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Meghan Markle isn’t a royal quite yet; her wedding to Prince Harry is still a few weeks away. But starting even before her engagement, the actress has been dogged by claims that her style has breached royal protocol. Her hairstyles, color of clothing, and accessories have all been criticized, revealing how archaic and elitist some of the “rules” she’s supposedly broken truly are.
Although all royals are closely watched, Markle is particularly under the microscope. As a biracial American actress and divorcée, her entry into the British royal family is unprecedented. Unfair as it may be, that means how she presents herself carries more weight than how other women in her position do. Much like Michelle Obama’s appearance and style were dissected by a nation unaccustomed to a black first lady, Markle’s fashion sense is being unpacked by those unsure of what to make of a royal with her background.
Just this past Wednesday, Markle’s choice of headwear made headlines. She showed up to services for Anzac Day, which honors Australians and New Zealanders who served or died in wars, in a large floppy hat. (Markle has previously faced criticism for not wearing hats, as tradition dictates that members of the royal family wear them to formal events.) This time around, though, the relaxed hat she chose raised eyebrows. The aristocracy sports headwear to stand out from commoners, not to blend in with them, and Markle’s hat apparently didn’t pass the posh test.
“Hatgate” isn’t the first time Markle’s taste in accessories has come under scrutiny. She has interacted with the public more than once wearing crossbody purses and handbags, when royals typically hold clutches during such occasions. Why? Evidently, holding a clutch makes it easier for noblewomen to avoid unwanted handshakes and overtures. And Princess Diana found a novel use for her clutches: She used them to cover her chest when exiting and entering vehicles, because exposed cleavage is yet another royal no-no.
Markle’s cleavage has yet to cause a stir, but other parts of her body haven’t enjoyed the same fate. Last week, royals expert Victoria Arbiter called her out for attending the 2018 Endeavor Fund Awards with — gasp! — bare legs.
“You never see a royal without their nude stockings,” Arbiter told the Insider. “I would say that’s really the only hard, steadfast rule in terms of what the Queen requires.”
It wasn’t the first time Markle broke the pantyhose rule, Arbiter pointed out. She also skipped them when posing for her engagement photos. The fact that the 36-year-old wore a sheer — not to mention expensive — dress for the shots was considered unorthodox for a royal as well.
Kate Middleton regularly wears pantyhose, but even she has been accused of dressing inappropriately. She favors shorter dresses that the wind has blown up on multiple occasions, exposing her thighs. The Duchess of Cambridge has also been criticized for having too-long hair; she has since cut off several inches. Her wedges and jeggings haven’t earned her many fans among fashion insiders either.
Markle’s style has routinely been compared to Middleton’s and Princess Diana’s, but she may actually have more in common, style-wise, with Michelle Obama and even Melania Trump. Like Obama, Markle has faced pushback for exposing her arms. She has also been accused of dressing too informally; a similar charge was leveled at Obama when she met Queen Elizabeth in 2009. For the visit, Obama wore a cardigan, sparking criticism from designer Oscar de la Renta.
“You don’t go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater,” he said.
His criticism of the then-first lady sounded patronizing at best and like a racial microaggression at worst, as if he needed to school the black woman from Chicago’s South Side about how to dress properly.
When Markle met the royal family for the first time, at the queen’s annual Christmas lunch in 2017, Princess Michael of Kent showed up wearing a blackamoor brooch. Such jewelry dates back to the 13th century and has been described as exoticizing black people as servants or noblemen. Kent was accused of wearing the brooch to slight Markle. She later apologized.
The next month, the Daily Mail ran an alarmist and voyeuristic article about Markle’s hair. The article featured several comments from biracial British women about their kinks and curls and suggested the actress was “torturing” herself by chemically relaxing hers, a common practice for African-American women, even as natural hair is popular.
Just this week, Markle herself was accused of being insensitive when she wore a Hugo Boss dress to a memorial service for British hate crime victim Stephen Lawrence. The clothing designer, Markle’s detractors pointed out, manufactured clothing for Nazi soldiers. It’s unclear if Markle was aware of Hugo Boss’s ties to the Nazi Party when she chose the dress for the occasion.
If the ongoing criticism about Markle’s style has affected her, she hasn’t shown it. Like Melania Trump, who sparked scandals with her pussy-bow blouse and Manolo Blahnik stilettos, Markle has pretty much dressed as she’s pleased after becoming Harry’s mate. That’s meant ripped jeans, messy buns, loads of slacks, coats as capes, and monochrome outfits. While Trump favors head-to-toe white, Markle has a penchant for all-black ensembles, a look royals are only supposed to wear during somber occasions.
When Markle weds Harry next month, it’s unclear if she’ll mute her personal style. That she hasn’t already signals how secure she must be despite how unconventional an addition she is to the British royal family. This American woman of color can never pass herself off as just another aristocrat, so her entry into to the royal family marks a sea change.