Happily ever after. They are the three words that end almost every fairy tale. These stories typically start with a girl who doesn’t dress well and end with a stylish woman in a beautiful gown. Think Cinderella or The Princess Diaries. The fashion transformation is just as important to the story as the handsome prince or the fairy godmother (or grandmother in Mia Thermopolis’ case).
Meghan Markle’s time as a proverbial princess has not been a fairy tale (and not just because most fictional sagas would have us to believe Black girls don’t get those). It’s been rife with unfair and racist public scrutiny and headline-dominating DRAMA. Unlike Cinderella and Mia, Markle was not a naïve girl thrust into a spotlight. She was a 36-year-old grown-ass woman who made a choice — in hindsight, maybe not a great one — to marry into the British monarchy. She didn’t choose to be the target of racist trolls or a British press who hold her to a different standard than her sister-in-law, Kate Middleton, but she has chosen to wear clothing that tells us more than she’s ever been able to say out loud as a member of the royal family. And this week, as she and Prince Harry stepped out in London for their last official public duties, she sent her most-confident message to date: “I’m not going anywhere.” Yes, Markle may be stepping away from royal life, but no, she is not shying away from the spotlight.
The freedom fashion tour started with a cerulean blue Victoria Beckham dress Markle wore to the Endeavor Fund Awards. It was followed by a show-stopping red Safiyaah dress that matched her husband’s Royal Marines regalia at the annual Mountbatten Festival of Music. Then, on Monday, the Duchess of Sussex made her final royal appearance at the Commonwealth Day festivities at Westminster Abbey. Dressed in a stunning Emilia Wickstead deep emerald cape dress and matching fascinator, Markle looked like someone who got dressed for a party knowing their ex would be there. She showed up to show out. When these photos dropped, the Internet lost its shit.
All three choices scream, "LOOK AT ME." And, sure, it’s fun to interpret her picks as her "boy, bye" flip off to an institution founded on colonialism that has never been welcoming to a biracial divorcée from California (never forget when the Daily Mail called her "straight outta Compton"). But they’re also so much more. By choosing to be this bold on her way out, Markle is making a statement about her future — that she’s done shrinking to make racist white people around her comfortable. The green dress has been hailed as the 2020 version of Princess Diana’s "revenge dress" but I’m not sure Markle is out for revenge — that would require energy that the monarchy doesn’t deserve from her. I think she’s just finally having fun. Markle’s current fashion choices show the maturity and intention of a woman who knows exactly what she wants to say to the world.
Then again, Markle has been sending messages through her clothing this whole time. At first, in a white crisp shirt and ripped jeans, she told us she was laid back and low-maintenance, willing to tag along with her boyfriend to a tennis match at the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto. She also stepped out in a lot of Canadian designers, a nod to her adopted country. Then came the Givenchy wedding dress. “It was not a Hollywood red-carpet statement. It was not a Disney-princess fantasy,” wrote The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan. “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.”
From there, Markle proved fashionable enough to incite a #MarkleEffect but subdued enough for her new role. Her clothing was usually safe, think neutral prints and modest styles, often by British designers, all unspoken wardrobe requirements as a working member of the royal family. Except she did it on her own terms, like wearing Wales Bonner, a biracial British designer who’s an activist for gender parity and Black representation, to introduce the world to her son, Archie.
I remember screaming at my computer screen at the black semi-sheer midi Jason Wu dress she chose to wear to meet Beyoncé at the London premiere of The Lion King. Now I wonder if Markle was worried about what critics would say if she tried to upstage BEYONCÉ considering she was already getting flack for being at the red-carpet event in the first place (other royals go to premieres, but when Markle did it, she was seen as "too Hollywood"). Maybe Markle was saying “this isn’t about me.” She knows every choice is under a microscope of impossible expectations. She played their game while the press criticized her for not playing it well enough — or too well — at every turn.
Because, as we know, famous Black women are always held to higher standards than their white counterparts. In her bestselling memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama wrote candidly about choosing what to wear as the First Lady. “I was supposed to stand out without overshadowing others, to blend in but not fade away. As a Black woman, too, I knew I’d be criticized if I was perceived as being showy and high-end, and I’d also be criticized if I was too casual.” She added: “It seemed that my clothes mattered more to people than anything I had to say.” If that’s also true for Markle, why not say the most through the clothes?
Like many other outlets and commenters have pointed out, Markle's looks this week were the final act of rebellion against the crumbling institution she and Harry are fleeing, but I also think the choices make it clear where she’s heading next and who she’s taking with her. She’s matching with her husband, the person who has had her back from day one (in addition to their matching red looks, her green Emilia Wickstead dress co-ordinated with the inside of Harry’s suit jacket). And a friend of mine suggested that same look was a nod to Markle’s mother, Doria Ragland, who wore a more subdued pastel green Oscar de la Renta dress and similarly-shaped hat to her daughter’s wedding. Others interpreted the green dress as a tribute to Princess Diana and a green maternity look she wore in 1982. It could have been a nod to both, the Black mother who raised her to be proud of the identity she’s been targeted because of, and the mother-in-law she’s never met whose presence has been looming over her and Harry’s decision to leave royal life behind.
As Markle leaves the royal family in her dust with a dazzling smile and unwavering confidence, the monarchy should be shaking. Writer Meghan O’Keefe spelled out in a blog post this week why Markle scares the monarchy so much. “Her very existence undercuts the belief system that the Royal Family are special simply because they were born to be,” she wrote. "She is a self-made woman who makes the job of being a royal — the photo ops, the charity work, the speeches, the fairy tale wedding, even the tabloid moments — look easy… If Meghan Markle can be royal, then anyone can. And that means the royals aren’t special at all.”
Not only is the Royal Family not special, it just lost the two family members that were keeping it relevant. Markle’s freedom fashion tour is just the first step in her version of “happily ever after.” Now that she is no longer tied to just speaking out only through her clothing, imagine how much more she’s going to say.