Darlings! It’s here! It’s here! Did you spend the entire weekend on the couch binge-watching it? Have you finished it already? Did you love it? Or only really, really like it?
We are talking, of course, about Netflix’s long-awaited (by us, anyway) series about the reign of Elizabeth II, The Crown. Now, we’ve been known to whine a bit about how hard it is to do episodic recaps or reviews of a streaming series, because by the time you get to the final episode, you’re weeks behind everyone else’s viewing experience. It would take a lot to get us to commit to episodic reviews of any Netflix series again, but after watching the first 15 minutes of The Crown, we were both in agreement that, if nothing else, we needed to do episodic costume recaps and reviews. Why?
The first 15 minutes of the first episode of #TheCrown is the most expensive-looking television we’ve seen all year.
— Tom + Lorenzo® (@tomandlorenzo) November 5, 2016
That’s why. But really, we weren’t being quite accurate with that tweet. Yes, it’s the most expensive-looking television we’ve seen all year. It’s also the most fabulous. From a visual perspective alone, this series is a huge treat.
This is our first look at the future Queen and it makes a very good starting point to talk about the costumes, because this look is something of a mission statement. Like the series itself, it’s striving for only a certain level of historical accuracy. The more important effect (both for the costume and the series itself) is to turn a literal icon into a young and vibrant young woman while still reminding you of her impending iconhood. The style places her firmly in the late 1940s. The overall look, while not necessarily iconically recognizable as Elizabeth at first glance, nonetheless fits with the idea of the type of young woman she was. It’s a sturdy and stylish dress, but it’s also, by modern standards, a bit on the frumpy side. A costume designer could have picked any of a number of more classically stylish looks from the late 1940s, but instead we got this as the opening look. It’s pretty, but it’s not spectacular. The dusty lilac color, pearls and demure little bows speak of a restrained, respectable romanticism that perfectly suits her at this moment in her life.
And Matt Smith has simply never looked hotter in his life. There’s a reason for that. For one, Philip was a very attractive man when he was younger. For another, they really needed to stud him up (so to speak) in order to sell both the youth of the character (in comparison to the old man we know), and the fact that Elizabeth, for obvious reasons, was nuts for him. Those butt shots might’ve seemed gratuitous, but they did a great job of selling him as, well, a bit of a stud.
We haven’t finished the series yet, because we want to savor it, but we’ve seen enough to know that it’s not the kind of series that requires too much of a deep dive on the semiotics of the costume design. Series costume designer Michele Clapton did two very important things with the costumes; the only two things that made sense, really.
She made sure to at least tip her hat (so to speak) to the idea of accuracy, especially since several of these people count as the most photographed people of all time. She had to make them look like the Elizabeth, Philip, George, Elizabeth, Margaret, Mary, Edward, Winston and Wallis that many people know from history and photographs. She also had to breathe life into them so that they didn’t just come off like, well, history and photographs. The wedding scenes explode with light and color when we first encounter them, in order to offset the black-and-white images that have defined them up until now. Again, it’s about breathing life into history, making old people young, and sprinkling just enough of a fairy tale feel to how some of it is shot and art directed:
It’s like we’re getting to see Elizabeth’s wedding dress (which is really lovely) for the first time. From what we can tell, all of the wedding attire is faithfully recreated, but the high definition and modern lighting (not to mention color) bring it all to beautiful, modern life.
The scale and spectacle of this series is off the chain. We’ve read a couple of reviews that compared it to stately Masterpiece PBS types of series, but we think that misses the mark. Make no mistake, this is definitely a family soap opera with historical undertones, very much like Downton Abbey and other successful Brit import series. It’s certainly not to be taken as a historical document, although it’s done a very clever job of looking at the headlines of the day and extrapolating what the behind-closed-doors conversations that led to them must have been like. But underneath the mid-Century fashions and restrained English melodrama, it cannot be denied that the spectacle and scale are far more akin to Game of Thrones than Upstairs, Downstairs.
Claire Foy is simply magnificent in a role that, quite frankly, doesn’t ask much of any actress – on paper, at least. The Queen, both in this series and according to many reports, in life, is a mild-mannered, unfussy person not given to emotional displays or deep philosophizing. She married a man and stayed married to him forever, with very few scandals arising from the union, despite it being publicly played out in front of the entire world for half a century. While this series very effectively makes the case that she has led a singular life, surrounded by history and scandal, it does not try to turn her into something she’s not. Foy had the task of finding (you’ll pardon the cliched phrasing about to come) the beating heart of a human being underneath the decades of imagery, but also, the relatable woman hidden within the words of the script. A lesser actress, or one without the can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her charisma she has would have rendered Elizabeth as a fairly dull figure in the middle of chaos. There are tremendous actors giving very good-to-excellent performances all up and down the cast list, but without Foy turning Elizabeth Windsor into a believably blushing bride and lovesick girl who slowly becomes a sovereign, this whole series would have failed. Her Elizabeth is mild-mannered and quiet, but also erupting with love, lust, frustration, confusion, fear and anger.
We all know Elizabeth and Philip as ancient people who have been married forever. Foy, and to a slightly lesser extent, Matt Smith, do a wonderful job of making you see both the old figureheads they would become as well as the young, relatable, unsure, and crazy-in-love people they once were. Without being obvious about it, the series also effectively places them alongside their own descendants.
In other words, it plays on your knowledge of this family and where things will go with them. It’s truly impossible to watch these scenes – especially as the older members of the family bemoan the match and wonder if it was a mistake – without thinking of Charles and Diana or William and Catherine.
A snapshot of the two other queens in the story. Eileen Atkins is magnificent in the role, but then again, she always is. Both of these characters’ costumes only needed to be accurate. The actresses do all the work of breathing life into them because unlike with the younger characters, the costumes really only cement the image we have of the real women. Mary tended to favor (or at least, was photographed several times wearing) those sorts of cylindrical hats. And the Queen Mother continued to wear hats very much like this one for the next 50 years of her life.
Damn, girl. No wonder you were reluctant to become Queen. We wouldn’t want to leave that life behind either. Cute skirt, by the way.
These scenes really are meant to be jarring in the context of the E&P we know. He’s – as the gays say – young, dumb and full of come and she’s coquettish and giggly. Neither image fits the people we know from media and history, but they’re deliberately not meant to.
They are every young, hot affluent married couple. This is the direction their lives would have gone if her family history had been only slightly different. The reason they look so delicious and these scenes are shot so beautifully is to make them all the more poignant. We know that this is not the life they’re going to get and we know that they know it too. This is all something of a romantic charade before the real duty calls.
She looks absolutely beautiful here. And of all the looks she sported in this first episode, this movie-star glamour look takes us the furthest from the Elizabeth we know from pictures. Because when reality – and her fate – intrudes, she’s not only called back home to deal with it…
She shows up looking every inch the newspaper-photo Elizabeth of the 1950s. Brooch, pearls, and feathered hat.
By the way, look how cold and austere the palace looks in comparison to the idyllic and beautifully lit scenes they just left.
We said that this series didn’t necessarily call for the semiotic deep-dives of our Mad Men costume posts, but there’s at least one really notable thing on a symbolic level with these costumes. Something very interesting happens when duty calls Elizabeth home and sets her on the track of her life. She gets shifted almost entirely, and in every scene in the rest of this episode, in shades of blue and green, which also happen to be favored by Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. Look at how the three queens of England in these shots match or call to each other, but Princess Margaret is in an entirely different color scheme. On the other hand, look at how Margaret and Elizabeth’s connection is signaled by their cardigans.
Unlike her stylish Malta ensembles, her clothes from here on out in the episode also tend to evoke the Elizabeth we know. Sturdy, demure, well-made clothing. She’s pretty and slightly stylish, but she’s basically dressed like any upper middle class wife and mother of the period. The flirtiness and romanticism of earlier ensembles is gone now.
Margaret is the clearly the more stylish of the sisters. Now that Elizabeth’s on the track, the only real prints we see her in are demure florals. Margaret gets to wear polka dots and checks and enjoy color schemes outside the family-approved ones:
Margaret is the only member of the family not dressed in a single, solid color. Not counting the Queen’s mink wrap and the King’s paper crown, of course. Still she tends to stand out somewhat subtly in all her scenes as the outsider. Her silhouette is wildly different from anyone else’s and much more stylish. Additionally, characters wearing focus-pulling prints or patterns tend to evoke an undercurrent of tension or confusion.
All three queens of England are in shades of green.
Again, that very Elizabethan sense of English country sturdiness in her clothing. She will continue to dress like this for the rest of her life – and the costume design here plays on our knowing that. The real Elizabeth didn’t literally wear the same type of outfit for the next 65 years. She had plenty of chances (and took them) to be stylish and even glamorous over that span. But the closer she gets to her destiny, the more the costume design is meant to remind you of who she becomes.
Meanwhile, Philip is practically drowning in tweed. This looks like a very well shot Ralph Lauren ad.
To be fair, this is a very cute dress worn near the end of the episode. Not that it’s shockingly stylish or anything, but it does give her a chance to look a little fresher and up-to-date. Predominantly rendered in blue and green, of course.
But that is every inch the Queen Elizabeth uniform for the next half century, right down to the shoes. She’s in the seat and dressed for the part, just waiting for the inevitable to happen.
More to come, darlings! Although given what we know about what’s to come in the series, the tenor of these posts is going to vary wildly from episode to episode. We can only show you so many pictures of Winston Churchill, after all. The good news is, the series is so enjoyable that we have no doubt we’ll have plenty more to say, no matter how dreary the costumes may get.
[Photo Credits: Alex Bailey/Netflix – Stills: Netflix/Tom and Lorenzo]