Looking for something fresh and new to read this spring? Something easy to digest, but that sticks with you long after you’ve finished the final page? The Prince and the Dressmaker may be just the story for you! Created by Jen Wang, this graphic novel tells the story of Sebastian, a teenaged prince with a secret he has never told anyone. With the help of his personal seamstress Frances, Sebastian is able to become the center of Parisian nightlife as Lady Crystallia, an enigmatic fashion icon in a city on the cusp of the modern age. Before long as Frances and Sebastian spend time together and share their hopes and dreams, a romance blossoms. However, their goals seemed star-crossed, for how can Frances gain fame for her designs when no one knows who Lady Crystallia is, and how can Sebastian let his parents know his true desires when acting upon them could very well ruin the life they have planned for him?
The Prince and the Dressmaker is a story that can be appreciated by all ages. The playful illustrations and well-timed dialogue leads readers to instantly fall in love with the characters, especially the main leads. This is a story that children can enjoy on their own or that adults can peruse for their personal pleasure. Whether you are young or old, the desires of the characters will resonate with you because they are needs we all have: to be seen and to be loved. While the romance is a prevalent undercurrent throughout the story, this is primarily a coming-of-age story for both Sebastian and Frances. The narrative focuses on who they want to be, and their actions are mainly motivated by wishing to attain their goals. The fact that they are doing this alongside their best friend (and maybe more) is a bonus.
In terms of its genderqueer narrative, while Sebastian’s desire to dress and live as Lady Crystallia is a major plot arc within the story, the definition of what exactly Sebastian identifies as is left open-ended. As he describes it, “Some days I look at myself in the mirror and think, ‘That’s me, Prince Sebastian! I wear boy clothes and look like my father.’ Other days it doesn’t feel right at all. Those days I feel like I’m actually… a princess.” While this sounds most similar to being gender-fluid, it makes sense that it is not defined with that word because firstly the term did not exist in the time period the story is set in, and secondly and more importantly, Sebastian is still young and it makes sense that he would not have fully sorted out his own self-understanding yet. The aforementioned quote is the most direct discussion of gender the story has. Sebastian’s and Frances’ stories are not political treatises or the topics of public debate. They are simply two young people struggling to discover what it means to be themselves. This focus on personal narrative reminds us to pull away from debate and theory from time to time and examine the complex beauty that is the human experience.
Though an initial glance at the summary of the novel will place most of the focus on Sebastian, Frances is by no means outshone. Her straightforward, honest approach and deep, creative passion in regards to fashion design make Frances an A+ character in her own right. She wants a career in fashion to make her name in the world of Paris, and Frances is brave enough to fight for what she wants. Just as her acceptance and encouragement help Sebastian flourish as Lady Crystallia, Sebastian’s friendship and conviction in Frances’ talents help Frances to share her own creative voice with the world.
This is a story of two best friends falling in love. Though there is a large difference in social status, Frances and Sebastian never see each other as anything less than friends and equals. It is also heartwarming to see Frances admire Sebastian both when he is Lady Crystallia and when he dresses in his princely form, letting the audience believe wholeheartedly that Frances knows what she is talking about when she says Sebastian is perfect. Their complete acceptance and admiration of each other is what helps each of them to have the courage to show their true selves to the world.
The Prince and the Dressmaker may only take a few hours to complete, but it is a tale that can be enjoyed again and again. As the initial read sets the heart racing, wondering what will happens to our beloved characters next, consequent explorations of the book lead the reader to appreciate what is happening in each scene as it contributes to the larger narrative. This is a story without outright villains. The struggles come rather from characters lashing out in fear, in anger, and in ignorance. This is much closer to the real world. In our daily lives, we are unlikely to meet anyone pure evil, but we will certainly meet people whose personal stories we know next to nothing about, yet whose stories inform each and every action they make. Hopefully, we can all take this lesson away from The Prince and the Dressmaker: Listen to others. Value what they share. And once you are able to see people fully, perhaps you can help them realize that they are more beautiful than they ever realized.