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Meghan Markle Plays the Royal Fashion Long Game

As she begins her new life as a royal, Meghan Markle’s fashion has become, inevitably, more conservative. How it evolves will reveal much about her, and how she wishes to be seen.

Max Mumby/Indigo

On May 19, Meghan Markle took Prince Harry’s hand in marriage and officially became the Duchess of Sussex. She walked down the aisle in a Givenchy by Clare Waight Keller gown with a veil that had the seals of every country in the commonwealth embroidered on it.

She chose a gown designed by a woman, and given her feminist principles, this move wasn’t just a coincidence. Markle would follow up her Givenchy dress with a stunning halter neck gown by Stella McCartney later on for the reception.

Ever since then fashion watchers have craned to see what Markle’s sartorial choices are, and what they tell us about her. Being the first woman of color to marry into the British royal family, Markle is dressing for a role that has never existed, and is held to a standard of scrutiny that no other member of the royal family has been before.

Certainly, in the four weeks since the wedding, an inevitable conservatism has emerged: Markle is now a royal, and must dress—for relentlessly critical eyes—accordingly. At Royal Ascot this week, she wore a white belted shirt-dress (again by Keller).

Last weekend she wore a patterned Oscar de La Renta wrap dress for a country wedding that looked fussy and ill-fitting—not helped by her having to negotiate a rural pathway. At the Trooping of the Color she bared her shoulders in a blush pink dress. Every dress thus far has had fans and detractors.

The colors of the new royal bride’s wardrobe have been neutrals—white, tan, light pink—and nothing showy. Markle’s intention is seemingly to look as demure as possible, especially when next to her new buddy—the always-bright, always-bold queen.

British designer Jacques Azagury, who dressed Princess Diana for 20 years, thinks that Markle is cultivating her image well.

“She’s been very sensible in her choices. She’s used to the public and paparazzi as an actress, so she knows what the part requires,” he said. “What she has to be careful of though is that everything is well made. You could see the hemline on that crème dress she wore for her first appearance after the wedding. It wasn’t well made. It’s fine to dress on the high street, but choose wisely before you go in front of the cameras.”

Azagury doesn’t think there has been enough messaging in her fashion choices yet. “She’s just happy to have been given the role of duchess,” he said. “She’s going to be playing the role, and there’s less pressure on her and Harry in the way they are trying to form their image. They are trying to be the ‘new’ royals. They aren’t getting rid of etiquette, but are giving it a more relaxed feel. They are sort of carrying on the Princess Diana theme of ‘the people’s couple’ where people can relate to them.”

As for what Azagury thinks we can expect from her future fashion choices, he said, “I think she’ll be playing her choices by ear. She’ll be very conventional with her choices depending on the venue and country, and she’ll most likely be supporting more British designers.”

Fashion editor and writer Sherri Caudell thinks that Markle has been very statement-making with her choices, even in the subtlest of ways. “She hasn’t been conforming to royal standards so strictly, which shows how secure she is as a woman,” she says. “There are implications to her not conforming to royal traditions, but she is making statements about women’s rights, and she’s not your normal aristocrat. She’s biracial and of American heritage, which is exciting for people to see. She is showing people how to stay true to your individual style, which always works best. Anything else will come off as fake.”

She’s showing how personal style can communicate courage and a sense of confidence, where you can both embrace tradition and inform new ones. You don’t have to lose who you are because you are stepping into a new role.

Caudell also sees great things in store for her future fashion choices. “I think she will take the Michelle Obama approach to dressing, where she’ll wear certain designers suited for the occasion and based on the country she is visiting,” she said. “She also does this great thing where she wears British and American designers together, and she’s begun wearing Philip Treacy hats. She’s very aware of the audience she is catering to, which is great because she’s had to get used to things very quickly.”

There are comparisons made between her and Princess Diana, who struggled with how to present herself at first, but we live in a very different time because our world is so hyper-visual.
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In terms of her messaging, Caudell sees how her fashion choices speak further than just her words as well. “She’s blazing her own trail as a royal,” she says. “She’s showing how personal style can communicate courage and a sense of confidence, where you can both embrace tradition and inform new ones. You don’t have to lose who you are because you are stepping into a new role.”

Hazel Clark, professor of fashion studies at Parsons, believes Markle is “distinct because she has a background as an actress, so she’s used to presenting herself for the cameras. There are comparisons made between her and Princess Diana, who struggled with how to present herself at first, but we live in a very different time because our world is so hyper-visual.”

Markle and her fashion choices can even help rehabilitate the image of the royal family, Clark said.

“They have embraced someone who is quite different. She’s a commoner, she’s divorced, and she’s biracial. But, it’s evident that the queen is including her and embracing her. With Prince Philip out of the public eye, if Meghan Markle attends events in public with the queen that really does just speak in a different way to the public and populace.

“Her garments will be very wearable but won’t speak of privilege,” Clark predicted. “She will probably take the approach Michelle Obama did where she wears designer names, but also much more familiar brands. However, it’s important for her to be seen as ‘one of us.’ Her everyday life resonates with people. She knows how to reference what’s current in fashion without being ostentatious.”