It isn’t difficult to know where to start when speaking of Jen Wang’s new graphic novel, The Prince and the Dressmaker. The book is beautiful, from cover to cover and edge to edge. The colors pop on every page, drawing attention to the exquisite designs layered throughout the chapters, and the characters are lively and fluid. Where things become more difficult to put into words is in describing the story itself, the emotion it causes, and the impact it should, and most surely will, have.
The Prince and the Dressmaker is a fairy tale. To fully appreciate this book, cover to cover, this idea must remain central. The story is impossible. It is wonderful. It is glorious and lovely and completely impossible. Hence, fairy tale. A young dressmaker is plucked from obscurity to work for a secret client who turns out, very quickly, to be the crown prince Sebastian. Sebastian, you see, enjoys the beauty of dresses and wants the daring young Frances to design gowns that will be the envy of all Paris. Sebastian premieres as Lady Crystallia in a beauty pageant, winning the admiration of all for her grace and style.
Of course, as most fairy tales go, the secret plan, known only to the two and Sebastian’s bodyman, succeeds beyond their wildest dreams. They begin a friendship as well as a partnership that blossoms along with Frances’ designs. Eventually, the seams begin to fray as Frances realizes that she could never be the seamstress for Lady Crystallia and be seen with Prince Sebastian and start a real career in fashion. Sebastian does not wish to marry any of the young princesses his father parades before him who would never understand nor accept his secret life. Frances leaving his side and his secret coming out in humiliating fashion come shortly after.
At this point, I forgot that this book is a fairy tale. Sebastian disappears. Frances is given all of the garments she designed and sewed for him. Upon entering the palace to collect them, she finds the King, saddened and drinking over the loss of his son, both in actuality and metaphorically. He asks all the questions a confused and distraught parent would ask. “What did I do wrong?” “How could I have missed the signs?” “Why was he confused?” “What was he missing?” Because it is a fairy tale, Frances has the right answers. The peasant girl can speak to the King, tell him he was wrong and the world becomes right again.
The other thing fairy tales have is the obligatory happy ending. I confess, as an ally, but not a person with personal experience in coming out, I reacted poorly to the ending the first time through. I was upset at the magic of the ending, how everything worked out for everyone. How the King came to the right conclusion, accepting his son for who he truly was, standing up to those who would insult and belittle him. How the budding romantic potential came to fruition finally, wrapped in an embrace and another in a long, long line of beautiful gowns. I forgot that it was a fairy tale.
This is the ending I imagine all young people struggling with identity hope for. It’s an ending that shows who a parent should be. I reacted from a point of view I have no experience in or right to. So I read the book again. I’m a father of two young boys. I’m not Sebastian and I never will be. I’m the King. Who would I be in this same situation? Who would I be if my son were outed in front of me? What would I ask, what would I say, what would I do? God, I hope I can be half the father the King turned out to be. This is a fairy tale for all of us. We just need to remember which role we have to play.