The day proved remarkable, perfect, even, starting with the blue sky that framed the television coverage in storybook perfection. (The thousand-or-so-year-old turrets of Windsor Castle didn’t hurt, either.) It was a global event rich with symbolism, much of it centered on the homily of Bishop Michael Curry, head of the American Episcopal Church and instant superstar who referenced the African-American hymn “There Is a Balm in Gilead” and quoted Martin Luther King Jr. (Less noted: He also quoted the Jesuit theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.) It was powerful cultural stuff yet to viewers, it felt personal: Two people in love getting married, in a service that celebrated both of their backgrounds. It was about things that most of us can relate to, to some degree: the event the realization of meticulous planning; negotiating family drama; a mother tearing up as her only child says “I do.”
It was not about the dress. That’s just how it should be, on every level — philosophical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual. Except the level that loves dresses. Shallow? Maybe. But you don’t spend your life in fashion without believing that dresses matter. Most importantly, they matter for what they say about the person who wears them. More broadly, they telegraph something about their era and the larger culture. And they provide endless material for fashion-geek conversation.
To the last point, the fashion story of Meghan Markle’s wedding day is a tale of not one, but two dresses — the wedding gown by Clare Waight Keller for Givenchy and the reception dress by Stella McCartney. Both utterly unfettered (read: plain), they offered two very different takes on minimalism, one sedate yet ceremonial, the other sensual and alluring. While both could be considered timeless — no pictorial regret 30 years hence — side by side, they illustrate that subtly compelling point of difference between classic and contemporary.
Markle looked breathtaking in both, a condition that didn’t begin and end with her dresses. She has the benefit of great natural assets and a savvy restraint with her approach to beauty, of which every bride-to-be and high school junior should take note: natural makeup and hair (“messy” bun or otherwise), yay; wedding/prom hair, nay.
Back to the dresses, post-event discussion has focused less on the party look than the bridal gown, which has been dissected right down to its sixth and last seam. A major train of thought holds that with its modernist restraint, the dress defied traditional notions of a “princess dress.” But it didn’t. Meghan Markle herself is the break with tradition, and that Prince Harry married her, a biracial American actress divorcée, and that his family supports the marriage — those are the breaks with tradition, not the dress.
I’m not knowledgeable enough to say definitively where our concept of the “princess” bridal gown — decorated bodice, tiny waist, huge skirt — comes from. Anecdotally, it’s probably a fusion of the looks of two iconic, centuries-spanning royals: Marie Antoinette, she of the indulgent ways and mile-wide panniers, and Disney’s Cinderella, who very much reflected the fashion of her day, 1950, when the world was agog with the voluminous brilliance of the New Look and Charles James. And, of course, for most people today, Princess Diana’s, in her girlish froth, is the primary royal wedding image that comes to mind, her dress a derivation of that previously set template rendered with an over-the-top Eighties exuberance.
While Markle’s gown is antithetical to that particular school of princess garb, it didn’t defy convention at all. Rather, its regal reference point predated even Marie, reaching back to that stalwart tribal queen of legend and Lerner and Loewe, Guinevere, or at least our romanticized image of medieval heroine wear — bateau neckline making a wide arc and the dress falling in a graceful A silhouette, though the fabric was more structured than one imagines that befitting Arthur’s consort. Instead, the sturdy silk cady and its lack of embellishment aligned Markle as well with more recent royals. Since 2000, numerous crowned-head brides have preferred relative simplicity to froth, among them Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, 2004; Queen Letizia of Spain, 2004, and Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, 2010.
Yet those women seem not to have been direct references for Meghan or Waight Keller. Immediately upon hearing “Givenchy,” many people made the Audrey Hepburn connection (a legitimate bone structure comparison can be made), citing the dress from “Funny Face,” which, save for a vaguely similar neckline, looks nothing like Markle’s. In her statement on the dress, released right after the wedding, Waight Keller described it as the product of a close collaboration with the bride, and said they had wanted to create “a timeless piece that would emphasize the iconic codes of Givenchy throughout its history, as well as convey modernity through sleek lines and sharp cuts.” Over the weekend, a picture surfaced online on Pinterest of a 1964 Vogue editorial featuring a Hubert de Givenchy wedding gown worn by Hepburn. In profile, it appears pretty much a ringer for Markle’s, but for its surface texture — matelassé rather than flat silk. (Given the Irving Penn Foundation’s tight hold on rights, WWD can’t run it here, but it’s viewable on Pinterest.) Waight Keller’s version for Markle was stately but not stuffy, while at night, in the Stella, she went for refined, sexy chic.
So what’s the message? Certainly, the dress duet sent a message in line with that which the Duchess of Sussex has sent consistently, at least since non-“Suits” aficionados have been aware of her style (when we got wind of the Harry romance). Aside from the Ralph & Russo engagement-photo glitz (and even then, she wore it with a casual attitude), this is a woman who prefers to project elegance over excess, discretion over madcap whimsy, who apparently sees zero value in the audacious sartorial shock. It’s an image in line with the easy manner she projects, and with not letting clothes overshadow the philanthropic causes to which she is already committed.
Certainly it’s the message Markle sent on Tuesday afternoon, in her first post-wedding public appearance, at the early (six months early) reception for Prince Charles’ 70th birthday. She wore a discreet, ultrapale dusty pink dress with illusion neckline and sleeves by the British label Goat, low-key earrings and yes, a hat — Philip Treacy’s shallow saucer style, worn at that just-so aristocratic angle. Meghan Markle is now a forward-thinking duchess, but a duchess still. Not a revolutionary.