It may not begin with the words “Once upon a time,” but The Prince and the Dressmaker is a fairy tale through and through. From the prince looking for a wife (sort of) to the magical transformations (in a manner of speaking), the story blends elements of a traditional tale with modern ideas and sensibilities in a way that is every bit as charming and cinematic as the animated fairy tales many grew up watching. Perhaps this is a fairy tale that will speak to a new generation.
With echoes of Cinderella firmly in place, the story begins with a ball. All “eligible young women” are invited to Prince Sebastian’s 16th birthday celebration in Paris. Aristocratic young ladies all over the city are clamoring for new gowns and perfect hair for the ball. Frances is a low-level seamstress charged with making a new gown for a petulant girl whose mother wants her to catch the eye of the prince, but the young lady has other plans. She tells Frances, “Just make it ghastly. Make me look like the devil’s wench.” Frances does just that. She spends all night creating a dress that would be plenty risqué on a modern red carpet much less in the historical setting of this story. Of course the dress causes a scandal and costs Frances her job.
The dress may have been more than the vaguely 19th century Parisian society depicted in the book could handle, but someone was less scandalized and more impressed. When this mysterious stranger offers Frances a position as their personal seamstress, she agrees quickly despite not having a clue what she is getting herself into. Who would have guessed she would be agreeing to make dresses for Prince Sebastian himself? Who would have thought that Prince Sebastian secretly wears dresses?
The two of them strike a deal. Frances will keep Sebastian’s secret and design his dresses while he pays her generously and helps her realize her dream of being a real designer. Perhaps they become each other’s fairy godmothers in a way? But it is Frances’ talent that takes center stage from the moment she is given the freedom to design whatever she can imagine. In the golden dress Frances creates for him, Sebastian becomes a new person, the person he has always felt like he was inside. It’s a powerful moment for both of them that Jen Wang captures in illustrations that seem to come fully alive for the first time in the book in much the same way that Sebastian and Frances do. The transformation from Prince Sebastian to Lady Crystallia seems to change the tone of the book as the colors go from dark and dreary to almost electric, full of warmth and energy. You can’t help but get caught up in the magic of the of the dresses and emotions so evident on the characters’ faces.
As Frances creates more and more striking dresses for Sebastian’s alter ego, the two grow closer. Just as readers are cheering the friendship beginning to blossom into romance, the stakes change. When Sebastian’s father, the king, has a health crisis, Sebastian is under even more pressure to step up his role in the kingdom. Keeping his secret seems even more crucial as a potential king than it ever did as the crown prince. But for Sebastian’s identity as Lady Crystallia to stay secret, Frances’ identity as his seamstress must also stay secret. It’s a cold truth, and the story’s shift is reflected in the color palette.
However, this isn’t the sort of fairy tale where the girl gives up her dream for the handsome prince. Frances isn’t about to stay hidden away and forfeit credit for her work no matter how much she cares for her friend. It is clear that she has come into her own as a designer as much as Sebastian has embraced who he is as a “prince who wears dresses.”
As a side note, if you picked up this book looking for an in depth discussion of gender identity, you are out of luck here. Whether the prince considers himself non-binary, genderfluid, or other label isn’t addressed in the book. It’s less about any particular labels and more about the power of acceptance, of believing in yourself, and being true to who you are.
While we do indeed get to a happily-ever-after, it doesn’t come without challenges. Some readers may quibble with the too-good-to-be-true nature of the ending or the fact that it wraps up rather suddenly, but other readers will cheer for acceptance no matter how anachronistic it may be. Really, the anachronisms are part of the charm of this story. It may be jarring at first to read Prince Sebastian ask Frances if she’s “weirded out” when she learns that he likes to dress in women’s clothes considering the historical setting, but readers who are willing to allow the modern to blend into the fairy tale will find themselves swept away in a heartwarming whirlwind that makes anything feel possible.
If this is part of a new era of fairy tales in which we tell unconventional and slightly irreverent coming-of-age stories with acceptance and empathy taking center stage, I’m all for it. Hand this book to the kids who think they’ve outgrown fairy tales who are ready for something out of the ordinary.