Meghan Markle's style evolution: From California cool to Royal rules – and back again

Rebecca Taylor
·Royal Correspondent
·8-min read
The Duchess has gone through some style changes over the last few years. (Getty Images/Duchess of Sussex)
The Duchess has gone through some style changes over the last few years. (Getty Images/Duchess of Sussex)

Meghan Markle is going into her 39th year preparing to launch a non-profit with her husband Prince Harry and adjusting to life outside the Royal Family.

With a new era ahead, it’s possible that her style will alter and adapt as she communicates her passions and goals through her clothes.

The duchess’s wardrobe evolution so far, has been closely linked to phases of her life and career.

There are some classic shapes and styles to which she often returns, and her long hair is also a trademark, but examining photographs taken over the years shows how she changed to adapt to Hollywood stardom and to royal duties.

In an era when coronavirus has changed the world, Meghan’s appearances have mostly been via zoom, and so the only sense we can get of her style at the moment is from the waist up.

The duchess has largely chosen to wear simple clothes - classic white shirts or plain tops - which suggests she is keen for her words and the causes she is promoting to take centre stage.

But fans are eager to see a return to her Hollywood glamour, and at a July engagement she was praised for looking “glowing”, while one fan even said her “LA hotness is back”.

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Christine Ross, editor of Meghan’s Mirror, told Yahoo UK: “Meghan has really embraced the LA lifestyle, and her style has followed suit. She has opted for much more California casual and cool styles, like breezy linen dresses and chambray shirts with cut off shorts.

“Meghan seems to have returned to her LA roots and is enjoying a more laidback lifestyle. Her new LA fashions are reminiscent of her more casual Toronto styles, but with better weather!

“For more public events and Skype calls, Meghan opts for simple tops so that the attention stays on the cause, rather than the clothes. She knows that what she wears will make headlines, and by choosing simple fashion pieces she can keep the spotlight on the important work she is doing.

Meghan Markle in 2009 in Beverly Hills, California. (Getty Images)
Meghan Markle in 2009 in Beverly Hills, California. (Getty Images)
Meghan in 2012.
Meghan in 2012.

Meghan has frequently described herself as a California girl, and some of her earliest public looks show that she channeled a laid back vibe in her outfit choices.

She was also keen to make an impression at red carpet events, so found a perfect balance between a show stopping dress and a pared back hairstyle, keeping it simple with either waves or a ponytail.

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Meghan in 2012
Meghan in 2012, she kept her hairstyle simple. (Getty Images)

Royal fans will be most used to seeing the duchess in relatively natural make-up, as she was often seen wearing a minimal look while on public engagements.

But there were times in the past when she preferred a bold lip or dramatic eye make-up.

At her final royal engagements in the UK in March 2020, she got closer to her previous look, as she wore bolder eye make-up than she had been seen in for a while.

Meghan loved a bright lip, as seen here at a fashion show in 2013 in New York City.
Meghan loved a bright lip, as seen here at a fashion show in 2013 in New York City.
Meghan backstage at a fashion show in 2014.
Meghan backstage at a fashion show in 2014.
Wearing a low cut dress in 2015, her style became more conservative when she became a royal.
Wearing a low cut dress in 2015, her style became more conservative when she became a royal.
<<enter caption here>> at NeueHouse Hollywood on May 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.
In Hollywood in 2016 in a shorts suit. (Getty Images)

Lots of Meghan’s looks before she was a royal were more risque, with low cut tops and short dresses a recurring feature.

While there is debate over the true level of the royal rules about what women can and cannot wear, the chances of a duchess ever being seen in a low cut dress are slim.

The first time we got a hint that Meghan may be cleverly using her choice of outfit to send a message, was at her first public appearance with Prince Harry, at the Invictus Games in 2017.

She wore a white shirt, aptly named ‘the husband’.

Meghan kept the look casual, with ripped skinny jeans and sunglasses, not a combination seen again once she was in the royal fold.

Meghan chose classic looks during some of her first royal appearances. In the sunken garden at Kensington Palace where she and Harry posed for photographs as they announced their engagement, she wore a cream wrap coat.

And at her first Christmas in Sandringham, she chose a very similar design, in a camel colour.

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TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 25:  Prince Harry (R) and Meghan Markle (L) attend a Wheelchair Tennis match during the Invictus Games 2017 at Nathan Philips Square on September 25, 2017 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation)
Harry and Meghan at the Invictus Games in 2017. (Getty Images)
during an official photocall to announce the engagement of Prince Harry and actress Meghan Markle at The Sunken Gardens at Kensington Palace on November 27, 2017 in London, England.  Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have been a couple officially since November 2016 and are due to marry in Spring 2018.
Meghan chose a wrap coat as she and Harry confirmed their engagement later in 2017. (Getty Images)
attends Christmas Day Church service at Church of St Mary Magdalene on December 25, 2017 in King's Lynn, England.
On Christmas Day in 2017, her coat closely resembled the silhouette of the engagement coat. (Getty Images)

Like many a royal bride before her, Meghan had two wedding dresses, allowing her to make a big statement at the ceremony and delight fans with a change of outfit for the evening reception.

Meghan’s first wedding dress made a comment about her own style, with its clean lines and simple style.

It also featured a boat neck, something she wore frequently throughout her first engagements as Harry’s girlfriend, and as his wife to Trooping the Colour.

Her evening dress was a halterneck, which boldly showed off her shoulders and fitted her figure more closely.

WINDSOR, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 19:  Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex and the Duchess of Sussex depart after their wedding ceremonyat St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle on May 19, 2018 in Windsor, England. (Photo by Jane Barlow - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Meghan's wedding dress featured a boatneck, but was a simple and clean design. Getty Images)
WINDSOR, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 19: Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex wave as they leave Windsor Castle after their wedding to attend an evening reception at Frogmore House, hosted by the Prince of Wales on May 19, 2018 in Windsor, England. (Photo by Steve Parsons - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
For the evening she chose a halterneck dress, which was more fitted throughout. (Getty Images)

When Meghan stepped out as the Duchess of Sussex for the first time, there was surprise at the subdued look she went for.

She wore a dress by Goat, which is a label much-loved by her sister-in-law Kate, but which had never before been worn by Meghan, along with a Philip Treacy hat.

Noting the tights she wore, The Daily Telegraph mused: “The tabloids zoomed in; had she been Duchess-ified? Was she given a new Royal fashion rulebook after her wedding day? It was the first, and the last, time we ever saw her going down this route.”

And by the time June rolled around, fresh from honeymoon with her husband, it did seem Meghan was back to her favourite looks.

She wore an off-the-shoulder dress for Trooping the Colour, a move which apparently caused controversy and broke royal rules.

Myka Meier, royal etiquette expert, told People: “Traditionally, the Trooping the Colour events is seen as a more formal day event.

“In the past, we have seen female royals wearing conservative dress, much like that which you would see at a British wedding: wearing closed-toe shoes, stockings, hats and dresses or skirts with a modest hemline and with sleeves.”

Majesty editor Joe Little added: “It was deemed by some people to be a bit revealing, but personally I couldn’t see any harm in it.”

Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex (L), and his new wife, Britain's Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, attend the Prince of Wales's 70th Birthday Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London on May 22, 2018. - The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall hosted a Garden Party to celebrate the work of The Prince's Charities in the year of Prince Charles's 70th Birthday. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski / POOL / AFP)        (Photo credit should read DOMINIC LIPINSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
The outfit for her first royal engagement as a wife surprised many. (Getty Images)
<<enter caption here>> Trooping The Colour on the Mall on June 9, 2018 in London, England. The annual ceremony involving over 1400 guardsmen and cavalry, is believed to have first been performed during the reign of King Charles II. The parade marks the official birthday of the Sovereign, even though the Queen's actual birthday is on April 21st.
At Trooping the Colour, there was some surprise that she had her shoulders uncovered. (Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth ll and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex open the New Mersey Gateway Bridge during a visit to Cheshire on June 14, 2018.  This is the Duchess's first solo engagement with The Queen
She made a very different choice for her first engagement with the Queen. (Getty Images)

Any questions about whether Meghan should or should not have had her shoulders out were stopped by her caped couture Givenchy dress, worn at her first engagement with the Queen shortly after the Trooping the Colour.

It was also a sign Meghan would continue working with her wedding dress designer. This is a trend among royal women, one followed historically by the Queen and also by the Duchess of Cambridge.

Meghan also made an important statement with her post-partum dress choices, opting for London designer Grace Wales Bonner for the pictures with their new baby.

Buzzfeed noted that Wales Bonner is mixed race, as is Meghan, so this was seen as a show of support for women who are making in-roads in their fields.

The dress was a trench-coat style shape, which Meghan had worn before, and would wear again – she chose a similar style dress when the couple went to South Africa in 2019.

Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex (R), and his wife Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, pose for a photo with their newborn baby son, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, in St George's Hall at Windsor Castle in Windsor, west of London on May 8, 2019. (Photo by Dominic Lipinski / POOL / AFP)        (Photo credit should read DOMINIC LIPINSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
The designer Meghan chose for the baby photos showed she would support women like her making in-roads in their fields. (Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - MARCH 05: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 24 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) Meghan, Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex attend The Endeavour Fund Awards at Mansion House on March 5, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images)
Meghan's make-up on return to the UK was often more dramatic. (Getty Images)

Back in California, Meghan has looked to more relaxed and simple looks, a reflection of the lockdown, work from home situation many people find themselves in.

It also shows she would like her words to make the waves, not her sartorial choices.

However, she may find that she is criticised for keeping her wardrobe so simple. As Tamara Abraham noted, rising above the fashion conversation is hard to do if someone truly loves fashion.

It also limits Meghan’s ability to shine a spotlight on designers who might be fighting for the same causes as her.

Meghan gave a speech. toGirl Up (Duchess. ofSussex)
Meghan gave a speech to Girl Up in July. (Duchess of Sussex)
QCT
Harry and Meghan addressing the QCT via Zoom. (QCT)