Prince Sebastian is the 16-year-old son of Belgian royalty staying with family in Paris for the summer while looking for an appropriate bride. Lady Crystallia is a stunning debutante shaking up the Paris nightlife with bold and flashy new women’s fashion. Their secret is that they are actually the same person: Sebastian during the day and Lady Crystallia at night. The Prince and the Dressmaker tells the story of Prince Sebastian’s double life, and of his best friend and dressmaker Frances, who helps him build and maintain his secret.
When Frances designs a controversial dress for a customer, she finds herself very quickly out of work, then just as quickly hired by the young prince. She is shocked to learn his secret: he’s a boy who likes wearing dresses. Frances wants the job anyway, and she and Sebastian soon grow close as they help make each other’s dreams come true.
Things go well for a while, but begin to sour when Frances realizes keeping Sebastian’s secret means she and her work will forever be a secret, too. Along the way, they must also face challenges as Sebastian’s parents continue pushing him to find a bride, Sebastian struggles with the expectations and pressures of his princely role, and the two begin to develop romantic feelings for each other.
There are both good and not-as-good aspects to this stand-alone graphic novel, but on the whole, I thought it was a sweet, feel-good story. One of the major issues with the comic is something that has been pointed out previously by others: Sebastian, while fictional, is written as the son of the actual monarch Leopold II of Belgium, who is presented in the story as a demanding and intimidating but ultimately caring figure. The real-life Leopold, on the other hand, laid claim to and exploited the Congo (present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo) and treated its people so horrifically and cruelly, he has been compared with Hitler. To the credit of the publisher and the creator Jen Wang, they have fully acknowledged this mistake. They were unaware of the history and will be fixing it in future printings. If you choose to purchase this title, you may want to wait until a newer edition has been released.
A reader’s feelings on The Prince and the Dressmaker may be very dependent on a lot of personal factors. For readers who cross-dress, are LGBTQ+, or have struggled with acceptance or shame due to other aspects of their identity being demonized by society, it may depend on how comfortable and safe they currently feel as themselves. The copy on the back of the book describes it as a fairy tale, and it fits this genre in that the resolution of the story is very ‘happily ever after,’ to the point of being unrealistic or stretching belief. The characters’—and society’s—acceptance for Sebastian can be heart-warming, and as someone who is out and comfortable, I enjoyed seeing the characters get their happy endings. For young people looking to the comic for guidance, or those who have faced more trauma around their identities, the conflict-free ending and speed with which norms are shifted may be a false promise. Sebastian’s outing without his consent is also an element that may bother some readers, especially if they have experienced being outed themselves.
Wang’s artwork is cute and expressive, and she accomplishes a lot with silence and wordless panels. She has a good sense of pacing and timing, both on a larger scale and with individual panel work. It’s a treat to see the fashion and the creativity of Frances depicted in such detail. The content is easily appropriate for the recommended 12-18 age range, and the themes of identity, working toward dreams, parental pressure, and budding romance should appeal to this age group, too.
I personally feel The Prince and the Dressmaker can be a good addition to a collection, but one to be undertaken with some thought and consideration of who your patrons are and how they may be affected. It certainly may not be a book for everyone, but there are some who (like me) may thoroughly enjoy it. While it’s not a sophisticated and high-level exploration of gender, gender norms, and cross-dressing; it’s worth noting that it does address these topics which are often lacking in books for this age group. It’s also very nice to see the positive depiction of a man who cross-dresses without being too over the top or played for laughs. Overall, The Prince and the Dressmaker is a fairly quick and charming read, with likable characters who are allowed happiness and success rather than being torn down for their differences.
The Prince and the Dressmaker
By Jen Wang
First Second, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: 12-18
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Creator Highlights: BIPOC Creator