I remember the moment the world got its first look at Kate Middleton's Alexander McQueen lace gown like it was yesterday. On the day of her wedding to Prince William, the future king of England, I was in a conference room in the middle of the night breathlessly covering the event for the magazine website I was in charge of at the time. My team and I, quite literally, squealed when we saw it and then rushed to get our post up as quickly as possible.
Seven years later, I woke up in Los Angeles, where I was vacationing, to watch an American feminist/former Suits star marry my longest-term fictional boyfriend, my ginger prince, Henry Albert Charles David, a.k.a Harry. I was giddy with excitement for both, if only being paid to wake up for one.
I truly won’t soon forget these iconic wedding images: of Meghan and her mother, Doria Ragland, driving to the church. Or, the vision of Pippa Middleton fixing her sister’s dress with their father by her side, not knowing she was about to make global headlines herself.
But my royal obsession goes back even further than that—to Princess Diana, who wed William and Harry's father in 1981, and Grace Kelly, who married Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1956. It didn’t matter that I was very young for Diana’s nuptials—and not even close to alive for Grace’s—they are part of our collective cultural memory for all time. Thanks to a weekly dose of People magazine, these bridal moments (and dresses) burned into my brain as a pop culture and royalty-obsessed child.
Paradoxically, I've never planned a wedding myself—nor was I ever one of those people who had one all mapped out in their head, as either a little girl or a woman of any age. And if I had, said wedding would have been more the aesthetic vibe of American royalty—à la Carolyn Bessette and John F. Kennedy Jr.—than the pomp and circumstance of a palace shindig.
In fact, I was more likely to be found playing with GI Joes than princess dolls as a little one. Did any of that make me less invested in and obsessed with the duchess-ing of Rachel Meghan Markle and Catherine Elizabeth Middleton? Absolutely not.
Humans are curious by nature and would naturally be intrigued by pomp and ceremony where money is no object. It is a Disney fantasy come to real life.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Donna Rockwell tells me this isn't uncommon. "While we may not have been 'princess' types in our childhoods, fascination with royal weddings goes deeper than that," she says. "There is the aesthetic of the marriage event itself that catches our eye, in ways that we can't not look. In royal weddings, we are drawn to be voyeurs into ways the richest and most famous among us live—the kings-and-queens, prince-and-princess set—from the wedding gown's wow factor, to the flower bursts in the bouquet, to the groom's tailored waistcoat, to the fantastical mood of the ballroom's theme and design. Humans are curious by nature and would naturally be intrigued by pomp and ceremony where money is no object. It is a Disney fantasy come to real life."
For me, there is also something to the timelessness and constancy of a royal wedding—though they are each uniquely "of their time" as well. Diana's dress is certainly not de rigueur today, and the furry cropped cardigan and jeweled belt of Kate's second dress were certainly emulated by many a non-royal bride a decade ago. Plus, there are countless archives to rabbit hole your way through once you catch the bug. (Some of my favorites include Letizia and Felipe in Spain or Sweden's Sofia and Carl-Phillip.)
But, we also live in a time where we have become more exposed to the dark side of marrying into a royal family. The aforementioned People magazines of my youth were littered with stories of Diana and Charles's troubled marriage. Then, of course, there were Diana's own, wildly famous interviews where she told her side of the story. Today, we also have fictional explorations like The Crown and Spencer, showing us even more of the royal underbelly—albeit via interpretation. And of course, there's the Oprah interview with Meghan and Harry heard 'round the world. But that doesn't mean I still don't love those weddings—or didn't as they were happening, even as I thought about how much the lives of the soon-to-become-royals were about to change, and not always for the better.
We use these weddings as eye candy and imagination-flexing, seeing the fairytale possibilities right before our very eyes, even if it doesn't apply to us directly.
"We have empathy for the mental and emotional suffering of Diana, Meghan, and Kate, and do put ourselves in their places, connecting with the discomfort of the never-dimming spotlight under which they all have lived, particularly on their wedding day," Rockwell explains. "Yet, their symbolism is distinct from their personal lives. They garner attention as princesses in a world not altogether easy for the rest of us. Life is tough, as we work to realize our dream life, dream work, and dream partnership. So, the central nervous system actually gets a chance to relax, a respite from the stress of our own lives. We use these weddings as eye candy and imagination-flexing, seeing the fairytale possibilities right before our very eyes, even if it doesn't apply to us directly."
After all, we are the princesses and princes in our own life stories.
I asked Rockwell if there is any harm in this royal fascination. "I don't really see royal wedding watching as a cultural obsession as much as it is the natural social attraction we have to story and storytelling," she tells me. "The Princess finding her Prince Charming represents the personal kingdoms we all inhabit within our own lives. While the terminology may be antiquated, the ideal of finding the yin to our yang, a soulmate, or a special someone with whom we relate and can join in the existential journey together, is a very basic and comforting human desire. After all, we are the princesses and princes in our own life stories."
And yes, I like that take very much (almost as much as I liked Meghan's Stella McCartney reception dress and aquamarine ring). I think we can all get behind the ideas of true love—and play the royal in our own narrative.