Fear and Clothing: The princess bride and other myths
A weekly column on the vagaries and charms of fashion
When writing about Princess Di on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of her untimely death earlier this year Hilary Mantel wrote: “Royal people exist in a place beyond fact-correction, in a mystical realm with rules that, as individuals, they may not see ... They are not people like us, but with better hats. They exist apart from utility, and by virtue of our unexamined and irrational needs. You can’t write or speak about the princess without explicating and embellishing her myth. She no longer exists as herself, only as what we made of her. Her story is archaic and transpersonal.”
She may as well have been writing about Meghan Markle. She has the double mantle (apologies) of being both a Hollywood princess and now in a matter of days a British one too. I have read so many opinions explicating and embellishing her myth in the tsunami of royal wedding buildup that I cannot imagine a world in which the real Meghan Markle – whoever she is – could please stand up. She is now relegated to myth. What her myth will turn out to be – who knows? Black princess in post-colonial Britain or Brexit fairy? The options are infinite.Hillary Mantel has chronicled the unfortunate events surrounding an earlier royal wedding. Not Di’s but Anne Boleyn’s – to serial monogamist Harry VIII. Hers apparently happened in a flood of embarrassment surrounding the dramatic break with the Catholic church and all the drama involving the earlier divorce. So no fanfare. Her daughter Elizabeth I loved fanfare but none related to weddings. Who can blame her given her mom’s unfortunate demise? Her cousin Mary Queen of Scots had a first wedding in France, marrying the Dauphin in grand style. So much so that the state was somewhat bankrupted. It was felt, however, that the pageantry must continue for nation-building purposes. History chronicles that a fake regatta was staged in one of the halls of the Louvre involving ships that bore the bride and groom and various sundry nobles across the halls to such realistic effect that all where charmed, delighted and convinced the French state was in excellent fiscal health. Not.
Years later – about 200 give or take – another princess, Marie Antoinette, was married off in Versailles. The streets of Paris lay fallow as all the denizens and sundry schlepped to Versailles to watch the spectacle. They gave away 5,000 prized invitations to the wedding by ticket. Think of the tragedy if some sad duchess mislaid the ticket. Barred from entry. Marie Antoinette was covered in diamonds – but the dress had a bad fit and contemporary gossips mentioned that her chemise showed through. It led to a fashionable outcome. The chemise – white cotton undergarments poking fetchingly through your dress – became a thing.I can totally get why royal weddings were such a thing in their day. Statecraft and the intermarriage of the rich and powerful where deeply intertwined. Princes and princesses where more than symbols – they were pawns in the geopolitics of the times. Peculiarly I have been thinking that this Meghan marries Harry thing is a brilliant set piece of statecraft too. Here is a rather marginal state, in the end days of its empire, extracting itself from a European future and stepping boldly into the unknown – what else can they do but throw a gigantic pageant? Replete with fairytale princess, handsome prince born of another fairytale princess, evil godmother in the form of tabloid press, peculiar father, reckless relatives and 5,000 lucky ticket holders. This is statecraft and mythology in full tilt. Bring on the regatta.