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Royal (wardrobe) tour de force

From the Queen to Princess Diana, the leading ladies of the monarchy have diplomatic dressing down to a fine art, says Meadhbh McGrath

Careful choices: Meghan Markle’s South African tour outfits have been stylish but low-key
Careful choices: Meghan Markle’s South African tour outfits have been stylish but low-key
Careful choices: Meghan Markle’s South African tour outfits have been stylish but low-key
Careful choices: Meghan Markle’s South African tour outfits have been stylish but low-key
Princess Diana in a head scarf
Careful choices: Meghan Markle’s South African tour outfits have been stylish but low-key
The Duchess of Cambridge in India wearing an Anita Dongre dress
Thinking fashion: the Queen in Ireland, in a dress adorned with Shamrocks

By Meadhbh McGrath

When Meghan Markle and her team were preparing for this month's official tour of South Africa, they knew there was a lot at stake. Meghan and her husband Prince Harry have been plagued by bad press all summer long, with particular critiques of their spending and perceived hypocrisy over their use of private jets, given their outspoken environmental activism.

On top of that, Meghan would well have understood the significance of the first biracial member of the Royal Family visiting an African country and of the first overseas tour for her baby to be of South Africa.

On Monday, with her first outfit of the trip, she ticked every box. Rather than turning to her favourite designers Givenchy, who created her wedding dress and numerous couture outfits for her first year as a royal, or Valentino, who made the lavish gown she wore to a wedding in Rome last weekend, Meghan opted for a £70 dress from Mayamiko, a small, independent ethical fashion brand that uses organic cotton fabrics made by artisans in Malawi.

She added a pair of espadrille wedges already in her closet and a red-beaded bracelet from the human rights organisation Justice Desk, the first stop on the Sussexes' tour. Finished with a fuss-free ponytail, it was a flawless opening to the tour: casual yet sensible, suitable for dancing with schoolchildren, crouching down to speak to members of the community and standing before the crowd for a heartfelt speech.

Meghan appears to be playing by the royal book when it comes to sartorial diplomacy. Royal women, from the Queen to Lady Diana to Kate Middleton, have always taken care when choosing their outfits abroad to pay thoughtful tribute to their host country, whether in promoting local talent, sporting the national colours or choosing jewellery with ties to the region. Such outfits are designed to make a silent yet unmistakable statement, allowing the royals to speak volumes without uttering a word.

The Queen memorably wore green during her 2011 visit to Ireland - along with a dress adorned with 2,091 shamrocks and a harp brooch - while Diana opted for bright red Chanel number on her first state visit to Paris in 1988 and Kate stepped out in a Mughal-inspired print dress by Mumbai-based designer Anita Dongre in 2016.

From before the tour began, Meghan and Harry's team have been clear that this particular trip was to be decidedly low-key, doing away with the usual protocol - no etiquette briefs, no bowing or curtsying and no fussing about formal terms of address (they are reportedly happy to be called by their first names). Meghan even left her engagement ring at home in an apparent bid to make a less flashy impression.

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It's a marked departure from the typical royal tour, indicating the couple are keen to reframe this as a goodwill trip rather than a visit by representatives of a former colonial power.

Meghan made the intention to move away from the monarchy's problematic past and towards a more progressive, inclusive future evident in her speech, telling the crowd: "Just on one personal note, may I just say that while I am here with my husband as a member of the Royal Family, I want you to know that for me, I am here with you as a mother, as a wife, as a woman, as a woman of colour and as your sister."

There is no State dinner included in Harry and Meghan's itinerary - unusually, for a royal tour, as we're so used to seeing the likes of Kate Middleton and the Queen donning their finery and those magnificent tiaras. The low-key approach is evident in each of Meghan's outfits so far, including black jeans, an old denim jacket and plenty of flat shoes, in addition to two dresses from last year's tour of Australia, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand (during which she wore 38 outfits in 16 days). By shopping her own wardrobe, Meghan emphasises her commitment to sustainable clothing, and in choosing items she wore in the early stages of her pregnancy, she's at once illustrating how maternity clothes can last beyond pregnancy and sending a subtle message about the realities of women's bodies at nearly five months post-partum.

Meghan selected another ethical brand, Staud, for her visit to Auwal Mosque, the country's oldest mosque, on Tuesday. She arrived in an olive maxi dress with a cream headscarf already in place as a show of respect for Islamic tradition, while observing the first-known manuscript of the Quran in South Africa.

She's not the first royal to do so - the Queen covered her head and removed her shoes during a visit to a Turkish mosque in 2008, while Kate opted for a veil and stockinged feet on a trip to a Malaysian mosque in 2012. Diana wore a headscarf for mosque visits on the royal tours of Egypt and Pakistan - most famously in 1996 while visiting the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital and Research Centre in Lahore, although like Meghan, she chose to wrap the scarf halfway to reveal her carefully styled hair.

For Meghan, of course, it was a respectful choice at a place of worship, yet the colour and styling of the scarf, as well as the many striking close-up images, invited comparisons to Diana, and such homages always draw praise for the young duchess.

Meghan may have ramped up the 'duchess' dressing for her meeting with Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Wednesday with Manolo Blahniks and a neat bun, but she stuck to her preference for monochrome, unshowy fashion with a new printed wrap dress from affordable luxury brand Club Monaco, retailing at £370.

However, it was her and Harry's choice of outfit for Archie that was most interesting: a pair of £14 organic cotton dungarees from H&M's Conscious collection. Eco-friendly and at an accessible price point, it echoed his mother's sartorial strategy.

With another few days left before they fly home, it looks likely Meghan will continue her streak of relatable, practical fashion - perhaps with one of the pieces from her Smart Set collection for charity Smart Works thrown in.

Between the flat shoes and ponytails, laid-back denim and repeated dresses, Meghan is on track to deliver a very different - and very refreshing - sort of royal tour-drobe, along with a savvy sartorial rebuttal to the ceaseless barrage of criticism she's endured in her royal life thus far.

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