Unless you’ve been living under a nice rock for the past six months (and in that case, you have my full admiration), you’re probably aware that – according to tabloid sources, at least – Meghan Markle, the new Duchess of Sussex, has been taking a steamroller to that most nebulous (yet also uncompromising) of concepts, ‘royal protocol.’ She’s been breaking royal protocol by walking around with bare legs (in British summertime!). She’s been breaking royal protocol by wearing the wrong sort of hats. And she’s most egregiously been breaking royal protocol with her fondness for slightly messy buns. It's almost as if the royal family have never been embroiled in, you know, actual scandals of the non-sartorial kind before.
Most recently, Meghan’s been breaking royal protocol with her bare shoulders. Having previously incited a flurry of outraged headlines when she’d dared to wear sleeveless dresses for royal events, the Duchess’s first Trooping the Colour outfit – an off-the-shoulder Carolina Herrera co-ord in dusty pink – was again construed as violating these unwritten royal fashion rules. Headlines compared and contrasted the Duchess of Cambridge’s more ‘appropriate’ outfit, with its covered shoulders and long sleeves, while some Twitter commentators were so incensed that they declared this rather tasteful pink ensemble to be a slight, an outrage, and utterly inappropriate.
This is, of course, a storm in a bone china tea cup. While the Trooping the Colour (which marks the Queen’s official birthday) is a key event in the royal family’s calendar, there are no hard rules about the precise ratio of exposed female shoulder that can be displayed. Looking back at photos from past balcony appearances shows that, yes, Meghan’s sister-in-law Kate has tended to stick to long-sleeved dresses and jackets, but other royals (Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, and Sophie, Countess of Wessex to name a few) have played it less safe. Look back through the Duchess of Cambridge’s style file and you’ll note that Kate is actually fully onboard with the cold-shoulder neckline: her most recent foray into the trend came on last year’s European tour, when she chose a red off-the-shoulder gown by Alexander McQueen for an evening drinks reception.
Why, then, is the media so invested in this idea of Meghan as a royal rule breaker? Part of our ongoing fascination with the royals is rooted in their lack of transparency: they’re the antithesis of celebrity over-sharers in that almost everything we know about their day-to-day lives is rooted in speculation and shrouded in layers of centuries-long mystique. However realistic The Crown might seem, we’ll never really know what goes on behind palace doors, so, this idea of a dusty and mysterious rule book in the basement of Buckingham Palace (probably decreeing that all royal women must wear flesh-coloured tights until the ravens leave the Tower of London) is a compelling one.
Sometimes, Meghan’s apparent willingness to side-step the royal rubric is framed in a positive way: she’s a ‘breath of fresh air,’ someone who’s bringing the monarchy well and truly into the twenty-first century. But sometimes, the subtext is more troubling. Implying that Meghan doesn’t know the rules, that she isn’t quite ‘one of them,’ even repeatedly describing her as ‘modern’ and ‘non-traditional,’ is a way of emphasising difference, of othering her without explicitly talking about race. The digital headlines about Meghan 'breaking royal protocol' aren't going to stop any time soon (neither are the implicit comparisons with Kate) but it's important that we look behind the clickbait and ask what they're really trying to say.
Look back at the best dressed guests at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's wedding in the gallery below...
Earl Spencer and Lady Karen Spencer
Prince Harry's uncle - and Princess Diana's younger brother, with his wife, Lady Karen Spencer.