Meghan Markle's sneaky fashion statement

The sheer top which the fiancee of Britain's Prince Harry wore for her engagement portrait signals how she will approach her new role

NEW YORK • Meghan Markle, the soon-to-be wife of the man who is fifth in line to the British throne, set off something of a controversy last month when the couple's official engagement photographs were released.

There were two portraits: a close-up of the two nuzzling romantically, diamond engagement ring carefully, if seemingly casually, exposed; and a more formal seated arrangement.

At issue was Markle's choice of top for the second: a sheer black shirt embroidered with gold leaves over a long ruffled skirt. (Prince Harry wore a blue suit and tie.)

Given that this portrait was part of the record for posterity, the shirt had a bigger impact than one might have expected. It pretty much immediately became a symbol of how Markle, a biracial American actress and activist, was going to approach her new role.

Indeed, in the context of official royal engagement photos, the choice was quite radical.

Not only did it look transparent, save for those strategic embroideries (it was not transparent, probably because it had been lined), it was fairy-tale formal and, as a couture gown, reportedly priced at £56,000 (SS$101,000).

An engagement photo of Britain's Prince Harry and his fiancee, Meghan Markle, shows the latter in a sheer top.
An engagement photo of Britain's Prince Harry and his fiancee, Meghan Markle, shows the latter in a sheer top. PHOTO: REUTERS

Compared with, say, the engagement photo of Prince William and Kate Middleton, which featured the bride-to-be in a pretty, conservative white day dress by Reiss, a British high-street label, and framed her immediately as a newly accessible, down-to-earth kind of royal, Markle's choice was labelled variously as "sensual" and "risque". But what it was, really, was a pretty big statement of difference, which was presumably the point.

Not everyone was so thrilled. Some took offence at the transparent nature of the top, which they felt was not dignified enough for a royal.

Others were upset about the elitist price of the dress. Markle has, since her engagement, become a singular mover of product - the coat she wore when she and Harry announced their plans sold out almost immediately - but the ballgown is in a different category.

Whether you like the dress or not, or felt it was appropriate or not, it all adds up to proof that Markle is pretty clear on her job.

Not only did she dutifully represent her country-to-be by wearing all British brands (sweater by Victoria Beckham, which she wore in the other engagement portrait; dress by Ralph & Russo), as opposed to the Canadian labels she has favoured in the past, but she did so while simultaneously acknowledging the Cinderella nature of her romance, at least in the public mind and, breaking, ever so slightly, with tradition.

She represents, simply by background, a completely different kind of royal. This has both raised expectations for reform and made traditionalists nervous. The engagement photo does not shy away from either reaction - it underscores both. It also demonstrates that she is perfectly aware that everything she wears is going to be under the social media spotlight, so she might as well make it work for her.

Indeed, it is not just what she wears, but what anyone around her wears. Just before the portraits were released, Markle attended the Queen's Christmas lunch at Buckingham Palace. Another guest, Princess Michael of Kent, who is married to the Queen's cousin, came under fire from Britain to Australia for sporting what looked like a Blackamoor brooch on her coat.

The choice of accessory was widely seen a not-so-subtle jibe at Markle, who has talked about her past experiences with racism.

Whether Princess Michael thought her jewellery through or whether it was simply an extraordinarily tone-deaf choice, the piece, and the reaction to it, are a sign that even the smallest gestures are going to have a heightened import as the royal family adjusts to a modern identity.

Far beyond Britain and the formal royal watchers, many have a special investment in this particular story and how it gets told.

If her future sister-in-law modernised the royal image by knocking it gently off its pedestal, Markle has the opportunity and the aegis to take it further.

The destuffing of the House of Windsor is entering a new stage. This is going to be fun.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2018, with the headline 'Meghan Markle's sneaky fashion statement'. Print Edition | Subscribe