Graphic Novel Review: The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang
by Brittany B. | 01/01/2020
If the unique art style isn’t enough to convince you to read The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang, then the story definitely will. This graphic novel is not only visually stunning but has a narrative that will keep you at attention and characters that you can’t help but empathize with:
Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:
Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride—or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia—the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!
Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances—one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.
This magical story immediately draws you in with a royal invitation to attend Prince Sebastian’s 16th birthday party:
This invitation does several things – it not only sets up meeting Frances several panels later, but it immediately begins the aggressive male-gendering of Sebastian and alludes to the pressures of heteronormative nobility and courting and marriage. Like Cinderella, the act of the prince throwing a ball is because he is in want of a wife. In the case of The Prince and the Dressmaker, it is that Sebastian’s parents are beginning to pressure the idea of marriage now that Sebastian is 16. The invitation spurs a lesser noble to ensure that her daughter is present at the ball, but her daughter has no desire to be there and actively tries to destroy her dress so she doesn’t have to attend. The mother then turns to the dress shop where Frances works and Frances takes on the monumental task of creating a new dress for the noble’s daughter with less than twenty-four hours until the party. Frances takes the daughter’s indifference towards her new dress almost literally when the daughter says: “You know what, just make it ghastly. Make me look like the devil’s wench.” Frances spends all night creating a fashion-forward gown that defies social expectations for the young woman to wear to the high society function.
Not only does this dresses reception at the event spur the plot moment forward by Frances being summoned by Sebastian to become their personal seamstress, it also sets the tone for the story. The daughter that Frances makes that first dress for is fed up with heteronormative expectations of having to attend balls because her status in society demands it while also dictating her appearance and attitude. Through Frances’ creation, she’s able to shed the weight of those expectations and goes to the ball and actually has a good time because she’s wearing something she’s comfortable in and is something that goes against her expected station in life. This character is only in the graphic novel for the first handful of pages, but it parallels the journey the Frances helps Sebastian undertake and makes for some very nice, very subtle foreshadowing.
Now, we all know that I can’t talk about the story of a graphic novel without mentioning the artwork! Wang’s artwork is unique, simplistic but full of movement and unwritten emotion. You see the passage of time in a few simple panels of working on stacks of drawings or dresses. My favorite thing that Wang does is how she utilizes color and color pallets in this graphic novel. For the most part, the color pallet is fairly muted, like so:
The colors are in the same color pallet, often in cooler tones and it gives a sort of melancholic feel to many of the frames. But when Frances starts making dresses for Sebastian, Sebastian goes out on the town in their “alternate persona” of Lady Crystallia, and the color pallet switches when Lady Crystallia’s dresses come into play – changing the melancholic feel to vibrant and confidence:
While the background typically stay in standard color schemes, Lady Crystallia and Frances’ dresses are pops of color that are stark contrasts against the muted color pallet and completely change the emotional experience in the scene. The metamorphosis that Sebastian takes in becoming Lady Crystallia is night and day; Sebastian goes from being nervous, anxious, and uncomfortable and wanting to be nowhere near the center of attention to being Lady Crystallia, who exudes confidence, charm, becomes a buzzing socialite, and thrives in the spotlight. And Wang captures this not only through small bits of dialogue and posture changes to Sebastian’s spine work, but visually with the changes in color that draw the readers eye the the extravagant dresses and adorned accessories.
Beyond the visual spectacle that this story creates, the story itself is also heartfelt and thoroughly considered. Both Frances and Sebastian have character arcs that are informed by each other but aren’t dependent on one another specifically. Through the story the reader sees both of them grow and develop and become more confident versions of themselves. Though the story is advertised to be about “the prince,” it is equally about Frances and her journey in becoming the dressmaker she’s always wanted to be without being told that her creations are too ghastly, garish, or inappropriate. The two meeting and bringing out the best in both of them through their shared interest makes for an organic friendship and develops very quickly and believably. I know in this review I talk more about Sebastian/Lady Crystallia than I do Frances, but know that the story IS just as much about her. Her arc is more tied to the plot and I simply don’t want to give away any spoilers.
And without getting into said spoilers, there is some wonderful tension that is built by Sebastian and Frances’ budding relationship as they start their journey of change together. There is obvious tension brewing in the background by Sebastian not conforming to the societal expectations of what a “prince” looks like and gallivanting in the night as Lady Crystallia. That is something that is made apparent very quickly that plagues Sebastian’s thoughts. But the tension of the story goes beyond that and as a reader, I was refreshed to see how tension was handled in varying ways in this story. The reader gets to see tension from societal expectations, from familial expectations, from Sebastian’s anxiety creating problems in their friendship with Frances, and the tension of both characters realizing that they might like each other a little more than friends. The tension is accentuated by the color pallets of the panels and the angles that Wang draws the characters from. It is quite a delight to read and experience, I promise!
It was also refreshing to see how Sebastian’s gender and pronouns were handled, or rather, how they weren’t. The graphic novel makes no attempt to nail down how Sebastian explicitly feels about their gender. Despite Sebastian’s parents using he/him pronouns, the other characters that are close to Sebastian refrain from using pronouns for the most part, instead opting to use “the prince,” Sebastian, or Crystallia to refer to them. Reading the story, Sebastian felt very gender-fluid to me. At no point does Sebastian say that they wish they were actually Lady Crystallia or that they wish to dress in gowns all of the time. They do have a scene where they talk about how they don’t feel confident when they’re Prince Sebastian but how good they feel when they’re out as Lady Crystallia. But that is then balanced by a heartwarming scene where Sebastian and Frances are going out on the town for the evening and Sebastian decides to go out in the prince attire that Frances had made for them:
When Sebastian admits that they feel comfortable in the clothing that Frances made, it reads as Sebastian experiencing slight gender euphoria (extreme happiness, or comfortability, experienced because a person’s gender is being affirmed) at this moment in the story, which doesn’t often occur when they are wearing these types of clothing. And I love that as a reader we get to read about the things that make Sebastian feel happy and confident as opposed to trying to nail down terminology to define it.
My only complaint about The Prince and the Dressmaker is that the ending felt fairly rushed. The story felt like it needed one more chapter to really round out the ending but other than that, I genuinely have no complaints about the story or the artwork or the message. The side characters are all crucial to the movement of the narrative and are supportive is varying, heartfelt ways; the use of color in the story helps evoke the feelings of each character throughout the story; and the writing is simple without being uninteresting.
All in all, The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang is a wonderful and quick read that I cannot recommend enough.
5 out of 5 Rainbows
Recommended Reader: Anyone who is looking for books with gender-fluid or gender-ambiguous or gender non-conforming characters. Or anyone looking for a queer, beautifully drawn and colored graphic novel. Or anyone who is looking for a book to help them to remind themselves to be true to themselves. It’s good for most ages (it’s rated for middle school ages and up) and would be fabulous to read as a parent with a younger reader or on your own.