The Crown Style: “Marionettes” and “Vergangenheit”

Posted on December 29, 2017

Heppy Christmas, darlings! Or Heppy Post-Christmas, anyway. In these episodes, Little Miss YAAAAAS KWEEN has put her marriage issues behind her for the moment, only to find out that the entire country is about as in love with her as her husband is (i.e., in a rocky, somewhat dysfunctional way that can turn on a dime) and that her family history is a whole hell of a lot nastier than she’d been lead to believe. And through it all, pearls and cardigans and sensible shoes rule the day.

Let’s dive in.


At Balmoral, everything takes on a woodsy, tweedy, country-house tone, right down to Michael Adeane’s sweater vest. Not that the queens are dressed all that differently from their usual fare. Even in the heart of London, you’ll find both ladies dressed pretty much exactly the same way they are here. The only really notable thing about Elizabeth’s day dress is the plaid (very Scotland-apropos, we suppose) rendered in Elizabeth’s signature colors of this season: brown and blue.


Everyone’s all sorts of brown and fading into the furniture. There’s a sense of family in the costuming, with Elizabeth’s somewhat more business-like dress standing out against the sweaters.


This isn’t really a costume design moment, but it’s a cheeky little scene that plays with our understanding of the real Elizabeth’s iconhood, handily illustrating how the show works on our collective cultural memories of her. This entire series is about finding the woman underneath all the imagery, which means that every now and then, the series has to go hard on that very imagery. Hence, not only a scene done seemingly for no other reason than to highlight the moment she got her iconic hairstyle, but one shot and edited in such a way to be as over the top as any moment the series has produced so far. As we’ll see in the next episode, The Crown as a series is extremely clever at making the subjects of the story occasionally look fairly ridiculous while at the same time imbuing them with life and nuance.

But there were good story and character reasons for this scene, outside the mild comedy moment it provided.

This is an episode entirely about how out-of-touch Elizabeth is; how she has become more icon than person in her brief time on the throne and how that model of monarchy simply wasn’t going to do for the modern era. This scene underlines those themes by using her hair as a metaphor for her stiff remove and coldness. But in the context of the time, Elizabeth’s hairstyle was entirely à la mode. It may not have been the most youthful of styles for the time, but it was definitely magazine-cover-ready. The writing took the ahistorical point of view in this scene; having Phillip openly disparage her hair and talk of it in terms of being dowdy and un-sexy. That’s the 2017 perspective. Circa 1960, you saw this type of hairstyle on some of the biggest movie stars of the period. This isn’t necessarily an “error,” however. Period pieces will often make story or character points using the styles and fashions of the period in a way no one at that time would have seen them.


Similarly, this coat and hat, which are also fairly stylish for the time (albeit for the over-30 woman) stand out a bit. The hat is larger than her usual choices, more crown-like, to give her that sense of cold remove that plays out in this scene, as she barely acknowledges anyone and when she does, it’s in the most perfunctory and condescending way. That may seem like a harsh judgment, but put this scene next to almost any other “public appearance” scene in the series and the differences stand out. In so many other instances, the public-appearance scene in The Crown is about whatever emotions Elizabeth is feeling at the moment – and usually how those emotions juxtapose with the speech she’s making or the people she’s greeting. In this scene, she comes off removed and we have no sense of what she’s thinking. Instead of emotional, she seems somewhat bored. “Ah, yes. And that’s a chassis. Good.”

Again, we would say that all of this is very much deliberate, down to the hat and coat choice.

What we’re seeing here is a representation of our modern understanding of Elizabeth. A preview of the person we see today. The helmet hair, the brightly colored matching coat and hat with oversized details, the vague demeanor, anodyne sentiments, and tightly controlled interactions – all of the things we’ve come to associate with the public figure of Elizabeth. All of the things this series has largely avoided as it attempted to get us to know and understand the woman underneath all the trappings. But this was an episode set up to critique the Queen, both inside the story and from the modern perspective of the viewer. And so, for the first time, we got the drag version of Elizabeth; the version Carol Burnett or Tracey Ullman offered us over the years.

Also: note how she’s so dull and affectless from the perspective of the people she’s speaking to that she’s pretty much indistinguishable from the drapes behind her.

Contrast the somewhat anvil-heavy character points being made through this costume with some of the ones she wore immediately following this scene.

Lightweight, breezy, less formal and regal. Relaxed.

Sporty and relatable. Down to earth – literally. Elizabeth’s public persona is very much at odds with her private self and sometimes, that’s to her detriment as Queen.

Back in her pearls and sweater sets; back in her dutiful blues, she mistakenly thinks she can carry on as normal; that she can continue the queenly model (and dress sense) she inherited from her mother.

But it’s not to be, and before she can turn inward and examine herself, Elizabeth must first do what she has always done: deal with men who disappoint her. And for whatever reasons, this season, when Betty’s got a disappointing man in front of her, she’s got a brown sweater on:

She can dress it up with a kicky kilt, but there’s no hiding the disappointment embodied by that drab sweater.

As an aside: this was a great episode, but dramatically speaking, it was a bit disappointing Martin Charteris didn’t receive some sort of vindication after Adeane and Tommy Lascelles humiliated him for being, in the end, exactly right. While it’s always fun to see Elizabeth lose her temper with someone like Michael, it really felt like a needed scene was missing here.

Anyway, once she decided on a course of action, Betty got down to business:

We find ourselves hung up on the color here; whether it’s leaning toward the warning-signal red of her earlier ensemble or whether it tips more toward the “I’m facing a man I can’t stand” browns of so many other costumes. We’ll split the difference just to get past the point. What’s of more interest to us here is how this, like her earlier plaid day dress, has a somewhat more businesslike feel than her usual sweater sets. It is a suit, after all. And the oversized rows of buttons give it an almost militaristic feel. She has an air of authority about her. Note how throne-like her chair is, as compared to his.

It should also be noted just how much her hair has been toned down from that original scene depicting her new style. In fact, at no other point in the season does her hair ever reach that same level of iconic, face-on-money version of Elizabeth.

This is a fairly exact replica of the dress she wore for her Christmas address, which leaves little room for nitpicky analysis, so we’ll just take a moment to salute the technical aspects. Without being too weird about it, it smartly gives Foy the illusion of a much bigger bust without padding it unnecessarily. She’s not at all built like the Queen, but between her own body-acting (turn down the sound and watch her clomp wide-legged through a room, purse in the crook of her arm, to see how effectively she’s working at it) and some smart costume fitting, the illusion that she is comes across subtly.

And finally, note what a true costume she puts on when it comes time to greet the public:

When you contrast this with practically every other costume in this episode – except for the red one that got her into trouble in the first place – it’s striking how frivolous this pink satin polka dotted ensemble looks in comparison to all the sweaters, tweeds and suits. It’s performative. She’s giving the people what she thinks they want to see of her; offering up the fantasy version of the monarchy. In a way, it subtly underlines the point that, while the Queen admirably changed with the times over the course of her reign, she remains at her heart a person of great remove, living on a pedestal.

With the next episode, it’s time to rock the foundations of that pedestal a bit:


Moving past any reading of these browns and blues as emblematic of disappointment and duty respectively (a color motif that plays out with some consistency over the course of the season), we’ll note instead that the two queens continue to dress very much alike. And even if these particular colors don’t have to have strictly applied meanings attached to them (and they very much don’t – this is all highly interpretive, after all), costumes like these underline the somewhat drab sense of duty and dull daily rituals of the royal family. If nothing else, they contrast wildly with the black sheep of the fam:

Often, when bold prints and wild colors are deployed in costume design, it’s meant to denote fun, lightness, happiness. In the case of the Windsors, there costumes serve to make them look fairly ridiculous.

Rich velvets, ostentatious costume jewelry and slightly clownish lapels all contrast sharply with the tweeds and sweaters of Elizabeth and her family. But even if we took the above sorts of looks as merely indicative of two fun-loving idle rich folks, there’s no denying the show’s attempt to render them both as tragically silly as possible:

We kind of doubt either of them would have gone to a costume party wearing crowns, but it’s interesting to note how they opted to wear nothing else fantastical or over-the-top. Just standard evening wear and big honking crowns. We’ve made the connection between Elizabeth’s power as queen and the number of pearl strands she’s wearing, so we clapped giddily at the sight of this faux queen covered in faux pearls.

Sharp cut to:

Dutiful blues, dark suits, sweaters, and tastefully deployed pearls, as if to remind us of just how different their lives are from their exiled family members by offering up a short scene where all the costume motifs of the reigning family are deployed at once.  Note how sympatico Elizabeth’s and Phillip’s costumes are. Even if they disagree in this scene, it’s clear they’re in a period where the marriage seems to be working, more or less.

Now look at what happens when Elizabeth makes a sharp turn:

This is all more or less in line with both the real person as well as the costume motifs deployed in her depiction, but it’s still something of a shock to see her in such a bright, uncharacteristically bold look. It’s not quite as iconic as her red coat and hat from the previous episode, but it’s a similar move toward a more iconic version of the Queen; one that’s also used to show her evolving or changing as she becomes more like the modern version we know.

There’s also, it has to be said, a slightly girlish flirtiness evident in Claire Foy’s performance and supported by the bold lightness of her outfit. Check that very Betty-like wide-legged clomp we were talking about in the first screencap. Note how different her posture is when she sits down; hands clasped, legs at 3/4, knees together, feet tucked under. It’s both demure and coquettish at the same time.

Note the same forward-leaning, slightly yearning posture in her later scene with Billy Graham:

Note again the slightly flirtier color, the more defined, belted waist which accentuates her figure. We don’t want to overstate anything here, but there’s a subtle sense of attraction in their scenes.

Note the stripped-of-color ensemble and far less flirty version of the same posture when dealing with her prime minister:

Once again, we’re seeing evidence of this slight shift toward a more business-like attire in Elizabeth. Instead of a sweater set, she’s wearing an office-appropriate blouse and jacket.

As Elizabeth learns the truth of her family’s secrets, she is dressed in a succession of nearly identical outfits that all deploy the same motifs: the business-like, vaguely militaristic suits rendered in the queenly, dutiful blues that are her signature color – especially whenever she’s caught in the middle between family and duty:

Note the large collar in the first look, which gives her a more authoritative or business-like feel. Note the double rows of buttons, which underline that vague military uniform sense. Note how these blue dresses and suits start off somewhat soft and get stiffer and more fitted as she hardens herself against sentiment.

And finally, take a look at the Duke of Windsor’s sober pin-striped suit and how much it differs from the silly and brightly colored idle-rich ensembles. It would seem that when he’s in pursuit of power, his style tendencies get sober and serious. Note how differently they both dressed in the thirties, when they both still thought they had a chance to have everything:

Serious, sober, very royal-like tweeds and suits.

In the end, they’re back where they started: sitting around in slightly ridiculous clothes, doing nothing of consequence with no one of consequence, stewing in their own regrets. Draped in gold and velvet, bitter and depressed.


[Photo Credit: Netflix – Stills: Tom and Lorenzo via Netflix]


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