There’s this feeling you get when you’re an adult and you see a piece of art that you know you’ve been waiting for your entire life. Like when you saw Carol and you felt your stomach catch on fire in a good way. Or when you saw Dr. Callie Torres say on TV that she’s bisexual and a Latina and you’re bisexual and a Latina and you didn’t know what those words sounded like out loud. It’s this feeling of all your past selves, all the pieces of the younger you who are still there in your body perking up at the same time and letting you know that they’re still there and you can still help them. That’s how I felt reading Jen Wang’s The Prince and the Dressmaker. I wish I had read this book ten years ago, fifteen years ago and twenty years ago. It’s a gorgeous book that focuses on fashion, being yourself, boys in dresses and love.
The Prince and the Dressmaker tells the story of Frances, a young seamstress who dreams of being a great dressmaker and fashion designer. She has a knack for knowing exactly what her customers want and a flair for the extravagant and dramatic that sometimes gets her in trouble. But it’s also exactly what catches the eye of a mysterious new client who hires her fulltime as a personal dressmaker. It’s not a spoiler to say that this client is the titular Prince, a sensitive and stylish teen named Sebastian who has a secret — he likes to wear dresses and become a different person sometimes. With the help of Frances and her dresses, Sebastian fully discovers this other person, the trendsetting Lady Crystalia, and she starts to go out more and more, becoming one of the biggest influencers in young women’s fashion. What follows is a story about identity, fashion, feeling comfortable as yourself, loving who you really are, and loving others for who they really are.
I love Sebastian/Lady Crystalia and Frances so much. They’re both fun and they’re both so strong. What’s strongest about them, though, is definitely their desire to be able to live the life they want. Frances quits her stable job as a seamstress as soon as a mysterious offer comes along. Lady Crystalia just wants to be seen, and Sebastian just wants to be himself when he’s himself and herself when she’s herself. Both Frances and the Prince want to be able to be loved and to love. Wang is both a wonderful writer, able to create these characters you immediately love, and an amazing artist who is able to create a world based in fashion like I’ve never seen in comics before.
The dresses, oh my god the dresses. The fashion design in this book is just incredible. Frances designs dresses that aren’t only incredibly beautiful and stylish, but often avant garde and rebellious. This fits the themes of the book perfectly, as Frances isn’t designing dresses that will fit in with a crowd; her dresses stand out and are different in all the best ways. Frances’ dresses are designed to draw the eye and stick in the memory, and that’s perfect for Lady Crystalia. When the two are first talking about what the prince wants in his dresses, he outright says that when he’s Lady Crystalia, he wants everyone to look at him. As uncomfortable as he feels in his princely role, he feels equally comfortable and outgoing when he puts on a dress and becomes the Lady.
I love the way this book talks about identity. The prince could be read as a crossdresser or proto-drag queen, but I interpreted him as genderfluid or bigender. He says that when he gets dressed up, he is Lady Crystalia. She’s not wearing a costume or putting on an act, she’s being herself. She talks about how something just feels right when she gets dressed up. But he also starts to feel comfortable as Sebastian when Frances finally makes him “boy clothes” that suit him. He’s both. He’s himself.
I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for a long time, since I first heard about it, and so I had, fairly or not, put a ton of pressure on it. I had so many hopes and dreams about what this book could be and it exceeded all of them. Jen Wang’s The Prince and the Dressmaker comes out today on Amazon and in bookstores from First Second Press. We’re all lucky enough to see an exclusive preview of this book about dresses, gender, true selves and love right here.
New Releases (February 14)
Welcome to Drawn to Comics! From diary comics to superheroes, from webcomics to graphic novels – this is where we’ll be taking a look at comics by, featuring and for queer ladies. So whether you love to look at detailed personal accounts of other people’s lives, explore new and creative worlds, or you just love to see hot ladies in spandex, we’ve got something for you.
If you have a comic that you’d like to see me review, you can email me at mey [at] autostraddle [dot] com.