As the bride of a Royal, Meghan Markle has a lot weighing on her shoulders. More important than running charities, attending public events, and representing the United Kingdom, the wife of a prince is expected to serve as a style icon, whether you want her to or not. And Wallis Simpson was the original iconic Royal.
Princess Diana set the precedent for royal brides back in the 80s—a new princess or duchess is a style icon, inspiring fashion choices for commoners of all nationalities. Diana’s cotton ball of a wedding dress provoked a decade of puffy-shouldered bridal looks. And that was just the beginning—every look she sported during her reign was historic, quintessential, and inspiring.
While the Princess of Wales set the standard to which future princess brides have been compared, the truth is that before there was Diana, there was Wallis Simpson. The American bride to King Edward VIII (aka Queen Elizabeth’s uncle) was as stylish as she was scandalous.
A socialite expatriate, Wallis was already a couple of years into her second marriage when she met Edward, then known as the Prince of Wales and next-in-line to the British throne. Their tryst began a few years later, and needless to say Edward’s mum and dad were not happy. For one thing, Wallis was still married, and for another, in the early 1930s, the Church of England was not too happy with the idea of remarriage after a divorce. Which is kind of interesting because Henry VIII only instituted the C of E so he could start divorcing wives instead of beheading them. This was actually the case until 2002, so divorcée Meghan Markle should count herself lucky.
So when Edward became king in early 1936 and was still hooking up with a married woman, people were pissed at the impropriety. Edward wanted to make an honest woman out of Wallis, but it was up to the Prime Minister to allow the king to keep the throne and marry a divorcée. And to no surprise, the conservative government would not budge and Edward chose his lady over his crown. His brother became King George VI, and in an act of sibling camradery granted Edward and Wallis with the respective titles of Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Despite what her fancy-sounding title implied, Wallis still wasn’t seen too fondly. She was not entitled to the style of “Her Royal Highness,” which might just sound like words, but to British royalty, that’s a big deal. And what’s more, her iconic contributions to style history have been vastly overlooked.
If Wallis’s personality was anything like her fashion sense, she never would have fitted in to the HRH title anyway. Her style was nonconforming, radical, and boundary-pushing for its time. Wallis was the type of early 20th century woman whose style most of us now revere, but she probably would have fit better into 21st century conventions. In the 1920s, she embraced the flapper aesthetic—a rebellious look made up of short hair, scandalously high hemlines that showed off ankles, and finished with the most outrageous aspect: excessive makeup.
Flappers were agitators, a new generation of women who listened to jazz and loved drinking. Early 20th century authorities considered such an attitude disgraceful, but Wallis Simpson wasn’t the type of woman to care much for what people thought of her. She did what she pleased and lived how she wanted. If those around her didn’t think she was falling in line, she’d lean into that, using her style choices to ensure she stood out. Vogue asserts that the duchess used fashion as an armor; her lack of confidence in her appearance paired with ostracization from her husband’s kin left her in need of a protector. Her lack of acceptance from the monarchy gave her more freedom to rebel, and of course she used her clothing to demonstrate this.
When Wallis Simpson joined the royal family, America was going through the Great Depression and Europe was feeling a lot of pre-war tension. Needless to say, no one had time for racy fashion. Even more needless to say, Wallis didn’t care. It was a time ruled by Chanel’s minimalist, understated touches. But this aesthetic never suited Wallis Simpson.
While Chanel dominated the realm of appropriate, accepted styles, Elsa Schiaparelli controlled the other end of the spectrum—the experimental, artful, somewhat shocking side of things. Unshockingly, this was Wallis’s side. She sat front row at many of Schiaparelli’s shows, even daring to pose for Vogue in the infamous Lobster dress that Schiap created with Salvador Dalí.
Even at her wedding to Edward, Wallis couldn’t be held to conventional standards. She wasn’t given her fairytale princess wedding? Not a problem for Wallis, she’d just wear a light blue Mainbocher dress that simply shouted, “idgaf.”
When Christian Dior debuted his New Look in 1947, it was an absolute outrage. Pretty much all of Europe had just gotten out of a long, expensive war and fabric rations were a big deal. How dare he use excess amounts of material? And even worse, the New Look was conspicuous, beautiful, and demanded its wearer to be seen. Keep in mind, this was still a time of modesty. Is it any surprise that Wallis was all over the cinched-in waist and billowing skirt?
An early follower of the young Christian Dior, there’s no doubt that Wallis Simpson’s tastes were iconic. She backed the most notable of 20th-century fashion pioneers and sought out the most cutting-edge of trends. Though without the backing of the monarch, Wallis’s style choices didn’t sway fashion to the same extent of Diana’s tastes in the 1980s and Meghan’s today. But in the end, Wallis probably had the upper hand; her dismissal from the monarchy gave her the liberty to be her own person and dress how she wanted.