The Powerful Messages Behind Meghan Markle's Post-Royal Wardrobe
"She knows that clothes play a role in everything," an insider says of the Duchess of Sussex.
Meghan Markle may have felt constrained from speaking her mind while she was living in the U.K., carrying out her duties as a working royal, but she's always managed to telegraph powerful messages through the clothes she wears. Right from the start, she subtly let it be known that she was not going to blindly follow the royal dress code by eschewing pantyhose (except on all but the most formal occasions), sporting her signature messy bun (instead of a more staid hairstyle), and choosing sleek black pant suits over demure colorful dresses. Like her late mother-in-law, Princess Diana, Meghan has always understood the language of clothes—and the Los Angeles-born duchess has been sending clear messages through her wardrobe choices ever since she joined "The Firm"—and even more so after she left it.
When it was time to say goodbye to royal life, Meghan's "Farewell Tour" wardrobe of stunningly chic designs in bold, bright colors let it be known, loud and clear, that the Duchess of Sussex was leaving royal life on her own terms and was determined to make a memorable exit. The last outfit she wore to Commonwealth Day services before jetting off to Canada was unmistakable in its defiance. Despite the seismic effect "Megxit" had made on the family, Meghan chose not to dress deferentially or demurely. Swathed in a Kelly green Emilia Wickstead dress in a style reminiscent of Wallis Simpson, another American divorcee who shook the House of Windsor to its core, Meghan made sure all eyes were on her. The ensemble's cape fluttered around her, seemingly in anticipation of the flight she would board immediately after the ceremony, leaving her 20-month stint as a royal behind her.
Just days after she began a new chapter in Canada, a smiling Meghan was photographed walking through the woods carrying her son, Archie Mountbatten-Windsor, and walking two her dogs wearing a fleece jacket, Lululemon leggings, a Madewell beanie, and her favorite Kamik boots, the same ones she'd worn for years while battling the cold Canadian winters while shooting Suits. It had been reported that she'd kept all her pre-royal clothes in storage in Toronto when she first moved to London in November 2017. In a way, she was telling the world she was happy to be out of the royal fishbowl.
"She may or may not have known the photographs were being taken," said one Palace insider. "But she must have known the paparazzi would be out looking for her and she made sure that she was looking relaxed and happy, wearing clothes from her life before she became a royal when she was out for the first time alone. The message was unmistakable."
The difference between Meghan's look from her days of dressing in the extravagantly elegant wardrobe she amassed after marring Prince Harry (reportedly costing an eye-watering £947,132.49, including her Givenchy wedding dress) and the pared down, California casual looks she has chosen to wear for her video calls during lockdown in Los Angeles is stunning.
Gone are the high-priced telegenic designer clothes, having been replaced by simple styles that ooze relatability—and more importantly, solidarity and unity with the causes and people Meghan and Harry have chosen to champion.
To deliver the commencement address to this year's graduating class of her former high school via video, Meghan wore a simple white sweater that almost blended into the background. Intentionally playing down her glamour with the barest of make-up and her long hair pulled back in a ponytail, Meghan appeared pained and passionate as she spoke of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of police in Minnesota on May 25 spawned worldwide protests, propelling the Black Lives Matter movement to the top of the headlines.
"She wanted to project seriousness and sincerity because she was deeply affected by that event," said one fashion insider who has worked with Meghan. "She is very, very careful about messaging. Meghan does not want to be window dressing. She has a voice that she wants to use for real change and not have it be overshadowed by drawing attention to some designer outfit."
For their most recent video conference with young leaders from the Queen's Commonwealth Trust, Meghan and Harry both wore simple white shirts as a sign of unity. Stylist Susie Haber told the Daily Mail, "Of course, Meghan is well aware of the symbolism of this colour. She is making a statement. She is showing she is unified with these causes, showing solidarity."
Meghan's choice of white clothing on both occasions is very much intentional. "Suffragette white" was the signature color of the women's movement in the 20th century. "It became something of a uniform, which meant any woman of any class or color could wear it—it wasn't, say, an expensive garment; it was a color of unity," said Haber. "It's the type of statement that doesn't require frills or fancy, because the choosing to wear all-white packs enough of a punch."
RELATED: For more up-to-date information, sign up for our daily newsletter.
Even when she isn't advocating for political causes, Meghan has completely transformed her appearance from a glamorous royal into a serious activist whose clothes are meant to make her blend in, not stand out. In April, when the duchess surprised a client of the London charity Smart Works with a pep talk via video before the woman's job interview, a fresh-faced Meghan wore a simple burgundy v-neck sweater. Last year, she created a capsule collection of classic sportswear with Smart Works, whose mission is to help women reenter the workforce through job coaching and free professional wardrobes.
"Meghan was an actress, so she knows that clothes play a role in everything," said a royal insider. "She has dressed the part of Hollywood actress and of dutiful duchess, now for the woman she is today. No longer interested in being a clotheshorse, she looks strong, confident, and determined to be a force for change." And for more on Meghan's post-royal life, check out Meghan Markle's Surprise Revelation Has the Royals "Bracing for the Worst."
Diane Clehane is a New York-based journalist and author of Imagining Diana and Diana: The Secrets of Her Style.