Harry and Meghan were featured on the front cover of Time CREDIT: Reuters
The Duchess’s serious style during her New York visit has royal watchers asking: is she dressing for the job she has or the one she wants?
Looking back at the first official tour completed by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, when they were still Royal, the dress code they chose for visiting Australasia in 2018 was striking. Smart casual with a hint of glamour and dresses with pockets. Wellies and skinny jeans for her, V-neck fleece top and grey trousers for him. Bursts of colour, polka dots, stripes.
Those Harry and Meghan met reflected what seemed to be an enjoyable and successful visit – children of all ages, soldiers, tribal elders, a positively beaming NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Walkabouts became occasions for spontaneous bouts of emotion, laughter, cheers – even overwhelmed tears from one teen at meeting the Prince himself.
Cut to this week, and a very different tour was under way for the pair. This time, the couple were dressed for business. Smartly cut navy suits for Harry, worn hedge fund manager-style with thick pristine white shirts and a slim co-ordinating tie.
Meanwhile, despite sweltering heat, Meghan stepped out in polo necks, mannish trousers and broad-shouldered cashmere coats in black, navy and neutral hues. No longer a Royal bride in shift dresses and spindly heels, the Duchess’s outfits screamed Head of State, all expensively subdued power-broking clothes. No wonder many royal watchers wondered was Meghan dressing for the job she has or dressing for the one she wants?
Perhaps the visit itself – the couple’s first since leaving Britain for California and working Royal life – holds the key. Certainly the trip to New York was official in style. From the moment the Duke and Duchess swept into the Big Apple, with their cavalcade of blacked-out SUVs, regal waves and trademark cutesy hand-holding to a phalanx of flashbulbs, the resemblance to a Royal tour was unmistakable. Certainly, mayor Bill de Blasio seemed to think he was meeting the Queen’s representatives as he rolled out the red carpet, closing the 9/11 Memorial to members of the public to afford the Sussexes a private visit.
But hang on – perhaps de Blasio didn’t realise that Harry and Meghan are just members of the public now – and happily so. Let’s not forget Harry even expressed his hand-wringing sympathy to chat show hostess Oprah that future kings – his brother, Prince William, and his father, Prince Charles – were “trapped” in the gilded cage of Royalty.
However instead of liberating themselves to a quietly satisfying domestic life under the radar in the Californian sunshine, the couple seems to have sought a purpose fanatically, non-stop, staying firmly and contentedly in the spotlight ever since, with this New York visit – to attend the 24-hour broadcast Global Citizen Live in Central Park on Saturday September 25 – perhaps the most deliberate statement of intent yet. In taking the city by storm, was Meghan crowning herself Queen of the Sussexes’ Alternative Royal Court?
Look at those outfits again. They don’t say Princess in Training, as the Bondi beach dress and wedges did, any more. The 2021 sartorial statement is: “Take me seriously. I am a future player. A future governor. A future president. The first female president, no less.” Is it fantastical that Meghan’s apparent ambition is to hold the highest office in her sight? Some will say that’s laughable. But remember, as Harry made clear before their wedding, what Meghan wants, Meghan gets.
Consider too that Meghan and Harry held court during their stay at the chic Upper East Side Carlyle hotel, known as New York’s “Tower of Power.” As Meghan meticulously choreographs every optic, even travelling to New York with her personal photographer, Los Angeles-based Matt Styles, was staying at The Carlyle a further coded message of her political aspiration? The Carlyle is famous for hosting every American president since Harry S Truman.
And the power players paying homage to the non-Royal couple in New York were impressive, including the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who said that they had shared an “important discussion of Covid, racial justice and raising mental health awareness.” Democrats whom Meghan sought out included de Blasio and his writer and activist wife Chirlane McCray, Patricia Harris from Bloomberg Philanthropy, and New York state governor Kathy Hochul, as can be seen in the picture opposite.
But what does all this political swagger and imagery actually achieve? Who are the Sussexes representing apart from themselves?
This high-profile jaunt does not have the constitutional backing of the Crown or State, so is, in fact, just a PR or work trip. Certainly, the photographs of Prince Harry entertaining business people to glasses of white wine in the Carlyle’s Bemelmans Bar, looked like any middle-management corporate jolly. In their black suits and open necked white shirts, lolling on Bemelmans banquettes, Harry could have been having a quick drink with the head of HR. Genuine Royal tours represent the highest level of international visits with the purpose to confirm the good relationships between the countries concerned.
Harry and Meghan may have conducted their visit with all the swagger of a Royal tour – complete with an entourage of 10 cars, numerous outriders, 20 bodyguards and, it is believed, some sort of official US government protection – but there was one vital thing missing. There was no substance or influential institution behind this. The Court of Meghan is built on the sands of her grandiosity, which is why, in spite of her charity work, woke prophesising and rubbing shoulders with the influential liberal elite, her posturing lacks significance.
Where does this leave the Prince, who before his marriage, didn’t show huge interest in breaking bread or drinking martinis with a democratic governor? Will he be the Prince Philip to Meghan’s Queen: loyally supporting her to the last in a low-key way?
Alas, Harry seems to have forgotten his grandfather’s Royal edict which was to conduct himself in a useful yet unassuming manner. Prince Philip supported charities such as the World Wildlife Fund, without hectoring or lecturing anyone on climate change. He quietly established the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme without fanfare or seeking back-slapping public applause. You can’t imagine Prince Philip posing for a cringe-worthy cover of Time magazine, to celebrate the influential.
It’s easier to make comparisons with that other Ducal couple, the Windsors. After enforced exile, post the abdication in 1936, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor lived with a draining lack of purpose when it became clear that their previous existence was unrecoverable to them. But unlike the Sussexes, the Windsors longed to return to England and to be welcomed back into the fold of Royal life. They didn’t seek to establish an alternative Royal court; they ached to be part of the real thing.
Edward VIII desperately wanted his brother, King George VI, to give him some official role, especially after the Second World War. When this was not forthcoming – courtier Tommy Lascelles famously said that there was “no room for two kings” in England – the Windsors became major players in café society, attending exotic balls and charity functions.
Yet, however disgruntled they were, the pair never sought to upstage or undermine the Royal family. There was no sense of competition, only deep hurt at the familial fracture that Edward’s marriage to Wallis Simpson created.
Perhaps what is so alarming about Meghan and Harry’s “official” visit is that the Sussexes could be seen as thinking their Californian Alternative Royal Court could have more currency than the real British Royal court today, and act as a launchpad for Meghan’s political ascent.
Worryingly for many, in that bid for political influence, Meghan risks doing untold damage to the monarchy. The Sussexes know that they have the celebrity wattage to knock the British Royals on official functions off the front pages – even though this Alternative Royal Court derives its appeal from celebrity and is transient, insubstantial, plastic and everything that the House of Windsor is not. The real Royal court is authentic, solid and timeless. We uphold the Queen’s ideals and cherish her because of her sense of duty, not her sense of style.
By swanning around New York with their security detail, SUVs and curated wardrobe like any other flashy celebrities du jour, Meghan and Harry devalue the clout and prestige of a real Royal tour. Images of the Prince in particular quaffing wine with businessmen in expensive hotel bars smacks of commerce, not non-partisan connection.
So Harry seems to be set on a new life as Everyman with an entourage and Meghan wants it all. Could that include her Alternative Royal Court reigning in the US at the expense of Britain’s beloved House of Windsor?