It happens like clockwork. Shortly after Meghan Markle, the newly named Duchess of Sussex, makes a public appearance, social media is flooded with Tweets and headlines describing exactly how she’s “broken royal protocol.”
“Meghan Markle’s Messy Bun Actually Breaks Royal Protocol” reads one article. “13 and Counting: All the Times Meghan Markle’s Outfits Broke Royal Protocol,” reads another. There are thousands of them. And while Meghan’s alleged infraction changes slightly every time, the churn of critique of the Duchess of Sussex remains predictably the same.
I get it. “Breaking royal protocol” is a buzzy phrase that drives clicks and stops your eye as you’re scrolling social media. But it belies a fundamental misunderstanding about what protocol is—because it has nothing to do with fashion or hair styles.
“When it comes to the royal world, protocol is a code of conduct. It’s etiquette; it’s custom; it has nothing to do with clothes,” royals commentator and expert Victoria Arbiter tells Town & Country.
Arbiter’s irritation with the rampant misuse of the phrase prompted her to take to Twitter earlier this week.
Of course, Meghan is hardly the first royal bride to be publicly dissected and called out for the way she’s dressing. “People are quick to forget, but Kate was heavily criticized for her shorter hemlines, for dresses that flew up,” Arbiter recalls.
“She had a number of times on the tarmac where her dresses hems weren’t weighted down and they flew up, revealing maybe a little more than they should have.”
But the social media landscape is quite different now than it was in 2011, when the Duchess of Cambridge was finding her bearings as a new royal. More people are on Twitter, and the conversation is harsher.
“Everybody’s a judge, everybody’s got an opinion, everybody wants their voice heard,” Artiber says of the crowds on social media. “Unfortunately so often they’re misguided about what protocol means.”
Everybody’s a judge, everybody’s got an opinion, everybody wants their voice heard.
In Meghan’s case, the misuse of the phrase “breaking royal protocol” has been co-opted by both the Duchess’s critics and her fans. Those who dislike Harry’s wife see it as a way to call out her every “misstep,” even when she’s done nothing wrong, increased scrutiny that in some cases comes from a place xenophobia or racism. And her admirers, who want to see her pushing boundaries, use the phrase as a way to amplify the ways she’s shaking up a staid institution.
“Meghan already ticks a number of boxes that in the past would not have been acceptable. So I think people are looking to her to be this revolutionary,” Arbiter says. “Yes, she catapulted the royal family into the 21st century just by the nature of who she is and what she represents, and that’s very exciting, but this is an institution that has been around for a thousand of years. She’s not about to go in there and unseat it.”
I can’t help but think there’s another element to it—let’s call it the princess trap. Meghan Markle has joined the British royal family by marrying into it, following the loose narrative of a thousand fairy and folk tales. It’s a role girls are supposed to want to play because it means they can go to balls and dress in beautiful clothes and live in palaces.
Markle does, in fact, get to do all those things now, but she is also clearly intent on doing more with her influence—like many working royals, her family obligations are also a career path, a call to service. As an actress she made a similar choice—to use her platform to speak about the causes she cares about.
“With fame comes opportunity, but it also includes responsibility–to advocate and share, to focus less on glass slippers and more on pushing through glass ceilings. And, if I’m lucky enough, to inspire,” Meghan wrote in 2016, before her relationship with Harry was public.
Arbiter points out that now that she’s a royal, Meghan isn’t likely to use her platform to challenge the status quo around hemlines—she has her eyes set on something else. “She is very respectful of the institution, and when she’s ready to make her mark, it won’t be what she’s choosing to wear to Trooping the Colour,” Arbiter continues. “It’ll be the causes she decides to support or the charities that she champions or the people she gets behind.”
Arbiter is alluding to the blush pink dress Meghan wore to Trooping the Colour in early June. The off-the-shoulder neckline, many people and publications claim, “broke protocol.” It didn’t.
“There was nothing offensive about her outfit,” Arbiter says. “Last year Princess Eugenie wore a sleeveless dress. In the past, Sophie Countess of Wessex has worn a dress that didn’t quite go off the shoulder, but it was rather revealing on the top. There are no set rules, other than being dressed appropriately for the occasion, which Meghan was. I think she looked rather lovely.”
The “breaking protocol” narrative also implies, subtly, that Meghan is naive or even incompetent. She’s not. And she has people to assist her with her sartorial choices to ensure that she is dressed appropriately for every occasion.
“Meghan will have been surrounded by people that are there to offer guidance and support, in particular Samantha Cohen, who has been working for the Queen for a number of years.” Arbiter says, “and Camilla and Kate are there to offer any number of questions.”
“But ultimately, there’s Prince Harry, and he’s not about to throw his new bride under the bus. She would have asked him, and he would have said ‘Yes, that’s fine.'”
At their worst, these headlines isolate the new Duchess of Sussex, minimizing her substance as a person and reinforcing her differences in subtle but unmistakable ways. It’s certainly true that Meghan is changing the royal family and that her presence in itself is revolutionary. And, in time, she will hopefully continue to break boundaries with the causes she chooses to influence.
So stop trying to other her, when there’s no controversy to be made.
“Let’s keep mindful of what protocol actually is. It’s beyond stockings and handbag styles and messy buns,” Arbiter says.
Rather, protocol is how Meghan conducts herself with diplomats, with the Queen, and when she’s representing the royal family out in public, something she’s done with grace and poise so far.
“She’s one person that’s really just trying to do her best. It’s only been a month. Let’s cut her a little slack,” Arbiter says. “We don’t want to destroy her before she’s even had a chance to get started.”
From: Town & Country US
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