By Maureen Tai, 16 January 2019
There are some graphic novels that take your breath away not only because they are so exquisite to look at, but because you’ve always dreamed of being able to draw like the illustrator. The Prince and the Dressmaker is such a book, telling the charming story of the unlikely friendship (and ultimate romance) between a dress-wearing Crown Prince and his talented personal seamstress. And the fashion? To die for.
As a child, I loved watching historical Cantonese drama serials on TV. I adored the flowing gowns, the elaborate hairstyles and the smooth swishing movements of the martial arts heroes and heroines. I tried to replicate what I saw on paper but always came up short. And then as an adult, I discover Jen Wang’s wonderful coming-of-age graphic novel filled with elegant lines, swirls and curlicues, at the centre of which is a heart-warming story bursting with interesting characters. It is a dream come true.
The story is set in Paris, well before the advent of modern conveniences. The Crown Prince Sebastian of Belgium is spending the summer in France and he is turning 16. His parents are throwing him a birthday ball with the fervent hope that he will finally meet the girl of his dreams and secure the future of the royal family. The young ladies of Paris are all in a flutter.
We are then introduced to Frances, a somewhat defeated character. A dowdy, overworked junior seamstress employed at a tailor’s shop, she is one in a group of behind-the-scenes women who hand-sew garments for the city’s rich. As the demand for ballgowns soars as a result of the Prince’s ball, even Frances is given an assignment. Her petulant, strong-willed customer asks for something that will make her look like “the devil’s wench.” Late at night and alone in the cutting room, Frances is suddenly struck by inspiration, designing and making an outfit that rocks Paris and brings her to the attention of the Crown Prince. She becomes his secret seamstress, only one of two people alive who are privy to his secret passion – wearing women’s clothes.
Having found each other, Sebastien and Frances embark on a journey of self – and mutual – discovery. Each encouraged by the other, Sebastien reinvents himself as Lady Crystallia, the flamboyant and gorgeous trend-setter in the epi-centre of the Parisien fashion scene and Frances unleashes her creative talent in her avant-garde designs. Emboldened by society’s rapturous reception, the duo – naturally – take more and more risks in their sartorial adventures, culminating in the story’s inevitable denouement which is heartwarming and satisfying.
Have I mentioned the rapturous illustrations? The fluidity of the garments, from wind-blown capes to intricate gowns, the facial features of the different characters, and the hands. I wish I could draw hands like Jen Wang can draw hands.
For ages 8 and up.