Onward to drama, scandal, and more black dresses than you can shake a stick at, darlings! The King is dead! Long live the squabbling that comes with it!
A cute interlude of the young princesses, costumed pretty much exactly in the style the real ones wore in pictures; the style that pretty much all British girls of school age wore during this period – and for many decades after. Tweeds and sweaters are obviously going to be a constant in a period English drama, but if you’re inclined to dive deep on the semiotics, as we are, you’ll find that there were some interesting things being done with the knitwear this episode. Note the blue of Elizabeth’s outfit, the little Peter Pan collar and the cardigan. Put a pin in that.
Another snapshot of historical figures, pretty much exactly as they appeared in photographs. That’s Wallis’ style to a tee; the high neck and sleek silhouette, the bold print, the short, puffed sleeves. Queen Mary is in mourning for her husband, hence the black, but take note of just how much flashier her mourning style is in the 1936 flashback as compared to the “present day” of 1952, which you’ll see in a bit. Note Edward’s stylish pinstripes and the cut of his suit. He’s flashier and more stylish than his brother. This is a theme that’s also established in Elizabeth and Margaret’s costumes, which embodies the parallels the script is attempting to make between Margaret and Edward, Elizabeth and George.
The girls are changed into matching dresses. Delicate English-style florals have been more or less restricted to Elizabeth’s costumes so far, so it’s interesting to note that Margaret is dressed like her here. This is long before they’ll diverge as separate personalities and start dressing very differently. Note that her father is wearing a sweater vest. As we said, this is fairly de rigeur for British male characters of this period, but it establishes a strong motif having to do with family, duty, and her answerability to male figures. It will repeat throughout the episode…
… in every single scene with her husband. More about that in a second.
Look at Elizabeth in the first and last shot; the way the veil forms an almost perfect triangle, rendering her much less human in form and much more iconic to an almost religious extent. Especially in the car, when she’s on her way to the palace and knows she’ll be photographed, she is dressed and arranged (because a veil doesn’t just fall into perfect shape like that) to look queenly.
Now, rather than let them all play out in order, let’s just get this sweater vest thing out of the way:
The only time Philip isn’t dressed this way is at the very end, when the family begrudgingly moves into Buckingham Palace. In all the discussions about his name and her duty, he’s wearing the sweater that reminds her of her father, when his duty came crashing down on his life. A duty, Queen Mary reminds her, that killed him. Even Charles is dressed this way. It’s a symbol of the ways duty and family conflict with each other, as embodied by the man almost literally killed by his duty: her father.
You wouldn’t think an episode stacked to the rafters with black funeral dresses would have much to offer in terms of costume design discussion, but scenes like this one do a great job of showing how a basic black dress can be used to define a character and highlight differences with other characters. All three of these women look very distinct from each other in a generational way. Queen Mary is fashionable for the 1910s, Queen Elizabeth for the 1930s, and Elizabeth is perfectly, primly 1950s.
There’s some interesting stuff being done with the pearls, believe it or not. They seem to signal either a power differential or a status differential of some sort. Technically, Elizabeth has more power than her mother, but the Queen Mother is very petulant and manipulative in this scene, barely deigning to bow to her daughter and deliberately saying something hurtful to her about her uncle’s nickname for her. She has three strands of pearls to her daughter’s two.
Later, she’s only wearing two strands, matching Elizabeth’s. It’s Margaret who’s on the outs here, in her three strands; Margaret who’s hiding a secret about her love life, one that sets her far apart from her family and could be just as potentially destructive to it as her uncle’s romantic decisions were.
Also: note Edward’s patterned shirt. It’s a bit cutting edge for 1952 and it’s not something you see on any of the other men in the episode. He’s an outsider. A man who lives in France and America, with the fashion sense to go with it.
He doesn’t wear it when he goes to visit his mother, interestingly enough. And in the Cold War of the Pearls, she just went DEFCON 1. This scene is all about her wielding power both royal and maternal over him. This is expressed not only through her ostentatious jewelry but also through the staging. She has no intention of rising to meet him or even of offering him a seat. Contrast this with her hapless granddaughter …
Who needs to be told by her lessers that they’re supposed to stand in her seated presence. Edward hovers over his obstinately seated, opulently dressed mother, trying to win favor. Churchill looms over Elizabeth, in her prim dress and semi-modest pearls, essentially running roughshod over her and taking advantage of her naivete.
In a later scene, Edward goes back to visit his mother, but the costume design and staging set a very different tone:
Not only is he seated, but he’s wearing that distinctly un-English patterned shirt again. And this time, his mother is subtly responding to his sartorial cues with a slightly surprising and very subtle polka dot pattern. He’s dropped the veil of obesquiousness around her and she’s opened up to him just a little.
And now, a word about Princess Margaret’s boobs.
It’s subtle, of course, but Margaret’s costumes tend to be slightly more sexualized than anyone else’s in the story. Her dresses are tighter than Elizabeth’s and tend to show more skin. In this scene and a later scene with Peter, there are even small flashes of Royal cleavage.
By modern standards – and even by some standards of the ’50s – her costumes aren’t shocking or overly sexual, but in the context of this particular household and family, it sets her apart as a freer, more sexual and romantic figure than any of the other repressed souls of the Windsor clan. Her décolletage is akin to her uncle’s patterned shirt – a signal that she’s not like them.
And check out how many strands she’s working. Girlfriend’s feeling her power. She’s the only other character beside Elizabeth costumed in a floral, but note how modern, romantic and impressionistic hers is.
Buffeted from all sides, Elizabeth agrees to sit down with her problematic uncle, fully mindful of his acid-tongued nickname for her…
She’s dressed in an oddly childlike and fussy manner. That blouse in particular comes off more twee and precious than her usual sturdy fare. In fact, the blue color, cardigan, and Peter Pan collar all call back to the first scene of the episode, when she was a child. It works in the context of the scene on both a metaphorical and ironic level. She is, in many ways, a child in this situation. Certainly, that’s how most of the people around her seem to treat her. She knows this too. And there’s an implication in this scene, as she quietly and without the slightest bit of ruffle forces him to apologize to her for putting her in position to be queen, that she’s learning how to be both herself and the Queen. Elizabeth doesn’t need strand upon strand of pearls to exhibit her power. She can simply and quietly be far more than people expect of her. She can dress like a child and still command a situation like a queen, she’s learning. Pearl buttons will do her fine, thank you.
Of course, it doesn’t quite come off the same when she has to confront her husband with the news that his family won’t bear his name:
She doesn’t seem powerful at all here. And he is, of course, in a sweater vest. She can do her duty as a queen, and she can even learn how to wield power in a way that suits her, but her family will almost always suffer for it in some way. And all of that family suffering, in her mind, can be traced back to that one moment, when she watched her father become a king right in front of her eyes, and watched his suffering begin almost immediately.
[Photo Credits: Alex Bailey/Netflix – Stills: Netflix/Tom and Lorenzo]