simply look ridiculous in your outfit of choice.

I'm sure Carole Middleton, whose dress looked suspiciously like a £160 number from Karen Millen, is no more immune to this sartorial tightrope than the rest of us.

Are leggings a no-no? How short is too short? Are ankle boots fashion suicide for the older woman?

I know this dilemma all too well myself. A couple of decades ago, in Paris, I saw a woman who must have been in her late 40s or early 50s wearing a leather biker jacket, looking wonderfully chic, and I've hankered for one ever since.

But I've always resisted on the grounds that I don't have a Harley and that 'ageing rock chick' is not a good look.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I walked into my dream biker jacket - a more subtle version of the authentic thing - in Whistles.

At first, I was embarrassed even to try it on in case the shop assistant would think me a pathetic specimen. But she'd already, to my amusement, mistaken the leather dog lead slung around my hips for a cool belt, so she clearly had me marked as something of a swinger.

I tried the jacket on and loved it, but only agreed to fork out an eyewatering three hundred and fifty quid after she told me I had two weeks in which to bring it back for a full refund.

So I made it clear that if either my boyfriend or my sister said I looked ridiculous, I would bring it straight back. She nodded indulgently. In the event, I've barely taken off my biker jacket since, and I feel great every time I wear it.

Judging by the way Mrs Middleton strutted down the street without even a shawl to cover herself on Sunday evening, Carole in coral felt great, too.

There is another factor in this debate, of course. And that is whether or not you have a grownup daughter to compete against when you go out on the town.

In the case of mother-daughter relationships, what you wear in the presence of your offspring is not only to do with feeling good about yourself, it's also about how the way in which you dress makes your daughter feel.

I wonder if Kate  - who was in a £765 frock from Issa - looked at her mum on Sunday night and genuinely thought she looked fabulous, or whether she secretly wished she'd toned things down a bit. If that's the way it was, would she have had the courage to say so?

For a woman in her 50s, especially one with a good figure, it can be hard to accept the fact you have beautiful daughters who, by rights, should take centre stage.

Perhaps the two are secure enough in their relationship for these things not to matter  -  however, theirs is no longer an entirely private relationship, is it?

If Kate does marry Prince William, will Carole, like Princess Michael the other week, want to be the star of the show at the wedding? Or will she accept some friendly advice and a back seat?

In observing mother/daughter relationships  -  and as the mother of a son, but no daughters  -  I'm endlessly fascinated by this dynamic, especially once the daughters hit puberty.

I remember with a shudder talking to one woman at a party a few years ago and inquiring about her daughter, whom I knew slightly.

'Poor Rebecca,' said the mother. 'She's put on so much weight since her periods started.'

And as she said it, she ran her hands over her own stomach and hips, encased in a skin-tight dress, and continued: 'Of course, she takes after her father when it comes to weight.' No wonder Rebecca left home at 17.

On the other hand, I know mothers and daughters who happily swap clothes and shop together.

And having seen Kate and her mum snapped walking down the street side by side, laughing and smiling and wearing identical jeans, I think it's likely that Kate doesn't waste too much time feeling insecure about her mother's dress style, (although I bet Carole sometimes suggests to Kate that she should jazz things up a bit).

If Kate Middleton was just some party girl, what her mother wore really wouldn't matter.

But Kate is likely to be Queen one day, and I rather imagine that the sight of Carole hoving into view in that short, shiny salmon confection may have given the royals a nasty case of the social jitters.

She has already been dubbed Mrs Meddleton, thanks to scurrilous rumours that she sent her elder daughter to St Andrews University to bag herself a prince.

Now, the snobs who cruelly nicknamed the resolutely middle-class Carole 'doors to manual', in reference to her former job as an air stewardess, will no doubt view her wardrobe with the same contempt.

Coral happens to be my least favourite colour. But I'd kill for Carole's legs. And if I had them, I'd show them off. With pride. Even if they do look a bit more orange than the rest of her.

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