On May 19, 2018, the royal nuptials of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex made history and broke traditions, with the bride Meghan Markle’s wedding dress almost serving as an allegory.
An estimated 1.9 billion people tuned in to watch Prince Harry and Markle say their I do’s, while 600 guests, including Serena Williams, Oprah Winfrey, Idris Elba, David and Victoria Beckham, and the cast of Suits, filled Windsor Castle’s St. George’s Chapel. British gospel ensemble The Kingdom Choir sang Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me,” as Chicagoan Michael Curry, the first Black presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. in his powerful sermon. In Windsor, around 100,000 enthusiastic supporters turned out in person to catch a glimpse of the festivities.
“There was something about [the gown] that really captured that new journey that [the Sussexes] were going to be on,” says Markle’s wedding dress designer Clare Waight Keller, then artistic director of Givenchy, and the first woman to hold the role. “The fact that this was a very different wedding—and ceremony—to any other royal event in that chapel or any royal weddings, previously.”
Taking Inspiration From Hollywood and Fashion Royalty
Designing Meghan Markle’s wedding dress—estimated to cost $265,000 (and paid for by the former Suits star)—entailed 3,900 hours of design for the veil, eight fittings, and five months of clandestine communication. “It all started out, in a way, quite relaxed,” Waight Keller says. “We just talked a lot about her personal style.”
Classic gowns in Old Hollywood fare provided reference points for the actor turned producer. “She’d always loved Audrey Hepburn,” Waight Keller says. The silver screen legend’s bateau-neck wedding dress, designed by Hubert de Givenchy for 1957’s Funny Face, presents a through line to Markle’s open neckline, “a small, rounded, neat shoulder,” and a sculptural silhouette—all signatures of the French fashion house.
Individualistic style from American royalty also provided inspiration. “Both of us also loved Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and the fact that she surprised everyone with the simplicity of what she wore for her  wedding,” Waight Keller says. (Back in 2016, Markle did laud the late fashion icon’s bias-cut dress, by Narciso Rodriguez for Cerruti, as: “everything goals.”)
The Sussexes also looked to Hollywood to document the event historically through the official royal portraits. They chose British fashion and celebrity photographer Alexi Lubomirski, who lensed the likes of Beyoncé for Harper's Bazaar UK and Angelina Jolie for American Elle. Early on, Lubomirski studied ancestral wedding photos with the couple. “The only reference that they gave me was to try and not [photograph the portraits] too uniformly. I didn’t want it to look like a school photo or a regimental military picture,” says Lubomirski, who then pivoted to contemporary examples. “I started to get them to look at group photos from more fashion and portraiture [sources]. A lot of Vanity Fair, actually. A lot of Annie Leibovitz, obviously, because she’s the queen of group photos.”
Blazing Her Own Path
“We talked a lot about what [Markle] really felt represented her as a modern interpretation of the royal role,” Waight Keller says. “She wanted to bring some simplicity and just timeless elegance. Not overly feminine, but not really minimal either. That effortless American style, where it just feels really fresh and personal. But it’s not overwhelming. It’s not specific to any particular decade.”
Like sister-in-law Catherine, now princess of Wales, Markle innovated by selecting a contemporary fashion house, while also uplifting a British woman designer. But Markle’s vision diverged from Kate Middleton’s lace wedding dress, by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, as well as Princess Diana’s volume and ruffles by David and Elizabeth Emanuel.
“Meghan’s gown stands out by departing from the usual royal wedding style. It’s quite unique that there’s no lace, embroidery, or any decorations,” observes Savannah College of Art and Design professor Sarah Collins. The fashion scholar also thinks the minimalist design characterizes traits of the United States, where the Sussexes now reside, as nonworking royals. “[It’s] reflective of American fashion, which has always been more practical and less adorned than European fashions,” Collins says. “American fashion has traditionally followed the puritanical austerity of America’s beginnings where practicality and function are more important than aesthetics.”
Designing the Picture-Perfect Wedding Dress
Waight Keller and Markle collaborated in determining the pure white sheen to evoke “modernity,” per a Kensington Palace statement. The designer then scoured fabric mills across Europe to develop a double-bonded silk cady for a soft matte, but gracefully luminous effect. Six meticulously placed seams construct the gown’s contoured silhouette, which culminates at the back of Meghan Markle’s wedding dress into a majestic 16-foot-long train, intensified with a triple-silk organza underskirt. The near-off-the-shoulder neckline and three-quarter-length sleeves feel contemporary and progressive, while respecting tradition.
“There was that sense of playfulness and modernity and doing things in a different way,” Waight Keller says. “And I really feel that—for the dress, particularly—that sense of it could be something that really represented her, her spirit, her modernity, and the freshness and the cleanness.”
Markle’s first wedding dress also proved ideal for Lubomirski’s photography style, which highlights the emotion and spontaneity of subject or occasion—especially in the viral photo of the newlyweds taking a blissful breather on the steps of Windsor Castle’s rose garden. Markle’s gown drapes effortlessly, and flawlessly, as she smiles off into the distance, with a grinning Prince Harry’s arm around her shoulder. (She later changed into a Stella McCartney halter gown for a private reception hosted by her father-in-law, now King Charles III.)
“When you’re looking at my photos, you’re not looking at the precise beauty of the dress as a sculpture. You’re looking at it in conjunction with the person wearing it,” says Lubomirski, who also credits Waight Keller and Markle’s hair stylist, Serge Normant, for pulling off the shot in just three minutes. “So it doesn’t feel like she’s there and she’s stuffed and doesn’t move. She’s living in that dress, but it happens to look incredible, which is a testament to the designer.”
Making a Grand Entrance
The Duchess of Sussex broke general wedding convention by beginning her walk down the aisle on her own. King Charles III then joined Markle halfway to accompany her to the altar. Of course, the solo stride wasn’t originally planned, as her father, Thomas, decided not to attend just days before. But, Markle’s wedding dress was ready to support the momentous entrance, while exemplifying the new royal forging her own path.
“Just at the very front, you can see the little points of her shoes. It’s quite a ’60s Givenchy detail,” Waight Keller says, indicating the gown’s slightly raised hemline, providing a peek of Markle’s silk duchess satin couture heels and flexibility for bold strides. “So, it just meant there was never any hesitation of her ever tripping or getting caught or anything. Her feet were always free at the front.”
Impressing King Charles III With the Meaningful Veil
To honor her then royal duties, Markle’s 16.5-foot silk tulle veil was hand-embroidered with silk and organza flora distinctive of all 53 countries of the Commonwealth. For example, the tropical orchid for Kenya, jasmine for Pakistan and a Tudor rose for England. Markle paid homage to her home state and the Royal Family with two flowers: the California poppy and the wintersweet, which blooms on Kensington Palace grounds.
“[She] felt like she was bringing an element of each of those countries down the aisle with her. So that her new role—and that bridge to the new role—was captured in what she was wearing,” Waight Keller says. “For both of us, we felt it was a really beautiful signature, and I think even Prince Harry was just thrilled at the idea that we really tried to capture something for everyone in that service.”
To symbolize love and charity, crops of wheat were intricately blended into the floral motif at the front of the veil, which was secured with Queen Mary’s diamond and platinum bandeau tiara. The Givenchy atelier workers in Paris sewed for hundreds of hours and washed their hands every 30 minutes to ensure that the threads and tulle remained immaculate.
The groom’s father, a staunch supporter of British hand-craftsmanship and artisan traditions, was also moved by the gesture. “King Charles was just in awe of the dress and the [veil] embroidery, and he asked me about it while we were waiting inside the nave,” Waight Keller says. “He was really very interested, actually, in all the different motifs and the floral representations.”
Celebrating Prince Harry With “Something Blue”
The duchess put a creative twist on her serendipitous “something blue.” After dismissing “a garter or something like that,” Waight Keller explains, Markle snipped a piece of fabric from the dress she wore on her first date with Prince Harry.
“We basically sewed it into the hem of the wedding dress, so she was the only one that knew that it was there. It was a little blue gingham check,” Waight Keller says, dropping a significant clue about the Sussexes’ origin story—and for social media sleuths to scour the Wayback Machine. “It was the perfect personal memento that was secretly hidden inside the dress.”
Coordinating With the Bridesmaid Dresses
The six bridesmaids (or flower girls), including Prince William’s daughter, Princess Charlotte, coordinated with Markle in crisp white Givenchy haute couture. “She said, ‘I don’t want them to feel trussed up or like they’re in some old-fashioned dress,’” Waight Keller explains. “So these were just really modern and clean, but also something that they could move around in and felt like they were real children’s clothes.”
Evoking “very simple little T-shirt shapes,” in look and comfort, Waight Keller animated the ivory silk radzimir frocks with lively details: empire waistlines, short puff sleeves, tiny pleats, and hand-finished double silk ribbon bows at the back. “They had the same principles of modernity that the wedding gown had,” says Waight Keller, who also added pockets. “It was an important link between the two.”