With bold, colorful illustrations and delightfully anachronistic dialogue, “The Prince and the Dressmaker” delivers an utterly charming postmodern fairytale about gender fluidity, love, self esteem, and acceptance. (Warning: contains minor spoilers.)
Written, Illustrated and
Lettered by Jen Wang
Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride—or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia—the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion! Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, “The Prince and the Dressmaker” will steal your heart.
With a brilliant juxtaposition that unequivocally sets the tone and frames the rest of the book, writer/illustrator Jen Wang goes full-on fairytale in the opening pages of “The Prince and the Dressmaker,” only to undermine and challenge those classic conventions moments later. It’s a simultaneously playful yet provocative dynamic that infuses virtually every scene, driving the story forward, and keeping the reader hooked.
Cast aside your preconceptions, this story and its characters refuse to play by arbitrary rules.
In the very first panel we learn that the Prince is holding a ball. Quite predictably, all eligible young women are invited to attend. Just a few pages later, though, Wang starts to make it clear that this isn’t going to be another rote fairytale. In a wonderfully compact scene that sets the plot in motion while foreshadowing the book’s major theme, a rebellious young woman appears in desperate need of a new dress.
Granted, that might sound pretty much like a standard fairy story so far, but things suddenly take a turn when the Lady Sophia unexpectedly demands that her new ball gown be made to look ghastly. “Make me look like the devil’s wench,” she demands, clearly expecting nothing less. Working through the night, the wildly talented but undiscovered seamstress Frances obliges and creates an eye-popping black ensemble that makes the matrons clutch their pearls, but catches the Prince’s eye. Soon, the two of them are bonding over haute couture and famous designers, magnetically drawn to each other by their mutual love of fashion, inescapably bound together by the Prince’s unspeakable secret.
Visually, Wang’s immediately accessible style will be familiar to anyone who reads all-ages graphic novels or manga. It’s simple, it’s efficient, and absolutely bursting with attitude and panache. With bold, clean lines, vibrant solid colors, and impeccable page layouts, Wang’s pictures tell the story with seemingly effortless fluidity and polish. No panel is wasted as the story breezes along with an excellent balance between facial close-ups, gestures, and architectural period details. The dresses, of course, are the highlight, with each of Frances’s incredible designs upstaging the last. You can practically hear the swoosh and rustle of the fabrics as the characters move about. And the scenery is immersive. Whether it’s a street scene full of cobblestone and carriages, a lush palace ballroom, the dress shop, or the Prince’s own chambers, you will truly be whisked away to a different time and place.
As much as art is rooted in late 19th century Parisian aesthetics, however, the dialogue is unexpectedly fresh, contemporary and youthful. After the Prince has revealed his innermost secret to Frances, he asks, “You’re not weirded out?” Later, on the night when Lady Crystallia makes her debut in a fashion contest (with the winner to be crowned Lady Marmalade, of course), the host comments snarkily about another contestant, “’Can’t miss me in a crowd!’ say those horizontal stripes.” The visuals may transport the reader to an imaginative fantasyland, but the dialogue brings it all back, helping the characters feel more relatable and authentic.
Similarly, the characters’ facial expressions – as well as their body language – feel absolutely truthful and wholly genuine. Still, at the end of the day, this is a fanciful world of the creator’s imagination, not necessarily the world we inhabit. So if the King’s sudden acceptance of his son’s dual identity feels a bit too frictionless and unrealistic, perhaps we’d be wise to remember that it’s no accident Jen Wang chose the fairytale genre in which to situate this story. As the scholar Jack Zipes said, “[F]airy tales were cultivated to assure that young people would be properly groomed for their social functions.” It’s how Wang subverts and reimagines archetypal fairytale tropes and classic motifs for 21st century social functions that make this book magical.Continued below
Ultimately, in these divisive, politically charged times when hanging a rainbow flag is seen by some as an act of defiance rather than pride, a masterfully constructed, highly entertaining story that artfully explores gender fluidity, nonbinary romantic love and acceptance feels downright revolutionary. The fact that it crackles with witty dialogue, feisty, well realized characters, virtually flawless page layouts and gorgeous artwork makes it nothing short of a masterpiece.
Final Verdict: 9.8 – Buy this book. Read this book. Share this book. This is an instant classic.