The alt fashions and revenge dressing of the monarchy's most dissident members have been inspiring designers for SS23.
Being a princess is in style. Not the always-poised symbol of perfection type though, rather a princess with edge, idiosyncrasy and an unusual story. We’re living in a time where Meghan Markle is on the cover of glossy mags, where TikTok has discovered Kate Middleton’s clubbing outfits, where the anticipation of Netflix’s portrayal of revenge dress-era Princess Di has kept us going, and where several SS23 collections were clearly inspired by unlikely royals.
Of course, this aesthetic interest is heavily backlit by royal affairs dominating the news, following Queen Liz’s death and the coronation of the King Charlie next year. So, while we repost critiques of the monarchy and simultaneously binge watch The Crown, we find our collective fashion consciousness drawn to the style of princesses who threw out the playbook.
The obvious place to start when examining fashion’s love of rule-breaking royals is, of course, with Princess Diana, the anti-monarchist's fave member of the ruling class. Diana has been a fashion icon since the 80s, but her legacy, which inevitably includes her wardrobe, has been heavily revisited as of late through portrayals that move away from the Disney-ification of royal lives — not only in Netflix’s best show, but also in Spencer and a documentary loaded with rare archival footage that highlights similarities between Meghan Markle’s treatment by the press and her own. Throughout these revisitations, Diana’s style has remained key to how we interpret her public persona, and an insightful look into her private life.
Diana’s style is so enduring that it has come to brand certain looks. Any sexy, off-the-shoulder black dress is a “revenge dress” because of her; anyone wearing bike shorts with a sweatshirt surely feels at least a little like Diana in those infamous paparazzi shots. GmbH's AW21 menswear show speaks to this effect — the criss-cross neckline that dominated the collection was immediately labelled revenge dress-adjacent, and has since become a key motif for the brand. When we see a male model in an off-the-shoulder black number (or indeed ourselves in those bike shorts) and see something of Diana, we’re really after a bit of the mystery and glamour that comes with breaking lavish rules in lavish ways — the way only a princess could.
Emitting a specialness that seems to fill up any situation is perhaps the condition of the unconventional royal’s allure. Copenhagen-based brand Saks Potts’ SS23 collection was inspired by Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark. Born and raised in Australia, Mary met the heir to the Danish throne in a pub, later moving to Copenhagen to continue their courtship ahead of their marriage. It’s what she wore during this transitional period, on Danish soil but not yet a princess (while she worked a day job at Microsoft, no less!), that inspired Barbara Potts and Cathrine Saks. The duo reported that central to their moodboard was a particular photo of Mary walking around in casual white pants and a black tank top, paired with big sunglasses, flip-flops, and a silk chiffon scarf tied as a skirt.
The outfit is simple, an early-00s staple even, but endlessly elegant when you know the girl wearing it is living out the first pages of a fairytale. Eloise Moran, author of The Lady Di Look Book and curator of @ladydirevengebooks, says that “people have a fascination with the ‘before’ of being a princess; or in Meghan Markle's case, the ‘after’, when these women really dressed, or dress, for themselves.” Saks Potts has made the prologue to the fairytale wearable, turning casual flip-flops and halter tops into latent princess cosplay and by-stepping the literalism of ballgowns and tiaras. Likewise, Meghan’s magazine covers speak to how powerful this visual narrative can be when deployed in real life. In her 2017 Vanity Fair cover portrait, taken while she was dating Prince Harry, Meghan is in fairytale mode, bare-shouldered with romantic waves. In her recent covers for The Cut and Variety, she is sleek and staring, aware of the public’s insatiable appetite for the other side of the fairytale, and willing to tell the story — on her own terms.
Throughout history, there have also been royals who — though certainly not unconventional by birth or circumstance — shook up dress codes in their circles. Louis XIV’s younger brother Philippe I, for example, was known to attend balls wearing women’s clothes. And the passion for alt fashion didn’t die with the French monarchy. London-based Bulgarian designer AV Vattev’s latest collection was inspired by the unusual style of Princess Kalina of Bulgaria. Vattev says he found excitement in how the 50-year-old “mixes traditional Bulgarian clothing and jewellery with modern and unexpected elements”. The unexpected elements in question? Metal-spiked dog collars, gold-woven cornrows and Mad Max-style glasses.
This kind of eccentric royal seems to scratch the Vivienne Westwood part of our brains that loves a princess who rages against the machine — if only on the surface. Fashion historian Caroline Elenowitz-Hess notes that, “an individual with all the resources of royalty but none of the responsibilities can be a fascinating subject to explore aesthetically while dodging some of the ethical landmines”. It’s a specificity all the more relevant as more people than ever ponder the British monarchy’s enrichment through colonialism, following the death of the Queen.
Maybe, then, the princess who doesn’t play by the rules also offers a scrumptious stasis somewhere between “eat the rich” and “let them eat cake”. In Galliano’s seminal SS94 show, the rebellious runaway princess who acts as the show’s narrative centre ends up marrying a British Lord, returning to her noble roots with a defiant streak and bohemian past as accessories. A figure clothed in the jewels of the empire but too irregular or rebellious to represent the the institution itself — perhaps never really wanting to in the first place.