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Princess Diana
Princess Diana was the most powerful royal fashion influencer ever, according to the fashion search engine Lyst.
Photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images

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The British Royals Were the Original Fashion Influencers

The royal family, including Princess Diana and soon Meghan Markle, has been setting trends for centuries.

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What does Kim Kardashian have in common with a 19th-century monarch from the British royal family? Two words: waist trainers. When Kardashian and her sisters began promoting the body shapers a few years ago, sales for corsets reportedly rose 250 percent. The reality star and social media influencer knows that with one Instagram post, she can make or break a trend.

But more than a century before Kardashian’s birth, royals like Queen Alexandra of Great Britain were trendsetters. According to the fashion search engine Lyst, Alexandra had a penchant for shapewear:

Queen Alix set a trend for “Swan Bill” corsets, an excruciating steel boned S-shape that often left wearers with spinal injuries. She was the poster girl for tight-laced corsets and bustled trains in the 1870s and 1880s, inspiring ladies of the time to try and replicate her tiny waist.

Queen Alexandra
Queen Alexandra was such an influencer that when illness resulted in her walking with a limp, society ladies altered their walks just to be like her.
Photo: W. & D. Downey/Getty Images

Corsets were hardly the only sartorial trend linked to Alexandra or other members of the royal family. Alexandra is credited with inventing the choker, making tartan skirts chic, and popularizing high necklines. Her mother-in-law, Queen Victoria, was a fashion influencer too. Victoria wore white to her wedding when brides typically wore brightly colored dresses for their nuptials. Before long, a women’s journal urged its readers to follow Victoria’s lead, and now white dresses are the norm for Western brides.

While the British royals today haven’t done anything as groundbreaking as changing wedding traditions, they are like social media influencers in that when they wear something, it’s bound to sell out. Kate Middleton drives $1 billion to the British apparel industry annually, while royal-to-be Meghan Markle is likely to have a $677 million impact this year, Business Insider reports.

And setting trends isn’t the only thing royals have in common with social media influencers. Both groups are known more for their lives — relationships, children, and misdeeds — than their work.

Are the royals just “famous for being famous”?

Today, the British royal family doesn’t have political power, let alone much of an empire. Add in the fact that some of its members are notoriously work-shy and it’s easy to see why they sometimes face the accusation that they’re simply “famous for being famous.” Due to this perception, royals occasionally get the kind of vitriol usually reserved for reality TV and social media stars.

“The British royal family is the exact definition of ‘famous for being famous,’” declared one detractor. “At least Paris Hilton tried to become an actor or singer. What … does Prince William do besides exist?”

For influencers to be successful, they must do more than sell a lifestyle. They must commodify their own lives. Powerful style bloggers like Joanna Goddard, Rumi Neely, and Garance Doré are known as much for their personal lives — boyfriends, husbands, kids, and fertility woes — as they are for their takes on fashion.

But long before the term “social media influencer” entered the English lexicon, the British royals were largely just existing and getting the public to buy in. Stripped of essentially all their political power in the 19th century, the royals were reduced to figureheads. Today, they are required to be apolitical, forbidden from weighing in on critical issues like Brexit.

Charitable work is expected of the royals, but having a full-fledged career can be challenging for them since their lives and their jobs are virtually one in the same. Prince Harry, for example, was long interested in serving in the armed forces, wearing military-style uniforms even as a young boy. He went on to have a 10-year military career, but when his squadron traveled to Iraq in 2007, he was kept away because he was a high-profile target with viable threats against him that could have endangered his fellow service members as well. He retired from the military in 2015.

Prince William, Kate Middleton, and Prince Harry have joined forces with the Heads Together campaign.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry have partnered up to raise awareness about mental health.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

More recently, Harry, along with Prince William and Kate Middleton, has attempted to raise awareness about mental health. He’s spoken openly about how the death of his mother, Princess Diana, affected him, but neither he nor his brother has been credited with making a substantial impact on a social cause, mental health or otherwise.

To the contrary, both William and Kate have made numerous headlines for not doing enough work. The couple has blamed their inactivity on their efforts to raise a family, but the Daily Beast found that in 2016, Middleton (who wasn’t pregnant then) hadn’t worked more than 26 days total in the UK and Europe. Elderly royals such as Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and Prince Charles had all worked significantly more.

“Twenty-six days — and very few of them full days, of course, isn’t good enough,” Tom Sykes of the Daily Beast argued in a piece called “Why Prince William and Kate Middleton Have a Work Problem.”

Although England’s nonagenarian queen has steadily outworked William and Kate, even she draws comparisons to social media influencers, inspiring inane questions such as, “Who is better known globally: Queen Elizabeth or Kim Kardashian?”

One of the royal family’s most famous critics, the musician Morrissey, has no qualms about bashing Elizabeth, William, Kate, and their significance to the world. In doing so, he’s echoed the kind of stinging criticism directed at social media influencers.

“Please tell me one thing the Queen has ever said or William or Kate? I mean, they are zombies, but they are a business and it works,” he once argued, alluding to the royal family’s nickname, “the firm.”

Notoriously shy during her early years in the royal family, Princess Diana faced similar criticisms. In his book Royals: The House of Windsor, author John Blundell argued that Diana became “famous for being famous” after marrying into the royal family. But the unhappiness in her marriage resulted in her moving acts of self-expression later. She found her voice and a sense of style that remains influential two decades after her death.

The most powerful royal influencer

Speaking candidly about her marriage to Prince Charles made Diana persona non grata in the royal family, but she may be the most beloved royal in recent memory. Known as “the people’s princess,” she left behind an impressive legacy of activism, especially her work to fight land mines, homelessness, leprosy, and the stigma against AIDS. She also managed to become a fashion icon. Lyst — which recently recently ranked several female royals, including Kate Middleton, Queen Alexandra, Queen Elizabeth, and Princess Margaret, based on influence — named Diana the royal family’s most powerful fashion influencer ever.

Princess Diana’s little black “revenge dress.”
Princess Diana in her famous “revenge dress.”
Photo: Jayne Fincher/Getty Images

“What made Diana so appealing as a style influencer was her versatility — switching effortlessly between bright teal ball gowns and tiaras to racy slip dresses and shoulder-padded shirts,” Lyst editor Charlotte Austin told Racked. “The turning point for Diana’s style can be pinpointed to the breakdown of her marriage. The infamous 1996 ‘revenge dress’ was a defiant statement during a period of public scandal and gossip, and cemented Diana’s legacy as a style icon.”

Diana often used fashion to make a point, such as removing her gloves to touch HIV-positive patients or allowing her sons to wear blue jeans and baseball caps when exposing them to life outside the monarchy. Although she was a noblewoman, Diana was vocal about feeling like a misfit in the royal family. That experience drove her passion for charity work and her experimentation with fashion in a way that still makes her an influencer today. The trends she’s linked to, such as the Sloane Ranger look, velvet dresses, power shoulders, double denim, and polka dots, continue to be in high demand now, Lyst found. Markle’s outsider status may also lead to her breaking new ground as an influencer in fashion and generally.

“Both Meghan and Diana have been labeled as outsiders by royal insiders, and this has undoubtedly shaped their fashion choices,” Austin says. “If you’re already seen as different, why not own it? Rather than conform to the dowdy royal uniform, Diana slowly emancipated herself from twin sets and pearls, choosing form-fitting dresses and utilitarian casual wear instead. Meghan has set herself apart straight off the bat, keeping her outfits within touching distance of ‘royal standards’ but playing with jeans, prints, and a more casual Californian style.”

As a royal, Markle will have access to the firm’s vault of jewels. Katharine Polk, a celebrity stylist and designer, expects the actress to take an innovative approach to accessorizing, much like Diana did. In a peak ’80s move, the Princess of Wales once wore a choker Queen Elizabeth gave her as a headband.

Princess Diana, wearing a choker as a headband, dances with Prince Charles.
Princess Diana wears a diamond and emerald choker from the royal vault as a headband.
Photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images

“I predict that we will see a lot of similarities between Meghan and the late princess through Meghan’s accessory choices,” Polk says. “I think she will be slightly daring like Diana with her clothing too, but I think their styles will be different, which isn’t surprising since they’re from different eras. Diana made a lot of statements through her choice of accessories and how creative she was with them, and I think Meghan will do the same.”

The Meghan effect

A television star accustomed to working with stylists and makeup artists, Markle has a flair for fashion and beauty. She even had a lifestyle blog called The Tig, where she provided makeup tutorials, recipes, and photos of her travels. Given Markle’s history, it’s not surprising that Polk predicts she will exhibit a more adventurous sense of style than Middleton has so far.

The Duchess of Cambridge has been fairly risk-averse in her fashion choices, prompting articles arguing that she’s no style icon. In contrast, Markle’s taste in clothing has been described as “effortless chic,” and thanks to her wedding, she’s expected to surpass Middleton as an influencer this year. The wedding alone may drive £150 million (roughly $203 million) to the British economy, while the tourism and sales the wedding generates could have a £1 billion ($1.35 billion) impact.

Since she’s not marrying the future king, Markle has more freedom than Middleton to express herself through fashion, Austin contends.

“They are held to different standards (much like Harry and William were growing up),” she says. “Coming from America, Meghan will most likely strengthen the US appetite for the royals even more. Off the back of Kate’s popularity, Meghan is continuing to pave the way for a more inclusive, younger royal family, which will bolster her influencer status and get younger people interested in the royals again.”

Meghan Markle in a Mackage motorcycle jacket.
Meghan Markle in a wine-colored Mackage motorcycle jacket with a matching dress and clutch.
Photo: Karwai Tang/WireImage

Markle’s effect on fashion is even being felt at popular resale sites like Poshmark. Purchases of Markle faves like Mackage and Burberry peacoats are up by 193 percent and 80 percent, respectively. And purchases of handbags she’s carried, like Gucci mini bags and Mulberry satchels, are up 214 percent and 95 percent, respectively. Georgia and Massachusetts have seen the highest spikes of Markle-endorsed goods, according to Poshmark. (The site compared data from November 27, 2017, through April 19, 2018, to the same period a year earlier to reach its findings.)

Kate Franco, Poshmark’s senior director of merchandising, says Markle’s style has resonated with its largely millennial customer base because those customers are trend-driven and influenced by fashion’s cultural shifts.

“Meghan is reinventing royal fashion, and as a result, people are paying attention,” she says. “By taking classic royal looks and adding her own twist, she’s made royal fashion more accessible for the everyday woman — and that’s turning heads.”

What Markle wears, or doesn’t wear, to her wedding isn’t likely to overhaul tradition, as Queen Victoria did by making white dresses de rigueur. But it may influence current trends. Kate Middleton’s long-sleeved wedding dress inspired countless knockoffs, most recently a $299 replica now available at H&M. Meanwhile, there’s already demand for copies of Markle’s engagement ring. Prince Harry designed a three-stone sparkler for her fashioned by Cleave & Co. The jewelry maker announced in December that it would not make knockoffs despite countless requests to do so.

Kate Middleton’s wedding dress.
Kate Middleton’s wedding dress is still inspiring knockoffs, most recently a $299 replica from H&M.
Photo: Odd AndersenAFP/Getty Images

The color of Markle’s engagement ring may also shift trends. Harry gave her a yellow gold engagement ring, a move that could lead Americans away from white metals.

“I think some of the women who are getting married now want to mix things up in that respect and investigate metals that are a little unexpected,” says Tanya Dukes, a stylist and journalist who covers the jewelry industry. “And some women may have wanted to choose yellow gold all along but weren’t sure if they should.”

Harry purchased the center diamond in Markle’s ring from Botswana. It’s a country known for its conflict-free diamonds. His decision to choose a diamond from the African nation could sway others to seek out gems sourced there.

“Since diamonds were discovered there about a half-century ago, Botswana has made huge strides in terms of extending free public education to all of its children — building roads throughout the country and other infrastructure, all funded by the industry,” Dukes says. “Without question, Harry and Meghan understood the importance of diamonds to the country they care so much about.”

The center stone in Meghan Markle’s engagement ring is from Botswana. The smaller two are from Princess Diana’s jewelry collection.
Meghan Markle’s three-stone, yellow gold engagement ring is inspiring knockoffs.
Photo: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

Polk says that using one’s power to better the world is what being an influencer truly entails. Meghan Markle and Prince Harry appear to understand this, as did Queen Alexandra. During her roughly decade-long reign in the early 1900s, she not only set fashion trends but also threw herself into charity work and public functions, setting the standards for how royals today conduct themselves.

And Markle’s philanthropic efforts — she’s done advocacy work for several organizations, including World Vision, the Myna Mahila Foundation, and UN Women — is one reason she’s drawn comparisons to Princess Diana. Her passion for humanitarian work, fashion-forward style, and unique background that’s led to diverse groups feeling a connection to the royal family signals that she will wield her influence in a multifaceted way.

True influencers don’t make an impact purely through fashion, Polk says.

“I believe someone who uses their platform and popularity to influence their following is an influencer,” she explains. “If you can do that through fashion, you should use your power for greater good. I believe Meghan will do so while looking stunning.”

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