“The Crown” Style: Smoke and Mirrors

Posted on November 28, 2016

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A queen dies, a new queen is crowned and a whole hell of a lot of jewelry and gownery gets deployed in the process. It’s perhaps our most grandiose costume design post ever, but because much of what we’ll see is based on meticulously recreated historical artifacts, there will be less of a semiotic deep dive into the meanings of it all on our end.

But you know us, darlings. We can still tease a theme or a motif or a character point out of a string of pearls or a shoe choice, so let’s dive into all the pretty.

 

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The little girl they cast to play young Elizabeth looks so much like her that it tends to inadvertently point out how little Claire Foy resembles her as an adult. This has never been an issue to us, because when you get down to it, almost none of the main actors look that much like the people they’re playing. Through costume, hair, makeup and camera angles – not to mention uniformly good performances –  the conceit is more than fulfilled. It’s just that she’s the one actor in the entire thing who’s actually a dead-ringer for the real person.

This was a very charming scene, even if it does depict a level of privilege so rare as to be almost singular on the planet. It’s not easy to find a tender moment between a father and a daughter when that moment is all bound up in their fates, history, and levels of power, but this scene managed it beautifully.

There has been a rather strong and consistent color motif established for Elizabeth this season. Her two most important and most prevalent costume colors are blue and green, which she wears in almost every episode, several times over. We’ve mentioned the goddess undertones of the blues she wears, but the greens tend to speak of duty and fate. While her dress is notable for being the kind of bold print the adult Elizabeth seems to deny herself frequently, what really stands out is the cardigan. Not because it’s so bold and interesting a piece…

 

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But because she continues to wear a version of it in the “modern-day” setting of the same scene.

The costume design works on multiple levels here. The green could be said to be a motif that indicates her feelings about duty and fate. The cardigan represents both a tie to the past (For what is the crown but a historical artifact that keeps moving forward in time?) and a tie to the beloved father who wore the crown last. Fate, duty, history and family – the very themes of this series – all bound up in the costume designs of these relatively simple scenes. It also tends to work a bit on a character level. Elizabeth’s clothes are unfussy and borderline dowdy, which underlines the kind of person she is and provides a stark contrast to the ridiculous pile of gems on top of her head.

But when it’s time to give the public the goddess-figure they want…

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She’s consistently done up in a madonna-esque blue-and-white scheme. The series – and this episode in particular – makes it very clear that the public figure of the Queen is entirely a performance. Claire Foy – as well as the makeup and hair people responsible for her look – does a wonderful job of making sure the same unfussy and slightly dowdy Elizabeth is still the person inside the gown. In other words, no matter how stunning the look and how much they make her up, she’s not a movie star, nor is she someone for whom all this grandiosity and glamour comes easily. It’s a costume, and that is made very clear through her performance. There’s never any sense that she loves what she’s wearing or how she looks. She never even gives such things a moment’s thought. That gown and fur wrap is no different than the tiara on top of her head, in her eyes. It’s all part of the same pageantry; all equally as far away from the woman she truly is.

Note how un-sexy the gown is, despite the fact that it’s strapless. Contrast this with the many strapless or off-the-shoulder gowns Princess Margaret tends to wear throughout the series. Margaret is portrayed as the sexier, more free and more modern sister in comparison to the duty-bound goddess that Elizabeth is forced to be.

And speaking of duty-bound Betty…

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Here she is, in all her sober-suited glory, meeting a roomful of male advisers in matching black suits. The one person who stands out here is her mother.

The Queen Mother has been depicted either in this exact same dress or one very much like it throughout the series. Our only takeaway from that is to point out that the real person was no clothes horse and that the sameness of her dresses tends to speak both to that and to her loss of power as a Queen. She’s simply not getting the chance to put on gowns, furs and tiaras the way she used to. She is not, however, without power here. In fact, she’s the focal point of the scene. She’s done up in the goddessy blue-and-white scheme, and she’s sporting her Pearls of Power (3 strands to her daughter’s 2), which all tend to underline the way she’s attempting to use power to manipulate outcomes. In a way, her mother is showing Elizabeth how to be the Queen: by being unfussy, by not drawing attention to yourself unless you’re expected to do so, and by quietly manipulating men and events around her, rather than attempting to do anything head-on.

 

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A snapshot of the Windsors and their slightly tawdry but nonetheless fabulously stylish life. Edward is once again defined by clashing prints and windowpane plaids. It also seems that yellow is his predominant color. We try not to get too caught up in universal color theory (green doesn’t always mean envy and red doesn’t alway mean passion or anger, for instance), so we wouldn’t try to claim a “cowardice” meaning underneath it, but it does tend to separate him further from all the other men in the story, not one of whom is ever depicted in such colorful or fanciful clothes. He is costumed to look just a little silly and pathetic.

Note the falling leaf on Wallis’ dress. Much of what Wallis is wearing here is either based on actual outfits she owned or serves as very faithful homages to her style.

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She was much more severe in style than the Windsor women; much more likely to indulge in the post-War French looks of the period, with the cinched waists, high collars and suiting-inspired looks that defined the New Look of Dior at the time.

Back to duty:

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Suit to suit. A woman in black and white conferring with a man in black and white. Not equals, and not on the same page, but growing closer to understanding each other. Note that Winston has sat down; something he swore he’d never do in her presence. This speaks both to the growing familiarity of their relationship as well as the ways in which its developing very differently from previous sovereign/PM relationships.

Back to glamour and style:

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Edward and Wallis look just a little silly here, overdressed as they are for a day party in their own home. Edward is once again in clashing prints with hints of yellow. He is full of contradictory emotions on this day, from love for his wife to jealousy of his niece to a longing for something he wasn’t sure he still longed for. That tumultuousness is bound up in the visual noise of his costume.

Note that Wallis is corsaged and begown’d as if this day was in her honor. Note that she’s wearing a white gown, which would normally have bridal undertones, but in the context of the coronation actually has queenly ones. Note also the falling leaves of her brooch, which repeat the same motif found on her earlier dress; a motif that speaks of decline and loss and sadness. A queen-that-never-was watching a former king toast a queen-to-be.

And finally, on to pure pageantry:

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There’s no point in us trying to divine (no pun intended) meaning out of these costumes. These are historical recreations and they are all – her coronation gown especially – LOADED with deliberate symbols and meanings. We could copy and paste the Wikipedia entry on her gown, but we figure that kind of research is all out there for any one who wants to dive into it. We’re all about hidden meanings and subtext here, but this is one instance in which the costume design doesn’t have an opportunity to make any points. What’s the meaning of these costumes? History is the meaning. And they’re gorgeous and faithful executions of the originals.

More The Crown Style to come on Wednesday, darlings! We’ve got catching up to do.

[Photo Credits: Alex Bailey/Netflix – Stills: Netflix/Tom and Lorenzo]

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