54 pages 1 hour read

Jen Wang

The Prince and the Dressmaker

Fiction | Graphic Novel/Book | YA | Published in 2018

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Prince and the Dressmaker is a 2018 graphic novel by writer and illustrator Jen Wang. Set in Paris in the late 19th century, the narrative follows Frances, a seamstress hired to make dresses for Prince Sebastian, who secretly goes into the city at night as the trendsetting Lady Crystallia. Unaware of his multi-faceted identity, Sebastian's parents push the Crown Prince to select a bride, and Frances realizes she will never achieve her dreams if she stays hidden to protect her friend’s identity. The two young people learn to help each other preserve their personal integrity, despite the clash of gender expansive self-expression through fashion with social mores and family expectations. Told within the framework of a fairytale, The Prince and the Dressmaker is an LGBTQIA+ coming-of-age story and a romance.

The novel won a 2018 Eisner Award for Best Publication for Teens and a 2018 Harvey Award for Best Children’s or Young Adult Book. The Prince and the Dressmaker has been the target of book bans since 2022 (Legum, Judd, and Rebecca Crosby. “How to Ban 3600 Books From School Libraries.” Popular Information, 12 Dec. 2022).

This study guide refers to the first edition published by First Second Books, 2018.

Content Warning: The Prince and the Dressmaker includes references to gender essentialism, intolerance toward LGBTQIA+ people, a scene of an LGBTQIA+ character being publicly and forcibly outed, and perceived parental rejection.

Plot Summary

(Note: Sebastian is referred to with he/him pronouns, but no pronouns are attributed to Lady Crystallia in the text; therefore, this guide uses only Crystallia’s name.)

The Prince and the Dressmaker comprises 12 chapters of varying lengths. The first opens with a ball being thrown to find a bride for 16-year-old Crown Prince Sebastian of Belgonia. At a tailor’s shop, a woman storms in to get her resentful daughter, Sophia, a new gown for the ball tomorrow. As a seamstress named Frances measures her, Sophia asks for a shocking dress. Frances stays up all night making the garment. At the ball, everyone is shocked to see Lady Sophia in a daring gown with a transparent skirt. The next day, a mysterious man appears at the tailor’s shop to hire the dressmaker who made Lady Sophia’s outfit.

The man, Emile, takes Frances to the palace where her new client only allows her to see them with a lacy cloth over their head. When trying on a pair of the client’s high heels, Frances trips and pulls off the cloth, revealing the client as Prince Sebastian. The Prince begs her to keep his secret, and Frances proposes a mutually beneficial situation where the Prince wears her dresses, launching her career as an important and sought-after designer. They shake on it. Emile gives Frances one of only three keys to the Prince’s dressing room. Sebastian’s first requests a dress to go with a new red-haired wig. The Prince confides in Frances that sometimes he feels like a boy and sometimes like a princess. Frances responds with a truth of her own: Seeing a poster for the ballet “The Muse of Crystallia” inspired her to become a designer. Frances designs an orange dress, which makes Sebastian look feminine and gorgeous and accompanies him to a beauty contest. The Prince wins and takes the name “Lady Crystallia” onstage.

Sebastian’s parents, King Leroy and the Queen, announce they will set up one-on-one meetings for him with princesses starting tomorrow since he failed to find a bride at the ball. They impress upon Sebastian the procreating responsibilities of an heir to the crown. Miserable, Sebastian tells Frances he has no idea how to live up to his family’s powerful legacy, but Frances points out that Lady Crystallia looked ready to take on anything.

Sebastian meets Princess Juliana and her boorish brother, Prince Marcel. Juliana likes Sebastian and is interested in a betrothal, but the Prince escapes with Frances to a cabaret hall dressed as Lady Crystallia in an armor-inspired gown. A drunken person harasses Crystallia, but a young man named Peter intervenes. Peter is the fashion-loving son of George Trippley, a wealthy man about to open a ground-breaking department store in the Kingdom. Peter admires the tailoring of Crystallia’s gown but dislikes the style. He invites the two to come to Trippley’s opening day fashion show. Back at the palace, Frances immediately begins designing a collection to show Peter.

A montage ensues: Frances designing, Sebastian meeting another princess, Lady Crystallia dazzling a crowd, and Frances blushing while watching Crystallia brush the wig. Sebastian begs his parents to allow him to take a weekend vacation with Frances and Emile. On their trip, Lady Crystallia and Frances run into Juliana, who recognizes and admires Crystallia. Juliana invites Crystallia to go to the spa with her and meet Madame Aurelia, who designs for the Paris Ballet. Crystallia is hesitant, but Frances insists because Aurelia, who designed “The Muse of Crystallia,” is one of her design icons and runs the opening night fashion show at Trippley’s. Lady Crystallia and Madame Aurelia hit it off at the spa, and she suggests Crystallia and Frances come to the Paris Ballet so she can look at Frances’s portfolio to see if she’s worth hiring. Sebastian takes Frances out to celebrate this news and they go on a long date. Before they say goodnight, the two almost kiss, but go into their separate rooms blushing.

Sebastian’s continued refusal to choose a bride raises his mother’s concerns about his relationship with Frances. After Sebastian rejects another of his suitors—a 12-year-old girl named Princess Louise—the king flies into a rage, clutches his chest, and collapses. Sebastian waits outside his father’s room all night before the doctor allows him inside. A weak King Leroy tells Sebastian that he trusts him to lead their kingdom.

A somber Crystallia and an excited Frances attend the Paris Ballet. After the performance, Crystallia stops Frances from going to meet Madame Aurelia, fearing that if people learn that Frances is both a known friend of Sebastian and Crystallia’s designer, the Prince’s secret will be discovered. Crystallia promises to get Frances’s designs into the show anonymously. Stunned, Frances runs into Madame Aurelia as she leaves, but can’t introduce herself. When Crystallia returns to the palace, Frances ends their deal, refusing to forgo recognition for her work to preserve Lady Crystallia’s identity. Sebastian’s parents check on him because they’ve heard he isn’t eating. A resigned Sebastian tells them he’s accepted his position as heir and wants to marry Juliana. The King and Queen are thrilled, but Sebastian’s face reveals his desolation.

Working at another tailor’s shop, Frances feels upset by the gossip that Sebastian is getting married. Peter Trippley recognizes Frances and invites her to work for him, taking her to see the gigantic department store. Peter believes he can help Frances become a more mature fashion designer and create a collection for Trippley’s opening day show.

The King and Queen send out invitations for Sebastian’s betrothal ceremony. The Prince packs away Crystallia’s things but pauses on a gown of his mother’s. Donning the gown, Lady Crystallia goes out alone and gets drunk. Prince Marcel approaches the inebriated Crystallia, who gives away Sebastian’s secret before passing out. The next day at the public betrothal ceremony, Prince Marcel drags Lady Crystallia before the King and Queen and whips off the wig to reveal Sebastian.

Frances overhears mean-spirited gossip about the Prince who wears dresses. She sprints to the palace. Emile tells her Sebastian has disappeared, but that he wanted her to have all the clothes she designed. Frances goes into the dressing room and finds a bedraggled King Leroy. Leroy blames himself for what he describes as Sebastian’s confusion. Frances says Sebastian’s wonderful and true self isn’t the problem, but rather his justified fear of his parents’ judgment.

Emile receives a letter and hikes to a mountain monastery where he finds Sebastian. The Prince asks him to deliver apology letters to his parents, Juliana, and Frances. Emile shares that Frances is working on the Trippley’s fashion show, and leaves Sebastian holding the dressing room key that Frances returned.

On Trippley’s opening day, Peter compliments Frances on the subdued collection they designed together, but she doesn’t look happy. As the fashion show begins, someone steals Crystallia’s wig and Frances gives chase to find Sebastian. The two embrace. Sebastian observes that the collection doesn’t look like Frances’s work. She admits she kept the clothes she designed for Aurelia and asks Sebastian to help swap out the collections. Peter Trippley appears with the King and Queen and their guards. The Prince agrees to go home after he finishes helping Frances. The King commands his men to assist in whatever way necessary. When Frances’s collection is announced, the guards and the King himself strut the catwalk in dresses. After the King’s turn onstage, he tells Frances that her love for Sebastian helped him realize his child would be fine. Frances and Crystallia kiss. Lady Crystallia is the final model to hit the catwalk, wowing the crowd. The shoppers rush to place dress orders and Peter congratulates Frances. Madame Aurelia arrives to praise Frances, who can finally introduce herself.

In the final coda, Sebastian studies in Paris while his parents return to Belgonia. Lady Crystallia comes to visit the studio where Frances now works with Madame Aurelia. Frances embraces Crystallia, saying she has some new designs to share.

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By Jen Wang