In December, Meghan Markle made a surprise appearance at the British Fashion Awards to honor the woman who designed her wedding dress. Wearing a black velvet one-shoulder gown and stacked gold bracelets, her usual loose bangs slicked back into a tight bun, she looked, in a word, iconic. Still, the gossip-mongers tittered that the plum nail polish she wore marked her latest break with royal tradition.
The rumor mill has targeted Markle ever since she and Harry made their relationship public, but the pot-stirring really began to ramp up after she got married, starting with an alleged row between Markle and the Queen over which tiara she could wear at her wedding. The tabloids seemingly want the public to believe that Markle is disruptive, demanding and causing chaos in the royal household. Maybe it’s the tendency to frame assertiveness in women, especially black women, as a negative quality — maybe that’s just their beat. But nothing riles up the pearl-clutchers at the tabloids more than when Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Sussex breaks a royal dress code. Just one cursory search on Google News pulls up at least 25 articles from as many publications calling out Markle for not following the Royal Family’s fashion rules to the letter.
I read these breaks with tradition as a subtle comment from Markle that she’s determined to retain at least a trace of her individuality as she adjusts to her new role. Royal protocol may bar her from speaking openly about political issues, but not from taking liberties with long-established dress codes. She lives in a world that functions entirely on a set of archaic and exhaustive rules, where appearances arguably matter more than reality; it makes sense that she would manipulate that obsession with image in order to fashion a distinct identity within the British monarchy.
Take the sleeveless black dress she wore to a summer garden party, followed by an A-line Dior dress at Royal Air Force celebrations — a stark contrast to the cheerful pastels worn by the rest of the family. Early on, before she married Prince Harry, she appeared in Edinburgh wearing a stylish cross body bag, which also raised eyebrows. Royal women typically favor a clutch-style bag because it occupies their hands. As royal experts pointed out at the time, “you do not extend your hand to any member of the royal family…unless their hand extends first.” The cross-body bag let Markle interact with the public more freely.
Perhaps most striking of all are her black power suits. Though a list of official royal family dress codes unearthed by the BBC does state that trousers are “considered acceptable” for daytime engagements, many outlets have reported that Queen Elizabeth II prefers that royal women wear skirts, especially on formal outings. However, Markle has repeatedly defied what is apparently just a strong suggestion from the queen, even donning an Alexander McQueen pantsuit instead of an evening gown during a trip to Ireland. Kate Middleton has certainly worn pants on royal engagements, which she pairs with a practical puffer jacket or a sensible wedge. But Markle? She once traversed a soccer field in a pair of Givenchy slacks and stilettos — her forceful, uncompromising individuality in an environment that demands conformity on full display.
Of course, I don’t know what Markle is thinking, or if the royal family has noticed or even cares about how she chooses to dress. And it’s not the nail color or the purse or the pants that, alone, are subversive — rather the implication behind those small choices: A woman refusing to let the persona of the monarchy replace her own.
Can she really be saying all that with nail polish? Maybe I’m reading too much into it. But I prefer to think she’s waging a discreet rebellion. Markle is in a position of wealth and privilege, sure, and she may have the power to help people in need through her charities, but as a royal, she’s extremely limited in the ways she can publicly express herself. Fashion has always been a way to assert and retain your personhood, and Markle wields this truth with the confidence of a deeply self-assured person.
Elisabeth Sherman is a culture and food writer living in Jersey City.
Feature image by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images.