20 January 2012

Flashback Friday: Sophie's Transformation

The royal headlines may have been dominated by a certain duchess this past year, but there's another Windsor lady that's managed to sneak in some positive fashion press here and there. And maybe, just maybe, her sartorial journey is a more interesting tale to tell.
Sophie Rhys-Jones was working in public relations when she met Queen Elizabeth's youngest son, Prince Edward, in 1993. By the time they married in 1999 (that's right, Prince William's not the only one that insisted on a long wait after seeing high profile royal marriages implode before his eyes), she was 34 years old and was the co-founder of her own PR firm, RJH Public Relations.
Sophie before her marriage; at right, the engagement day photocall
Sophie was a businesswoman from the start, not a princess. And that no-nonsense style is exactly what she brought to the family early on. Her royal engagements often involved a simple suit which you can easily picture her wearing to the office the next day. The main concession she made to fancying it up for the occasion was usually a hat - she's never been shy with her millinery style. She sported a short haircut which netted her plenty of comparisons to Diana, Princess of Wales. A fine style for day, but it never quite lived up to a fancy royal evening occasion; she always looked like she ought to be in a suit, even with a tiara on. (And that tiara of hers...well, it needs more help than short hair can give.)
Sophie's early years as Countess of Wessex
But the thing was, Sophie didn't really need a fancy princess style at the beginning. Whereas her predecessors the Princess of Wales and the Duchess of York were both foisted into a fairly full-time royal routine straight from the honeymoon, Sophie intended to keep her career. She and Edward together were going to pioneer a new sort of royal life: they would keep their jobs in the commercial sphere (Edward had a film production company, Ardent Productions) and have a small royal workload on the side.
The statement hats
Unfortunately, that grand plan was a grand fail. In 2001, Sophie was caught on tape making overly political remarks and appearing to use her status in the royal family to win a sheikh's business for her firm. Turns out the sheikh was a fake, and Sophie had been had. Edward had been suffering from claims he used his royal status to get ahead in business for years (his company's biggest successes usually dealt with royal subject matters). He also ended up in particularly hot water in 2001 when a film crew from Ardent was caught invading Prince William's privacy at St. Andrews University in violation of the press agreement at the time.
Early evening wear choices
In damage control mode, it was announced in 2002 that the Wessexes would make a hasty retreat from the commercial world into the royal one and take on a full time role supporting Queen Elizabeth in her Golden Jubilee year. The next few years would see Sophie and Edward transition into parenting as well as the royal grind. In December of 2001, Sophie suffered an ectopic pregnancy. In 2003, in another life-threatening situation, she gave birth to daughter Louise. Son James was born in 2007.
Some transitional full-time royal looks
Now ten years in to full-time royal life, Sophie's style is getting some deserved recognition. It's been suggested that she upped her game (including reports of a personal trainer to slim down) as some sort of way to compete with the Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie. While I'm sure that makes for a fab tabloid headline, I beg to differ: Sophie's been transitioning her style for years. She's gradually let go of the rows of super practical business suits in favor of more feminine looks and a broader range of designers. She's experimented with trends while keeping things age appropriate. And she's grown out that short haircut to a look that has softened her, given her more options, and provided a much better tiara cushion. Sophie's sartorial game has been improving for years - it's just taken our current excess of royal admiration for people to notice.
I'd guess Sophie's new style comes from a new confidence. No longer trying to straddle the royal and commercial worlds, she's settled into her role as a quietly hard working Windsor. Her scandal has faded into the background (and others have emerged - one has to wonder if she has any video sting sympathy for the Duchess of York). She's now referred to as a favorite of the queen; she gets the prize place riding in the car to church at Sandringham each year, a tradition which started when she was on the mend from her lost pregnancy in 2001. And the queen has recognized her work by awarding her the Royal Family Order, first seen on Sophie in 2004, and recently the Royal Victorian Order, awarded in 2010. The Royal Victorian Order is given for personal service to the queen, and she doesn't give it easily.
Garter Day, 2011
Today, January 20th, is Sophie's 47th birthday. And if you ask me, the Countess of Wessex looks younger (and happier) than she did in the early years of her marriage. Well played, Sophie.

What do you think is behind Sophie's style change?

Photos: AFP/Getty Images/Corbis/Polfoto/Daylife/Zimbio/Hello