Onward, darlings! Royal dresses galore! Betty and Phil go on a walkabout! Phil’s a racist boor! Betty finds out that African people don’t take well to being laughed at and called primitive! Maggie likes wearing pants and making out with the wrong men! (Don’t we all?) Betty gets attacked by an elephant! Almost!
In other news, the King dies. Also, Queen Mary becomes Betty’s drag mother.
Since quite a bit of the costumes for Elizabeth are based on real ensembles she was photographed wearing, we have to straddle the line in our discussions between acknowledging the history on display and interpreting what’s happening in the filmed recreations of history. In this scene, the brown and white of her dress plays well with the overall color scheme of the shots, but there’s also a clear distinction being made between her finery and the clothing worn by the people she thinks of as the crown’s “subjects.” Almost everyone here is wearing shades of brown, but her polka dots and pearls are jarring in the context.
What interests us about this look – which is very standard early ’50s Elizabeth in a lot of ways – is how it plays on European-based religious iconography; how almost anyone of European descent could see the clear “Madonna” implications of an outfit like this, from the pale blue-and-white color scheme to the purity implied by the pearls to the almost literal halo on her head. That’s not interesting on its own, but it sure stands out in a scene where she’s surrounded by non-Europeans who don’t quite know what to make of her. In other words, she’s serving up Euro-standard “queenly” attributes in her clothing that her “subjects” aren’t picking up on at all. It’s a dress falling on deaf ears, so to speak.
It’s also the second polka-dotted dress on this tour. It’s a pattern you’d never see on the people around her in this setting, making her stand out all the more.
Here’s Margaret, getting her tweedy scandal on. Two costuming motifs for this episode are established here. The first is a woman in pants, which is an interesting thing, because in period pieces, a woman in pants at a time when women didn’t wear them much is usually an implication of her seeking power or to break out of the confines of her life. Margaret is doing the latter, of course. She doesn’t seem to have any interest in power at all. She just wants her man.
This same motif will play out in their other scene together this episode:
A woman taking control of her life. A man and woman dressed similarly at a time when it was tough to pull such a thing off without social repercussions. The storyline and the characters reflected perfectly by the costumes they wear.
In fact, the “similarly dressed couple” motif plays out quite a bit with Elizabeth and Phillip:
Again, a woman in pants; a couple dressed alike. In E&P’s case, these costumes underline the somewhat egalitarian nature of their marriage at this point. She doesn’t necessarily have more power than him and he’s still able to assert a male protectiveness over her. They’re simpatico. On the same page. They’re exactly who they want to be, which makes the coming changes in their lives all the more poignant.
Another quick snapshot of Margaret. Little is shown of her costume in this scene, but one can easily see she’s the flashier and more stylish of the two sisters.
Liz in pants yet again. Not only does it serve to underline the un-Queenly nature of her life at this moment, but it also underlines the gender role drama that will become Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage as she climbs out of a jeep to instruct men on what to do with an overheated engine. She’s having fun being the kind of woman she will never really get to be. After all, how many times after this do you think she wore pants in front of her subjects?
Once the King dies and her fate becomes real, she’s back in highly feminine looks, with a touch of English-style floral motifs (something not seen in her tour ensembles to date) and a heavy green component to remind you she’s been called back home:
There’s very much the sense that all of these trappings are a form of armor to her, even when she’s not particularly dressed up. The formidable coat, scarf, hat, pumps and gloves all feel almost ritualistic after seeing her dressed so freely and in such an egalitarian manner during this trip. This is part of her “queen drag.”
And that point is driven home in an almost literal sense in the scene on the plane, when she is dressed in more appropriate clothing for a mourning monarch:
Shedding the light and embracing the dark.
There’s a reason these scenes kept cutting back and forth between Elizabeth and Mary. She’s being called home in a visual sense, with an almost call-and-response rhythm to it (black to black, pearls to pearls); literally being dressed like a queen as another queen in informs her of her role. You can see and feel Elizabeth becoming something else as she gets dressed.
And that point is driven home the second she steps out fully dressed: Philip is now to stand and walk behind her. No more galavanting around in their matching pants. She’s a queen now. She’s got her armor on.
And that is some serious High Queen Drag coming from her grandmother.
This was a powerful moment, but also a highly symbolic one. The fact that everyone involved understood the symbolism of it is what makes it so powerful. Of course a mourning family is going to be dressed in black. Of course Queen Mary would be required to bow to Elizabeth now. But by showing Elizabeth having her queenly vestments put on – to match Queen Mary’s own – and then to end the sequence with the elder queen bowing to her younger counterpart is a perfect blend of story, history, character and costume, producing one of the best moments of the series.
[Photo Credits: Alex Bailey/Netflix – Stills: Netflix/Tom and Lorenzo]