Before Meghan Markle’s May wedding to Prince Harry, the expectation that she would raise the royal fashion bar was almost unreasonably high. Given that she’s American, ran a lifestyle blog, and supports indie brands like Mackage and Black Halo, Markle’s admirers hoped she’d use her newfound status as a duchess to give the British royal family a much-needed dose of sartorial flair.
“I think she will become the new face of the royal family,” Katharine Polk, a celebrity stylist and designer, told Racked before Markle’s May 19 nuptials to Prince Harry. “I believe that she will remain true to her style and … not be swayed by the pressures of becoming a royal.”
The excitement over her taste in clothing was tied to the widespread delight at what Markle represented to the British aristocracy. As the first openly mixed-race member of the firm, not to mention a divorcée in her late 30s with a history of charity work, Markle’s entry into the royal family marked a historic shift. The actress was not the blushing bride that 19-year-old Princess Diana was, nor Waity Katie, the snide nickname given to Kate Middleton for spending her single years seemingly waiting for Prince William to propose.
Instead, Markle has been regarded as her own woman, one expected to use the throne for social good and to dress in a way authentic to her identity. Before she got married, she showed off this individuality with messy hair, moto jackets, and pants, styles that generally don’t conform to fashion protocol for high-ranking noblewomen.
But now that she’s a royal, the duchess of Sussex’s fashion sense appears to be more about blending in with her new family than standing out from them. That’s meant muted colors, loose dresses, and no public outings in pants so far. Fans who anticipated that she would make bold fashion statements as a royal have been underwhelmed. The criticism started on her wedding day, when she wore a wedding dress that was dismissed as “boring.”
The disappointment stems from the fact that Markle, a feminist and activist, appears to be playing it remarkably safe in her self-presentation as a noblewoman. She’s not challenging royal fashion protocol but following the rules, even those that might be deemed sexist, such as the requirement that women royals wear pantyhose. In her first public appearance after her wedding, Markle was spotted in hosiery, an undergarment People magazine noted the fashion world generally regards as “dated and dowdy.”
It’s not altogether fair, however, for Markle’s detractors to expect her to use fashion as either a creative outlet or a source of rebellion. As a newcomer to both Britain and the royal family, Markle is under tremendous pressure to show that she’s serious about fulfilling the obligations of her new role — and dressing appropriately is one way to demonstrate her dedication to being a duchess.
The criticism began on her wedding day, with her wedding dress
Fans who imagined that Meghan Markle would walk down the aisle in a trendsetting wedding dress had their hopes dashed on May 19. There were no beads, lace, or tulle. Compared to Middleton’s lace dress, Markle’s looked almost austere. She wore a simple boat neck dress that garnered mixed reviews and some unflattering press. The minimalist Givenchy gown was described as “boring.” Yet Markle, reportedly an admirer of the late minimalist dresser Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, embraced simple looks with clean lines well before her nuptials.
The public didn’t just criticize the style of her wedding dress but the cut as well. “I would have done one more fitting,” Katy Perry said. And the title of a Cosmopolitan article about the gown — “The Internet Is Being *Very* Mean About Meghan Markle’s Wedding Dress” — says it all about the reaction to the bride’s style.
Polk said she also thought Markle’s dress was beautiful but agreed that it was not the best fit.
“As royalty there is no excuse for less than perfection when everyone is looking at you,” Polk said. “For a modern-day woman, I think everyone was expecting something a little more daring, so it was a bit of an anti-climax.”
Still, she said, “The design was sleek and respected tradition. The dress is a timeless classic that will never date, and it spoke of elegance and simplicity.”
Amanda Dishaw, who co-founded the Meghan’s Mirror fashion blog with Christine Ross, said that the wedding dress was designed to be functional. In contrast, the sexy Stella McCartney gown Markle wore during the reception better reflected her personal style.
“The Clare Waight Keller dress Meghan wore to the ceremony did incorporate some elements of her personal style, however it also balanced the fact that she wasn’t walking down the aisle at a private church in a small family ceremony,” Dishaw told Vox. “The steps of St. George’s, for example, needed a dress with some volume in order to ensure Meghan wasn’t swallowed up by their size. This dress was perhaps not universally loved because it was Meghan balancing her personal style with her new role.”
Conversely, Dishaw describes Markle’s slinky and sleeveless reception dress as “pure Meghan.” The duchess felt more comfortable expressing her fashion sense at a gathering that wasn’t for public consumption, she said. The newest royal is erring on the side of caution with her style because she takes her role as duchess very seriously and doesn’t want to leave room for judgment, Dishaw argues.
“It’s a balancing act, and one we’ll see her continue to grow into as she adapts to the overwhelming life changes she’s going through,” Dishaw said.
Since the wedding, Markle dressed more conservatively than she used to
The attacks on Meghan Markle’s style have continued in the weeks since she got married. Markle has worn an assortment of muted oatmeals and blush pinks instead of the green, eggplant, and navy outfits she sometimes sported before her nuptials. At her most recent public event, the Royal Ascot, she wore a white collared dress paired with a black-and-white hat that drew comparisons to Audrey Hepburn’s My Fair Lady style. Almost all the other women attendees wore a similar color scheme.
And while she hasn’t totally abandoned her preference for stylishly mussed hair, she’s increasingly worn her hair in neat chignons and defined waves. Harper’s Bazaar noted that how Markle had ditched “her favorite messy bun for a sleek version” during her first public appearance as a royal. She’s also carried clutches rather than the crossbody purses she wore during the months leading up to the royal wedding.
Polk acknowledged that Markle’s style has become more reserved now that she’s a royal but said that some choices, like the muted colors she’s worn as a duchess, have “been gorgeous on her.”
“However, it has the potential of getting a little boring,” the stylist said of the neutral color scheme. “I think it’s also a seasonal preference. We are in the height of summer, and I think she’s leaning toward a softer, cooler palette. She may experiment with bolder colors in the fall and winter. I think she’ll take more risks as time goes on...”
When Markle accompanied Prince Harry to a recent family wedding, the press and the public skewered the material-heavy Oscar de la Renta gown she chose for the occasion. The white-and-blue floral dress overwhelmed her tiny frame, leading to criticism that she was swimming in all of the fabric.
Yahoo! Lifestyle suggested that by wearing the oversized $7,000 dress, “the Duchess of Sussex may have taken her first major sartorial misstep.”
But as with the wedding dress, there was likely a strategy behind Markle’s decision to wear this outfit. Dishaw of Meghan’s Mirror said that if Markle had worn a chic pantsuit or body-conscious dress, she would’ve made headlines for upstaging the bride, Harry’s maternal cousin. Dishaw believes Markle intentionally wore the baggy dress, which she said is “on-trend” at the moment.
The fact that the duchess has yet to appear at an event featuring just her and her husband explains some of her fashion choices, Dishaw pointed out. She’s not choosing looks with herself as the focus but with other members of the royal family in mind.
But even the newly conservative Markle has been criticized for being inappropriate
With pantyhose and coiffed hair, Meghan Markle may now be presenting as conservative in dress to her fans. And the one time she has diverted from those expectations likely shows why she has generally been so careful. The mere sight of her shoulders at the Queen’s annual birthday parade, Trooping the Colour, sparked a minor scandal. At the event two weeks ago, Markle appeared in a pale pink Philip Treacy hat and Carolina Herrera bardot dress in the same hue.
Because the dress exposed her shoulders, the press suggested it was inappropriate. The Mirror called the ensemble daring, suggesting it “pushed the boundaries of the royal dress code.” And while Vanity Fair and Hello! both questioned if she broke protocol, the Express outright accused her of doing so.
“Royal women traditionally wear long sleeves to Trooping the Colour with off-shoulder and revealing styles discouraged,” the Express noted. “The American had the most flesh on show compared with the other royals she stood next to on the balcony. Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, opted for a classy light blue knee-length frock with her shoulders and chest covered while fellow duchess Camilla had a dress suit in the same colour.”
The criticism of Markle sounds similar to that leveled at former first lady Michelle Obama for wearing sleeveless dresses that showed off her toned arms. An undercurrent of misogynoir likely runs through the disapproval these women of color have faced about how much of their bodies they expose. “It seems the new edition to the royal family is a fan of baring the flesh,” the Mirror wrote about Markle’s Trooping the Colour appearance, effectively sexualizing her.
The backlash isn’t surprising: the duchess needs time to blend her personal style with royal expectations
Markle fans disappointed that her fashion isn’t killing it should consider that she’s primarily dressing for her job, similar to how members of any number of professions, from firefighters to flight attendants, do.
“I think she’ll move more to her true personal royal style as she steps out with Harry and by herself in her endeavors, like the trip to Ireland coming up, and then build a little confidence in her royal look that she will translate into the larger scale royal family events,” Dishaw said.
Polk questions the idea that Markle has lost her sense of style. The duchess may be dressing more conservatively, but that’s to be expected, she said.
“Her style choices are constantly under the microscope and I think she is pulling off the modern-day princess look quite remarkably,” she said. “She has a gift for blending tradition with the unexpected. Most of her ensembles are sleek, chic, and relatively fuss-free.”
Polk predicts Markle will use jewelry to add panache to her outfits. So far, Markle has leaned toward elegant diamond pieces that aren’t likely to fall out of fashion. She’s worn pieces by Cartier and Belgian designer Vanessa Tugendhaft.
“I think dainty diamond jewelry is going to be her ultimate enviable style statement moving forward,” she said.
Only a month into her life as duchess, it’s not really surprising that Markle is facing some criticism for her style. More than 20 years after her death, Princess Diana remains a style icon. But it took Diana time to find her footing. Her huge wedding dress, for example, was truly a symbol of ’80s excess and would look outrageous on a contemporary bride.
As Di aged, adapted to, and ultimately rebelled against life in the royal family, she increasingly took more fashion risks. The princess of Wales sometimes wore low-cut dresses but used clutches when entering and exiting vehicles to hide her cleavage, a royal no-no. Unlike Markle, however, Diana was born a member of the aristocracy. A fashion faux pas wouldn’t lead to headlines suggesting that she lacked class.
As an American and woman of color, the stakes are much higher for the duchess of Sussex. Her multicultural wedding service may have signaled that the British royal family was entering a new chapter, but it was just a ceremony, not a way of life.
As the firm’s most unconventional member, one who’s already been publicly humiliated by family members, Markle isn’t trying to shake things up as a royal — she’s trying to master her new role. That means, for now, fashion is not about self-expression. It’s a way to demonstrate that she belongs.