The dress isn’t everything, but it is a lot. And the Givenchy haute couture gown chosen by Meghan Markle for her marriage to Prince Harry told a story about contemporary romance, geopolitical history and the institution into which she has married. But mostly, most importantly, it offered a bit of insight into the bride herself.
The sleek white gown, with its six strategically placed seams, was stitched from a heavy silk with a subtle sheen. A simple bateau neckline gracefully framed her face. The body of the dress subtly outlined her waist and flowed into a full train. But what was most noticeable were all the things that the dress was not. It was not a Hollywood red-carpet statement. It was not a Disney-princess fantasy. It was not a mountain of camouflaging tulle and chiffon.
The dress, designed by Clare Waight Keller, was free of extravagant embellishments. It was not covered in yards of delicate lace. It did not have a single ruffle — no pearls or crystals. Its beauty was in its architectural lines and its confident restraint. It was a romantic dress, but one that suggested a clear-eyed understanding that a real-life romance is not the stuff of fairy tales. The dress was a backdrop; it was in service to the woman.
The woman. That’s what the dress emphasized. Not bridal whimsy. Not princess tropes. Not royal pomp. The former actress, the former blogger, the formerly single lady, now has the title Duchess of Sussex. But she is still Meghan.
It was the veil, five meters of delicate silk tulle embroidered with flowers representing the 53 countries of the British Commonwealth, Kensington Palace and her home state of California, that carried the weight of history, duty and tradition. It floated out behind, helped along by two little page boys. She wore the veil with Queen Mary’s diamond and platinum bandeau tiara, which had been lent to her by her new grandmother-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II. The tiara, created in 1932, is dominated by a central brooch that dates to 1893.
Prince Harry, looking handsome and delighted, wore the frock coat uniform of the Blues and Royals. He thankfully did not shave his beard.
Keller is a British designer who has previously worked for Pringle of Scotland and Chloe. She is the first woman to lead the French fashion house Givenchy, one of the most venerable names in the industry and closely associated with the sleek and sophisticated style of Audrey Hepburn. Keller is one of a small group of female designers who have led some of fashion’s most influential houses — women who have approached their job as one aimed at empowering their female customers rather than merely decorating them.
Markle’s mother, Doria Ragland wore a pale green day dress and coat designed by Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim of Oscar de la Renta. Her dreadlocks were swept back and tucked underneath a modest hat by British milliner Stephen Jones.
Ragland, who is African American, wore dreadlocks — a hairstyle that is still a provocation in some quarters, one equated with blackness. This is notable, of course, because British society, like American society, is fraught with stereotypes about race. We are uncomfortable with differences and threatened by change. Ragland appeared elegant and proud, happy and emotional, which is precisely how one hopes a mom would look on her daughter’s wedding day. And in her hairstyle change was writ large, but done so beautifully and with quiet confidence.
This was a history-making day. A day when fascinators and church hats sat side-by-side in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle. Tennis ace Serena Williams crowned her cornrows with a pink-feathered fascinator and Oprah Winfrey paired her Stella McCartney blush-colored dress with a wide-brimmed hat that would be at home at any Baptist church on Easter Sunday. The Most Rev. Michael Curry, the first African American to preside over the Episcopal Church, quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., referenced slavery and preached about “the power of love.” A black choir performed “Stand by Me.” And emotion resonated throughout the service — although not necessarily on the Queen’s face.
Markle, who is biracial, has been referred to as an American princess and a black princess, although she does not hold that title in her own right. The diversity she brings to the British royal family is historic and important. But there remains something disconcerting in 2018 about the obsessive enchantment with princesses and Prince Charming, tiaras, carriage rides and a life of happily-ever-after that is, in part, defined by giving up a career one enjoyed and ceasing to have public opinions. It can be a suffocating fantasy because it is one premised on relinquishing control and independence. It’s a fantasy that is less about the relationship between two loving individuals than it is a bargain between an institution and a symbol of femininity, the state and the silent bride.
The dress, in its simplicity, suggests that something new is afoot — or at least a desire for something new. It’s a modern dress. But it’s more than that. It’s a dress that in the glow of the global spotlight, amid the dreamy-eyed commentary, refuses the spun sugar fantasy and suggests reality has the potential to be just as marvelous. Perhaps even better.