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The restaurant looks like it could be in any city, which one imagines is very much the point: all neutral tones and warm lights. Two thirtysomething women at a table are partaking in small talk when — “Oh my God, it’s Meghan Markle!”
So it is. She strides into the dining room as if it were a catwalk and takes seat behind the original twosome. This is where the ad descends into farce. It’s 2015 — Suits is cruising along, Prince Harry has yet to truly enter the picture — so the two women contort themselves and deploy a selfie stick (again: it’s 2015) to see what Markle’s wearing. Wise to the plot, she swivels and stage whispers, “Ladies, it’s Reitmans.” She then turns back and adds a louder, fourth-wall-breaking, “Really.”
The ambiguity of that “really” captures a variety of shocks: that Meghan Markle is doing this, that a middling Canadian fashion retailer somehow convinced her to be its face, that any of us could end up in her orbit.
Two years and a royal engagement later, those shocks remain central to Markle’s proto-royal persona. Monarchy perpetuates itself by playing with ideas of accessibility. In becoming less aloof since the 19th century, cultural historian Jeffrey Richards writes, Britain’s royal family “replaced one magic, the magic of distance, with another, the magic of familiarity.” Royals are definitionally not like us, but their occasional feints in that direction attenuate the chilliness of their remove. This public negotiation of roles is celebrity with more strings attached. For that reason, if you want to understand Meghan Markle’s ongoing transformation, you’d do well to start in a nondescript Canadian mall.
There’s a Reitmans in most Canadian malls. It’s the kind of store that, 90 years into its existence, has become hard to pin down. A series of reinventions and brand spinoffs have left the flagship to focus on not-unfashionable, not-pricey work clothes for the young female professional. Imagine the relevant bit of Sears, but maybe a bit more stylish. This sort of muddle is why brands hire “ambassadors.” But Meghan Markle? The triumphal “Reitmans. Really.” campaign was at great pains to embrace the shock of it all.
Here, a necessary digression about Suits, which is a different phenomenon in Canada. This is particularly the case in Toronto, which the USA Network uses as a stand-in for anywhere and everywhere. Local and USA Network-level fame are both small enough for most people to have crossed paths with those involved in filming or have known someone who did. This produces a different kind of celebrity than the more detached cool espoused by the Suits cast on its college tours south of the border. Moreover, while Suits is ostensibly a workplace dramedy, it’s characters — other leads more so than Markle’s Rachel Zane — were ragingly unprofessional.
Which is to say that it was not a complete surprise when Markle wound up fronting a professional clothing line in Canada, but such an outcome was never inevitable. The brand played on this surprise, but Markle played it with a straight face. In shades ranging from gray to darker gray, one of her capsule collections for the brand focused on something approaching work staples: a pencil skirt that might as well have been stolen from Suits’ costume department, pants, a blouse, a turtleneck, and a scarf-shawl hybrid (it was billed as a poncho). Each item sold for less than $100 Canadian dollars (roughly USD 78). Presented as an “accessible version” of her character’s looks, the real accessibility had less to do with Suits itself — most fans don’t shop in Canada — than the presentation of Markle. In the pantheon of series and star tie-ins, her collection is among the most “Celebrities, they’re just like us!” Markle, in the collateral promoting the collection, described her aesthetic as “aspirational girl next door.” That single phrase grasps the uneasy tension between Richards’ magics of familiarity and distance better than books on the subject.
Work clothes are not the obvious entry point for monarchical fashion. To the extent that they work, royals do not contend with anything resembling a workplace or its mores. The conservatism of officewear, however, is in tension with capital-F fashion in a similar way as the royal dress code. Writing about the 19th century Princess Alexandra of Wales, Imke Polland notes “she had to embody and represent stability and continuity, both of which are countered by fashion.” It’s not that she was without style — far from it, really — but a major figure’s engagement with the masses can require a retreat from ideas of fashionability. This sort of engagement with masses is such that the Duchess of Cambridge’s fashion choices are covered as things you, too, can buy; this is a world of fashion devoid of provocations or hard edges. This phenomenon is what the British political theorist Tom Nairn deems “royal anti-chic” or “regal pseudo-fashion.” Similar moderation or pseudo-fashions tend to prevail in workplaces; a range of styles exist, but the extremes are ruled out. This, one might argue, is the cognate of the current British monarchy’s aversion to clothes revealing women’s shoulders or knees.
Meghan Markle’s work with Reitmans, for all that one can justifiably read royal parallels into it, is not simply an audition for the House of Windsor. For one thing, the chronology does not support such a reading. That, of course, did not stop Women’s Wear Daily from discovering the line 18 months after it came out and turning it into a story about a man named Harry instead of one about an actress, lifestyle blogger, creator, and activist. “Now better known as Prince Harry’s girlfriend than the Suits actress she is,” it began, “Meghan Markle is also a proven guest designer for Reitmans.” Moreover, engineering this story to maximize narrative tidiness undersells the parallels between the fashioning of celebrity and royal personas and the role clothing plays in that process. In her Reitmans ad campaign, Markle plays a version of herself who might conceivably dine among the plebs while also having a wind machine set up for her entrance. This is celebrity and Richards’ two magics all at once. That it also turns out to be an apt descriptor of modern royalty is mainly an interesting wrinkle because it coexists with other readings.
This more circuitous trajectory is what makes Markle’s stylistic journey more interesting than that of the other notable, post-Diana royal addition. Both are saddled with the afterlife of Tony Blair’s “people’s princess” comment, but the latter was prepared for that role as of the embryonic stage of life. Thirty-six-year-old Meghan Markle, a divorced, biracial American actress, came to the role in a roundabout manner. In representational terms, it’s exciting that descriptors like biracial, much like divorced before it, might cease to be shocking in this or any context. Judging on the curve of monarchical symbolism, that’s a coup. For now, however, it is at once shocking and obvious that Meghan Markle ended up doing an engagement photocall in one of Kensington Palace’s gardens.
That obviousness is the thing that sticks out from Markle’s engagement photos. Everyone looks besotted in engagement photos, but the clothes tell more of a story than the facial expressions in the photos released by Kensington Palace. They are at once suited to the occasion and entirely of a piece with Markle’s time in Canada. While her partnership with Reitmans ended months ago, the Line the Label white wool coat from the engagement photocall was a nicer version of the same look. (Like Birks, the jeweler that made her her earrings, Line the Label is Canadian. Canada’s main relationship to the commonwealth at this point is covering when a royal wears one of its designers.)
While Suits was running in much of the anglophone world, Markle and Reitmans were experimenting with different ideas of accessibility in celebrity culture. This balance of the magic of distance and the magic of familiarity may also serve her in good stead across the Atlantic as a royal. Even if she never deals with a Canadian clothing company again, a part of of her proto-royal aesthetic was made in Canada.