Weddings are an absolute charade. They involve an absurd and outdated amount of pomp and circumstance; almost half of them end in divorce (both in the United States and the United Kingdom); and let’s not even get started on why the dress is traditionally white.
So much about Meghan and Harry’s nuptials shattered the notion that weddings, particularly of the royal variety, require illusion, or even delusion. From Bishop Michael Curry’s mesmerizing sermon, to Meghan’s partial solo walk down the aisle, to the couple’s guest list, there was no sense that Meghan and Harry were embarking on a life gently fictionalized for public consumption, or fulfilling a fantasy, as royal weddings usually suggest. In 1980, England was gripped by social and political unrest, and the country was ready for the anesthetizing fairytale of Princess Diana and Prince Charles. Kate Middleton and Prince William, though carrying less of a political burden, were also expected to reinvigorate the celebrity appeal of the monarchy, whose reputation had soured after Diana’s death almost 15 years prior, and which hadn’t had much in the way of pizzazz with just Charles and Camilla to rely on for palace intrigue.
At Meghan and Harry’s wedding, what was real was so much more powerful than what could be fantasized. Much of the excitement has stemmed from the so-called “modernity” of their relationship—that she is black, that she was previously married. That sensibility was also evident in her Givenchy gown, which was so simple it was almost plain. Meghan shares Princess Diana’s gift for choosing clothing that is at once appropriate and personally expressive—she combines a keen understanding of decorum with an ability to assert her own personal vision—and that attitude clearly permeated among the attendees.
Looking back at photos of William’s wedding to Kate, it’s striking how subdued the guests looked compared with this year. In 2011, the Queen wore dim butter yellow; to this wedding, she wore a chartreuse suit with splendid purple accents on her hat. Camilla wore a sleepy light blue and pink frock coat and a saucer-clunker of a hat; this year, she wore a pale pink coat dress and a hat like a giant plate of feathers—much more fun. Perhaps because the job’s duties require a certainly modesty that keeps it outside the realm of high fashion (at least aesthetically), British royal style has always been matronly, and a little camp (those pantyhose!). But this year, almost every guest found a way to make regal look resonant rather than remote. Even Princess Anne, who is the patron saint of batty British style, looked silly then compared to her look for Harry and Meghan’s nuptials: a red and blue jacquard robe-style dress that was almost…kinda…sexy!
In the past, royal wedding guests have veiled themselves behind the stuffy protocol of royal dress. This year, many of the best-dressed attendees had royal protocol firmly under their thumbs. No one did this better than Doria Ragland, Meghan Markle’s mother, who wore a pistachio green shift and coat with Wedgwood-esque embroidery and a powder-white Stephen Jones hat, with a diamond stud in her nose. Serena Williams wore a pale pink Versace dress and a matching fascinator, the only-in-England micro-hat that Williams made elegant instead of kooky (as fascinators usually look) with a braided ponytail that fell to her thighs. Even Victoria Beckham looked more like “herself”: compared to 2011’s snoozy-simple baby doll dress, her fascinator and deep peekaboo dress showed the evolution of both her brand, which has shifted from prim WAG frocks in polite deference to Roland Mouret to something more a peer of The Row, and the kind of self-expression royal life now seems to encourage.
Nowhere, of course, was this shift of power more evident than in the contrast between the two brides’ dresses. Kate Middleton’s was immediately accepted as the platonic ideal of the modern fantasy wedding dress. From a technical perspective, it was exquisite—but in terms of emotional weight and meaning, it was not remotely radical. Alexander McQueen had died just over a year before Middleton wore the dress, and so it was of course a celebratory debut for Sarah Burton, who succeeded Lee at the house. But McQueen himself was radical, outrageous, an iconoclast—the kinds of qualities the royal family, at that time, was expected not to speak out against but (perhaps worse) to simply ignore. Though that lineage is a part of Burton’s McQueen (a house that is now firmly her own), none of those qualities were present in the dress. Instead, the dress was meant to prop up that aforementioned monarchial fairytale, and it did exactly that. It was Burton’s technical prowess that connected it to Lee’s legacy.
Meghan was under no such narrow social obligation. Givenchy designer Clare Waight Keller has only recently started designing couture—her collection in January was her first, and the house had shown couture only intermittently under previous designer Riccardo Tisci. Couture is an industry that, like the English monarchy, struggles to assert its relevance, and with Markle’s dress, Keller has made a bold proclamation of its purpose as an interpreter of how glamour and power combine in an era that seems so intent on disentangling one from the other. It is easy to dismiss so much of what both of these things represent as not merely anachronistic, but destructive. Do we need custom, handmade clothing that is only available to the world’s richest people? Do we need royals when the monarchy, with its pretense of political importance, can distract us from real political engagement? What makes Keller as a designer and Markle as a political-celebrity figure so powerful is that they don’t suggest that we abolish these institutions, which retain influence and pull, but show us how they can change, and what new value they can have in a world that moves quickly enough to put them in power.