For Meghan Markle, royal fashion carries some risks. Is this L.A. girl up to it?
If selecting an outfit is a daily challenge for many of us, consider for a moment the pressures of being part of the royal family. Sure, you have a phalanx of designers fighting to dress you, but that doesn’t ease the burden, given that every ensemble must appear not only regal but relatable as well as comfortable yet stylish — all while adhering to an archaic set of royal protocols that vary by season, location and event.
It’s enough to make even the most blue-blooded aristocrat weep into her hat, let alone a born-and-bred California girl with more use for a Panama hat than a pillbox. However, Meghan Markle, the Los Angeles-born actress and former “Suits” star set to wed Britain’s Prince Harry May 19, has tackled the challenge of royal dressing with aplomb since news broke of the couple’s engagement last November. She has displayed a smart sense of style that is elegant and authentic during her first flurry of official royal outings, although there has been the occasional sartorial hiccup along the way.
“She looks good,” said Moroccan-born fashion designer Jacques Azagury, who dressed Diana, Princess of Wales, during a recent interview, “She hasn’t made any great statements, but I think that’s probably done on purpose.”
Just a few weeks ago, for example, Markle, 36, opted to wear a bespoke black skirt suit from one of the Duchess of Cambridge’s favorite designers, Emilia Wickstead, while attending a service commemorating soldiers from New Zealand and Australia at Westminster Abbey in London. Although the calf-length hemline threatened to overwhelm Markle’s slim silhouette, the Jackie Onassis-inspired cropped jacket teamed with a tailored pencil skirt turned out to be not only a sophisticated choice but an intelligent one — given that Wickstead was born in New Zealand.
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Similarly, during her first official visit to Scotland in February, Meghan wore a Burberry coat in green tartan paired with a purse from Scottish label Strathberry, an ensemble clearly intended to pay homage to the host country.
“Diplomatic dressing, or literal dressing, is a feature of royal dress going back centuries,” said fashion historian Eleri Lynn, who curated the “Diana: Her Fashion Story” exhibition at Kensington Palace.
When it comes to clothes, the English have been navigating a complex set of guidelines since the Middle Ages when King Edward III first introduced a series of laws governing what citizens were permitted to wear according to their socioeconomic status. Today, certain events such as Royal Ascot, the most prestigious horse race of the summer season, are still subject to dress codes so dictatorial they stipulate how narrow a woman’s dress straps may be (“one inch or greater”).
Another of Diana’s couturiers, Bruce Oldfield, who’s clothing some of the guests for Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding, believes royal dress codes have loosened a little over the last quarter century. “It is more relaxed [today] than it was even when I was dressing the princess,” he said, referring to Diana who married Prince Charles in 1981. “But it would still be quite different, I suppose, from the day to day dress of a Los Angelean.”
Which is why, perhaps, there has been the occasional slip-up. Take the Ralph & Russo gown Markle chose for her engagement photo shoot with Harry, for one. The gown, which featured a sheer bodice covered only in strategically stitched gold thread, raised eyebrows. Also, a shoulder-baring dress from Altuzarra, worn without pantyhose, sparked comment from royal watchers when Markle accompanied Harry, 33, to a conference during an unseasonably hot April week.
According to Richard Dennen, editor of British society magazine Tatler, Markle has nothing to worry about. “I don’t even think upper-class English girls get it right in the 21st century,” he said. “The rule book for everything has been ripped up.”
Which is why other supposed fashion faux pas, such as Markle’s now signature messy bun or her penchant for cross-body purses instead of clutch bags (leaving her arms free to hug well-wishers in the crowds), could instead be read as a way of communicating her personality now that she can no longer rely on speaking directly to fans on social media or her lifestyle blog, the Tig, which she shuttered ahead of the engagement announcement last year.
It was a technique often employed by Diana, who didn’t hesitate to abandon her hats and gloves if it meant she could better interact with members of the public. “She said, ‘You can’t cuddle a child in a hat,’” Lynn said. “A lot of her fashion was about expressing approachability and warmth.”
Similarly Queen Elizabeth II, although fastidious about royal protocol, dresses in bright colors to ensure she can easily be seen by the crowds who camp out to catch a glimpse of her. She always uses a clear umbrella when it rains during official engagements for the same reason.
“It’s a very business-like approach to the Queen and her wardrobe,” said costume designer Jane Petrie, who researched royal dress for her work on the Netflix series “The Crown.” “The Queen’s hat never comes off on a windy day. Her skirts don’t blow up,” Petrie said. “It’s managed better than we [the costume department] do it, and our job, in filmmaking, is to make sure things like that don’t go wrong during the action.”
Such considerations are why royal excursions require a lot more homework than a mere sashay down the red carpet, but Markle’s background will put her in good stead. “She’s got huge experience of how to dress and how to look from all her time being an actress and being on the red carpet,” Azagury said. “She’s playing a princess now. So she’s adapting to that.”
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