February’s Big Picture
The Prince and the Dressmaker
written and illustrated by Jen Wang
It’s Prince Sebastian of Belgium’s sixteenth birthday, and in collusion with his royal parents to parade eligible ladies for his inspection, Aunt Clementine is hosting a ball at her Parisian mansion. Lady Sophia Rohan is dragged by her mother to downscale Retouches Couture, where seamstress Frances is assigned the task of making her a suitable gown for a ball Sophia clearly does not want to attend. With her mother out of earshot, Sophia instructs Frances to “make me look like the devil’s wench.” Frances takes her at her word, and Lady Sophia’s corset, boa, and sheer-skirted ensemble catches Prince Sebastian’s eye. It’s not Sophia he wants, though; it’s her style. He’s tired of secretly trying on his mother’s clothes, and he longs for dresses of his own and a chance to visit the cabarets looking like the girl he dreams of being. Just as Frances’ employer is in the middle of firing her for bringing scandal to his establishment, Sebastian’s manservant arrives to hire her as the prince’s personal seamstress. And so begins the truer-than-true friendship between two teens who affirm and nurture the best in each other, and a graphic novel that puts beating hearts into the stock characters from “once upon a time.”
Prince and dressmaker share a love for the dramatic (no surprise, given the prince’s enthusiasm for Lady Sophia’s threads), and Frances turns her new client into the disguised toast of the town with costumes inspired by fruit jam, military uniform, bird feathers, and floral tattoos. Sebastian trusts Frances with his private hopes and fears, and he does all he can to advance Frances’ career; Frances sees the strength and goodness that manifests in Sebastian when he’s in his comfort zone and designs male and female attire to make him shine. What kind of fairy tale would this be, though, without external conflict? Sebastian is expected to marry and he takes his obligations to family and nation seriously; Frances will never be free to pursue her couturier dreams if she’s forced to, as she says to him, “languish in your closet forever.” After a de rigueur dark interlude involving a flutter of social scandal and Sebastian’s short sojourn in a monastery, however, the tale comes to a giddily glorious climax with a drag runway show (cameo by Sebastian’s unconditionally loving father, the king himself ) and a Parisian populace wild to embrace both their crown prince and the newest fashions endorsed by couturier and court.
Very, very pink cover art, doe-eyed protagonists, and wardrobes of gowns suitable for cosplay fairly shriek “Disney!”, but in Wang’s capable hands, those attributes are neither pandering nor damning. She respects the power of fairy tale tropes and she understands the alluring glamor of the animated romances with which many of her readers grew up (and may even be willing to admit they still adore). For kids who never found a Disney princess costume to fit—literally or figuratively—Wang offers a second chance to claim a fairy tale of one’s own. Readers new, or resistant, to graphic novels will also discover magic here in Wang’s visual storytelling—the shy prince as a shadow among the heavy curtains as he peeks into the ball; the stacked, static frames that suggest the slow passage of time as Sebastian worries about his stricken father’s health; the tenderness of the almost-kiss as Frances and Sebastian explore the boundaries of identity and passion; expressive eyes that fade or even disappear at moments of self-doubt. Ultimately, readers of all stripes will simply delight in soul-satisfying reassurance that “And they married” need not be a precondition to “They lived happily ever after.”
Elizabeth Bush, Reviewer