Is the Meghan Markle Effect on Fashion Overrated?

Meghan Duchess of Sussex attends the Sentebale Polo - Getty - H 2018
Samir Hussein/WireImage

Three months into her royal role, the Duchess of Sussex's style impact has been underwhelming.

How powerful is the “Meghan effect?"

The term was used to describe the commercial clout wielded by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex (nee Meghan Markle) in the lead-up to her May 2018 wedding to Prince Harry. The fashion industry thought it had found a savior, with economists estimating Duchess Meghan could pump as much as $210 million into the British economy alone, as fans flocked to copy everything she wore. A camel-colored wool coat by Canada's Sentaler; a Scotland-made Strathberry bag; and Ralph and Russo couture were just a few of the styles said to have crashed websites, sold out or experienced significantly increased retail sales spikes thanks to her golden touch.

But the “Meghan effect" seems to have encountered a bit of a glitch.

A text message sent last week from a sales associate at Oscar de la Renta’s Madison Avenue boutique, for example, came with the offer to order in any size the blue floral wrap dress Duchess Meghan wore to a mid-June wedding. At nearby Carolina Herrera, a retail professional explained over the telephone that the denim wrap dress Duchess Meghan sported at a July 26 charity polo match, could also be had with ease. (Like the de la Renta frock, it is from the designer’s cruise collection and has yet to hit the sales floor.) Ralph Lauren’s $690 “Adrien” striped cotton shirt, which the Duchess sported at the 2018 Wimbledon women’s final, is also available in sizes 0 through to 12 on the designer’s website.

Before her marriage, the Duchess was predicted to become a style force even more powerful than sister-in-law Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. Catherine’s patronage of Alexander McQueen — the maker of her wedding gown and much of the wardrobe she wears fulfilling royal duties — was said to have revived the British label following its founder’s passing. Givenchy designer Clare Waight Keller has also received a boost from dressing Meghan for her wedding day. But Meghan’s identity — as the first biracial woman to marry into the British royal family — had the potential to also make her day-to-day fashion choices appeal to an even wider audience. So far, that hasn't happened.

One reason could be that since the Duchess married Prince Harry, her style choices have been underwhelming — and overpriced, at least for fans of accessible pieces such as the $175, everywoman Everlane leather tote she famously wore to the 2017 Invictus Games.

Less-than-perfect fits have also plagued the new royal, seen in both the Oscar de la Renta dress worn to a wedding and the Ralph Lauren pants sported at Wimbledon. That could be due to weight loss brought on by the stress of fronting a global event witnessed by 2 billion people, not to mention the continuous, indiscreet interviews her father, Thomas Markle, has conducted with TMZ.

But more than anything, she seems to have fallen into the familiar style wilderness zone that beleaguers every woman recently married into the House of Windsor, including Diana, Princess of Wales, Sarah, Duchess of York, Sophie, Countess of Wessex and Duchess Catherine. The personal style of each woman went into a decided awkwardness as she grappled with adapting to her new position as an intensely scrutinized close relation to all-powerful Queen Elizabeth II.

As Royal expert, Vanity Fair contributor and author of Harry, Life, Loss, and Love (Hachette) Katie Nicholl explains, the Queen has style guidelines to which her daughters-in-law must adhere when on duty. “Dresses can’t be too short,” she explains. “The Queen doesn’t like the women in her family to flash too much leg. Necklines can’t be too plunging. The clothes need to send out a message, but they shouldn’t detract from the engagement the royal is on. Conservative and stylish is the general combination the Queen likes when it comes to royal dressing.” (How else to explain the nurse-like white pantyhose the Duchess of Cambridge stepped out in for her first royal engagement?)

The “conservative” aspect to this equation is “what she is struggling with,” says Claudia Da Ponte. The Vancouver-based stylist committed herself to a “three-week crash course” in Meghan Markle style so she could replicate it as costume designer of the 2018 Lifetime movie Harry and Meghan: A Royal Romance

Duchess Catherine managed to handle the transition better from a style standpoint. She complied with protocol — and disguised the weight loss she experienced after her 2011 nuptials — by having her clothes made-to-measure by London dressmakers who are favored by the British aristocracy including Jenny Packham and Catherine Walker, on whom Princess Diana relied when she left her freewheeling “Lady Di” days behind and forged a “more serious image,” recalled her wardrobe adviser, Anna Harvey, the former British Vogue editor.

The future queen consort also worked with a stylist to hone her “Duchess next door” image (think accessible items paired with designer pieces), which complements the royal family’s quest for accessibility. While that formula evokes the combination famously pioneered by former First Lady Michelle Obama, the Queen’s propensity to recycle her own wardrobe items (even if she is one of the world’s richest women, she is notoriously thrifty) is said to have inspired Duchess Catherine to follow suit. Duchess Catherine also tried to economize and do it all on her own. But three years into her marriage she threw in the towel, promoting Natasha Archer, her personal assistant, to be her full-time stylist.

The long-distance relationship Duchess Meghan seems to be maintaining with her stylist, Jessica Mulroney, who lives in Toronto, may be why she has yet to tell a coherent story through her clothes. “She’s still playing around,” observes Nicholl. 

“She did it all backwards,” reasons Elizabeth Saltzman.

The Hollywood stylist compares Duchess Meghan’s current wardrobe challenge to that experienced by her clients, Gwyneth Paltrow and Saoirse Ronan, when she worked with them to perfect a sartorial narrative for the Oscars campaign trail. “Meghan went from the Academy Awards [her wedding] to finding her path,” adds Saltzman. “Actresses do it the other way around.”

Style snafus mitigating the “Meghan effect” (and riling up social media fashion critics) include her reliance on high heels for any occasion (even on the grass at Wimbledon), always dressing in a predictably monochromatic manner (wouldn't something more joyful than drab military green have fit the bill for Prince Louis' christening?) and brandishing some bewildering accessories (see the outsize, Fendi "Peekabo0" bag she toted to meet Ireland’s President).

According to Saltzman, these blunders are easily fixable. “I would perfect the fit of her clothes,” she advises. “Less is always more. But sometimes a little bit more is also necessary.”

There have been some hits among the misses, too. The bold daffodil yellow Brandon Maxwell shift dress, which the Duchess sported in July at a meeting for 100 youths representing Commonwealth Nations, was “glorious,” according to Saltzman. “The Queen likes color,” adds Nicoll. “She wants royals to be seen when they are on duty.”