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Meghan Markle’s Sheer Top Was a Sneaky Statement for a Royal Portrait

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Meghan Markle, the soon-to-be wife of the man who is soon to be sixth in line to the British throne, set off something of a controversy this week when the couple’s official engagement photographs were released.

There were two portraits: a close-up of the two nuzzling romantically, diamond engagement ring carefully, if seemingly casually, exposed; and a more formal seated arrangement. At issue was Ms. Markle’s choice of top for the second: a sheer black shirt embroidered with gold leaves over a long ruffled skirt. (Prince Harry wore a blue suit and tie.)

Given that this portrait was part of the record for posterity, the shirt had a bigger impact than one might have expected. It pretty much immediately became a symbol of how Ms. Markle, a biracial American (former) actress and activist, was going to approach her new role.
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“You’ve never seen a royal engagement photo like this,” one commentator wrote.

Indeed, in the context of official royal engagement photos, the choice was quite radical.

Not only did it look transparent, save for those strategic embroideries (it wasn’t actually transparent, probably because it had been lined), it was fairy-tale formal and, as a couture gown, reportedly priced at 56,000 pounds, or $75,000.

Compared to, say, the engagement photo of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, which featured the bride-to-be in a pretty, conservative white day dress by Reiss, a British high street label, and framed her immediately as a newly accessible, down-to-earth kind of royal, Ms. Markle’s choice was labeled variously as “sensual” and “risqué.”
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But what it was, really, was a pretty big statement of difference. Which was presumably the point.

Not everyone was so thrilled. Some took offense at the transparent nature of the top, which they felt was not dignified enough for a royal. Others were upset about the elitist price of the dress. Ms. Markle has, since her engagement, become a singular mover of product — the coat she wore when she and Harry announced their plans sold out almost immediately — but the ball gown is in a different category.

Whether you like the dress or not, or felt it was appropriate or not, it all adds up to proof that Ms. Markle is pretty clear on her job.

Not only did she dutifully represent her country-to-be by wearing all British brands (sweater by Victoria Beckham, dress by Ralph & Russo), as opposed to the Canadian labels she has favored in the past, but she did so while simultaneously acknowledging the Cinderella nature of her romance, at least in the public mind, and breaking, ever so slightly, with tradition.

She represents, simply by background, a completely different kind of royal. This has both raised expectations for reform and made traditionalists nervous. The engagement photo doesn’t shy away from either reaction; it underscores both. It also demonstrates that she is perfectly aware that everything she wears is going to be under the social media spotlight, so she might as well make it work for her.
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Indeed, it’s not just what she wears, but what anyone around her wears. Just before the portraits were released, Ms. Markle attended the queen’s Christmas lunch at Buckingham Palace. Another guest, Princess Michael of Kent, who is married to the queen’s cousin, came under fire from Britain to Australia for sporting what looked like a Blackamoor brooch on her coat.

The choice of accessory was widely seen a not-so-subtle slap at Ms. Markle, who has talked about her past experiences with racism. Whether Princess Michael thought her jewelry through or whether it was simply an extraordinarily tone-deaf choice, the piece, and the reaction to it, are a sign that even the smallest gestures are going to have a heightened import as the royal family adjusts to a modern identity. Far beyond Britain and the formal royal watchers, many have a special investment in this particular story and how it gets told.

If her future sister-in-law modernized, to a certain extent, the royal image by knocking it gently off its pedestal, Ms. Markle has the opportunity and, apparently, the aegis, to take it further. The destuffing of the House of Windsor is entering a new stage.

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