The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang
First Second, Feb 2018
Reviewed from hardcover
Summary: After designing an outfit that proves shocking to her late-19th-century, almost exclusively white Parisian milieu, plucky seamstress Frances is offered a job making dresses for a new client who she is surprised to learn is none other than the Crown Prince of Belgium. Frances’s dresses provide Sebastian freedom in the form of both disguise and access to a fundamental part of himself, dubbed Lady Crystallia. The two strike a bargain: Frances will keep Sebastian’s secret because working for him could lead to her becoming a world-class designer. But cavorting in dance halls in beautiful outfits can’t last forever. Sebastian’s double-life is difficult to keep up, especially with looming princely expectations, and guarding Sebastian’s secret proves a dead-end for Frances’s career that will cause a rift in their relationship, even as it begins to turn romantic.
Queer Rep: Sebastian is, perhaps, the most visibly queer character graphic novel for children and teens so far. The Prince and the Dressmaker luxuriates in the physical beauty of gendered clothing and the transformation possible through dress. In interviews, Jen Wang describes the story as one about gender expression, inspired in part by RuPaul’s Drag Race.
For all the book’s focus on expression, Sebastian’s gender identity remains ambiguous. There’s no deep discussion about Sebastian’s self-definition or how he’d prefer to be understood by others. When Frances asks why Sebastian wears “girl clothes,” Sebastian explains that some days it feels right to wear boy clothes and he recognizes himself as a prince; other days, boy clothes don’t feel right, and he feels more like a princess (44). Elsewhere, he describes himself simply as a “prince who likes dresses” (252). The indeterminacy of language leaves room for interpretation. I can appreciate the importance of stories where finding acceptance is more significant than cleaving to a label, but I wouldn’t have minded more about what Sebastian was experiencing alongside the focus on what he was wearing (as it is, a lot of how the reader understands Sebastian comes filtered through Frances).
I think Wang does well to make the story tropey, embracing the historical setting as far as it serves her themes but allowing plenty of anachronism to keep it light-hearted. While most of these tropes build up a fairy-tale-like quality, some have the potential to rub the wrong way–most especially the trauma-drama of Sebastian’s forced outing.
There’s plenty else that’s praiseworthy, though. It’s lovely that we get to see Frances as a queer character, too, through her obvious attraction to Sebastian/Crystallia in both modes, so to speak. When the pair kiss for the first time, they share laughter over the lipstick smudge that Crystallia leaves on Frances’s unpainted lips, and what could be a more perfect detail than that?
Overall, the narrative maintains a graceful balance between interrogating gender as a malleable social construct and recognizing it as an inescapable and profoundly impactful aspect of life. In a climactic fashion show scene, men promenade in dresses in solidarity with Sebastian. By drawing attention to how arbitrary the rules dictating acceptable gender performance are, the text suggests, we can also erode prejudices against people who do gender differently. That’s a message to take to heart.
Final Word: Considering how well it’s been reviewed, I think that The Prince and the Dressmaker stands a very good chance of receiving Stonewall mention. Somewhere in the combination of expressive, adorable artwork, familiar but fresh fairy-tale-esque remixing, and broadly applicable feel-good takeaway, The Prince and the Dressmaker gains that quality that makes a book overwhelmingly appealing.