It’s sister vs. sister in the Royal family! And Mummy’s no better! Family dysfunction, duty, romance, sex, religion and tradition all come clashing together in this episode. Overall, the drama felt a little, shall we say, milked from the historical record, but it made for a wonderfully juicy Downton Abbey-esque bit of soapy, sister-y melodrama.
Even better: Most of the major costume motifs of the series came into play this episode, from the Pearls of Power, to green as a code for duty over family, to blue as the color of queenliness. In addition, various family relationships – and how the members see each other – were reflected in the costume choices.
Motif# 1: Margaret in a romantic floral talking on the phone to Elizabeth, who’s wearing a very queenly blue suit. Let’s just skip ahead in the story to make our point:
In both phone call scenes (there’s a third, but we’re holding that one for later), Margaret is in bedclothes and Elizabeth is in a suit. The florals speak to Margaret’s freer, more romantic side. She’s in loungewear while Elizabeth is in a suit that speaks both of her professional responsibilities as well as her role as the Queen. There are statements being made not only about who each of these women are, but how they relate to and are different from each other.
Which leads us to Motif #2: Family members dressing for other family members. To wit:
This is an interesting look to us. Green has been a consistent color story for Elizabeth, but in most cases, when she’s depicted wearing it, it’s a very sturdy, sober, muted green that almost comes off like the color of a military uniform. But this is a sparkly, stylish green. And the ensemble is an unusually chic and modern choice for a character who’s been depicted as the less modern and less chic of the two sisters. The jacket, gloves and capelet are all very much on trend for late ’50s fashion. In addition, Elizabeth seems just a bit more fussed with her clothes, as compared to the dressing scene in the previous episode, where she barely acknowledged what she was wearing.
We noted then that the figure of the Queen is a public performance for Elizabeth. When we speak of her in blue, it tends to reference the goddess/Madonna aspects of the role; the image of the Queen. The idea of queenliness. In almost every episode, there’s at least one example of this blue-and-white “exalted figure” style of costume, such as this short scene later:
The entire series has been about the tension between Elizabeth the Goddess and Elizabeth the woman; between the image/icon and the sister/wife/daughter. The former aspect is rendered above, but when it comes time to reference the daughter or sister – especially when those roles come into conflict with her primary role, she’s often rendered in green.
Two things before we go any further: The first is that we’re trying to be careful about not ascribing intent here. It’s possible all of these motifs were laid out and planned meticulously by Costume Designer Michele Clapton. It’s even more possible that we’re picking up on things that were not intentional. This isn’t about trying to crack a secret code so much as it’s about finding new ways to examine a scene or a story.
The second thing is to remind anyone reading that we’re discussing the characters in a fictionalized tale and not the real people, except as a reference or comparison. If we note that “Elizabeth” is dressed somewhat frumpily in comparison to her “sister,” we’re not referring to either of the historical, real world figures.
Anyway, our point here is two-fold, because Elizabeth’s costume is saying two things. One, that she’s coming up against a conflict between family and duty and that she felt the need to dress just a little more stylishly around her more stylish sister. There’s just a hint of vanity in the decision and it foreshadows a major act of vanity she will make down the line.
This idea that she dressed up to impress is bolstered by examining how each character is dressed by the end of that night, when they’re apart from each other.
Elizabeth ends the night in a frumpy, sensible, comfy nightgown, while Margaret…
Spends the rest of the night partying in her ostentatious gold gown, which, it should be noted, is far more movie-star glamorous in style than Elizabeth’s pretty green gown.
Meanwhile, the Queen Mother attempts to mask the steam coming out of her ears at the news of her daughter’s romantic life:
She’s dressed in that same somewhat frumpy blue dress of which she seems to have a dozen copies. The color scheme is a queenly blue and white. And she’s got no less than THREE strands to her Power Pearls. The lady is read to throw down.
Which she does, by facing off against a pearl-less Elizabeth in another “family dressing for family” moment:
The Queen Mother starts her appeal to Elizabeth by stating “I have two daughters whom I love very much.” That’s evident in her costume, which sports both the queenly blue of Elizabeth as well as the bold florals of Margaret. Make no mistake, though. Her maternal feelings are swaddled in a huge fur-accented coat, which gives her a much broader and imposing feel. Also: One strand of Power Pearls to Betty’s zero strands. She’s making her wishes be known and imposing her will on the situation. It strikes us as a fairly fictionalized version of the real person and her relationship to Elizabeth, but it makes for better drama to have the Queen Mother as something of an adversary to Elizabeth, rather than a loving advisor.
Next, the most blatant “family dressing for family” moment:
This is really great costume design. They are day and night; almost perfect mirror images of each other. A broad-lapeled coat with a cinched waist over a floral-accented dress accompanied by a double strand of pearls and matching earrings. And yet, it’s somehow very subtle.
The point here is that deep down, these two sisters are far more alike than unalike; that they understand each other in a way almost no one else does. They’re not twins, but they’ve been depicted very much like them throughout the series. But there is a fundamental difference in their roles and thus a fundamental difference in their outlooks; a divide as distinct as night and day. Just beautifully represented through clothing and hair.
Yet another example of Elizabeth facing off against a male advisor while dressed to match him, in a dark, sober suit-style dress.
And while this ensemble is based on historical events, it felt to us like the addition of black accents to her usual queen-blue ensemble gave it a sense of foreboding and gave her an almost sinister feel. After all, this episode implies that vanity was at least partially behind her reasons for sending Townsend away sooner. She didn’t like the loss of attention. The Queen has a dark side and this costume backs that up.
After Elizabeth’s decision becomes manifest, Margaret makes one more phone call to her sister, but this time, the tone is very different.
The shift in their relationship that the dialogue implies is also reflected in the costumes they wear. This time, Margaret is dressed far more formally than her sister. There’s still a heavy floral component to her costume (including a real flower this time), but Elizabeth’s not in her queenly blue but in the her duty-bound green; not among the stations of her office, but mucking about a stable. Glamour vs. Dull Tradition as opposed to Romance vs. Royalty, which was the undertone of their earlier phone calls. Once again, Elizabeth’s role as a queen has conflicted with her role as a family member.
And finally, a bit of fabulous High Drag:
Girlfriend knows how to milk a scene for drama, that’s for sure. Two things to note: You can’t possibly lose sight of her umbrella, and she’s dressed in a very dull, dutiful green. Doing as she’s told, but in high style.
[Photo Credits: Alex Bailey/Netflix – Stills: Netflix/Tom and Lorenzo]