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August 21 2014

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free speech: hadley freeman on the fading allure of the royals

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The latest Oscar bid from Keira Knightley, “The Duchess,” a biopic of Georgiana, an eighteenth-century Duchess of Devonshire, prompted some unexpected reactions in me. Number one was, damn, Keira sure gives good jaw, doesn’t she? (Apparently, others have noticed this before.) Still annoyingly pretty, mind you. Number two was, damn, Ralph Fiennes (as the Duke) sure can do a good Prince Charles impression—who’d have thought? But perhaps the most unexpected was that it made me want to give prostrated thanks that I live in the era of “Big Brother,” “America’s Got Talent,” et al.

One of the main themes of the movie, stressed far more than in the book by Amanda Foreman, is that Georgiana was the reigning fashion icon of her age. As one character proclaims (it’s that kind of film), G is “the empress of fashion—what she wears you will wear tomorrow.” Now, as a member of the arsitocracy, Georgiana’s entire life and identity was based on being married to some hideous jerk who preferred pillaging the occasional servant to hanging out with her; someone whose sole accomplishment in life was being off-loaded by her mother onto a man whose ancestors once killed a lot of people and nicked their houses. Whoa—cooo-el. Heaven knows much has been written bemoaning the cult of modern celebrity and how sad it is that kids (and adults) today bow down at the altar of useless celebrities whose reason for existence is that they want to be famous. But look at how much worse it could be. Does anyone care about royals or the aristocracy anymore? Even as fashion icons? I mean, look at them! The British have pretty much fallen off everyone’s radar since Diana (who was, coincidentally or not, a descendent of Georgiana’s), and even she wasn’t exactly a fashion icon—she just wore Versace well and didn’t look as horsey as the rest of them. Nor can the new generation be called “empresses of fashion.” Zara Phillips is a jockey and Kate Middleton dresses like her mum. The best they’ve got is Princess Beatrice, and that girl wore a pashmina to Kate Moss‘ birthday last year.

Yes, yes, I know that Dolce & Gabbana cited the Queen as the inspiration for their Fall collection, and I can see where they’re coming from, but by this time next year I’d wager the Dolce girl will be rocking a whole new look while the Queen will still be the Queen. The royals in Monaco are, granted, slightly more fabulous, if only because everyone’s a little fascinated with Princess Grace’s descendants. The Greek and Spanish royals have the plusses (quite pretty) and minuses (utterly anonymous). My favorites are the Swedish royals, not just for the shock value of Sweden having a royal family, but because they are so determinedly normal and, by all accounts, nice.

But the truth is, with the exception of a few Hello! magazine reading diehards out there, nobody cares about royals. Nobody. One, they don’t wield any real power anymore, and two, most people have realized that they’re just a bunch of inbred louts. But how to fill that gaping hole of necessary idols and fashion icons? Well, we make our own. And somewhere along the way, it was decided that everyone would get excited about people who appear on TV and movie screens as opposed to, oh, I don’t know, dentists or veterinarians. Is this necessarily better? Well, it’s more democratic, at least. Thanks to reality TV, you’re no longer restricted by birth, brains, beauty, or talent—ANYONE (and I mean that literally) can be dubbed a celebrity and/or style icon these days. Yes, this system may have made Simon Cowell millions, but at least we’re not all gawping at pictures of Princess Anne every day. And that’s progress.

Photo: Courtesy of BBC Films

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