The Crown Style: “Matrimonium” and “Dear Mrs. Kennedy”

Posted on January 05, 2018

 


With these two episodes, The Crown collides with history, offering up a neat illustration of how the show teases drama out of real-life situations and how we can tease meaning out of real-life style choices. And as always, the costumes were there to support the themes and narrative while also telling some stories of their own.

Shall we, then?


We’ve made the argument that a great deal of Elizabeth’s costume design centers around the ideas of duty, family, and propriety. In order to draw a comparison (and of course, in deference to the actual styles worn by the real woman), Margaret’s costume themes are all about sex, the good life, and a creeping, morbid depression she always seems to be struggling to keep at bay.

We’ve noted before how often Margaret wears short sleeves or goes sleeveless in comparison to Elizabeth’s propensity for sweaters and wraps to keep herself covered. In addition, she has a tendency to wear more gold jewelry than anyone else in this jewelry-wearing fam. Gold sleeveless blouse, showy gold necklace. A sort of lush feel with a slightly sexy undertone. At least in comparison to her cardigan-and-pearls-wearing sister and mother. She’s getting terrible, heartbreaking news while practically wearing the very gilded cage that prevents her happiness.

 


Again, there’s that sense of overt richness in her clothing; the way satins and metallics pop up as often as tweeds do in Elizabeth’s wardrobe. And this is pure late ’50s high fashion, of course. It’s not overtly sexy, but it hits all of Margaret’s other markers. She’s rich, she’s dark, and she’s chic. And we think that’s likely how she would describe herself, if asked.

Now, take everything we just wrote and hold it in your memory, because it all plays out again:


Ditto, in other words.

She’s the dark, chic, looming figure in comparison to her proper, reserved mother. A dark, bored princess in a family of queens. By modern standards, Tony’s getup might seem a little silly, but in the context of the times, and through Margaret’s eyes, his whole look screams “I’M HERE TO ANNOY YOUR FAMILY.” His outfit isn’t quite shocking or racy, but it’s nonetheless a bit edgier than her family and station normally allow.


Even in a relatively plain dressing gown, she’s got a lush and languid sort of Champagne-colored vibe going on.

Note how absent it is when talking to her sister:


She’s fully covered, but darkly dramatic, in silhouette and jewelry – that necklace making a rather emphatic response to Elizabeth’s ever-present triple-strand of pearls. Margaret goes for drama in her silhouettes and here, her body-skimming dress makes a counterpoint to her sister’s dowdy work clothes.

But note how Margaret dresses when Elizabeth has to tell her that her wedding announcement will be delayed:


She thought she was getting everything she wanted – the full support of her sister – so for once, she dressed in her style (blue cardigan over a patterned blouse), as if to show her gratitude and sense of closeness she felt.

 

The Princess of Champagne and Satin. This is more akin to her court wear than how she dresses when she’s out with Tony. Like Elizabeth, Margaret has developed an understanding of the symbology of her role and how to wield it. She’s never as adept at it as her older sister is, but there’s some innate understanding (possibly helped along by Cecil Beaton’s monologue a couple episoded back about what a princess means to working women) of what people expect to see from her. For this, her more-or-less engagement party, she serving up the pink satin princess fantasy.

 

Which is somewhat ironic, because poor Lillibet is practically choking on her queen drag:

Absolutely dripping in diamonds and pearls, the symbols of her power and station, she feels old and out of touch in this new world.

It’s a stunning dress, but she looks like a pissed-off wedding cake.

Of course, as it always must, duty comes knocking on Elizabeth’s door. And when that duty collides with family bonds …


She wears blue. But it’s notable that she comes to no decision in this scene and takes no action. She wears the robes of duty, so to speak, but she fails to carry it out.

Instead, we return to pink satin, which seems to provide a cover for all sorts of roiling feelings this episode:

It’s interesting to us how it’s deployed by Margaret in an intensely aggressive take on a Cinderella fantasy, while Elizabeth’s use of it is all about motherhood. It’s both a smart use of the color and textile in the context of the times as well as a subtle underlining of traditionally feminine fantasy figures in the modern re-telling.

And of course, Margaret is dressed as differently as possible, in color and shape. She’s a dark, broad-shouldered figure looming in the scene, the print of her suit underlining the intensity of her feelings in this scene. Elizabeth is all about placidity and the glow of family life, whereas Margaret is dressed to fight for hers. The Queen is not in blue, so she opts to let family have its way over duty.

Which brings us to this big, blue puffball of dutiful sisterhood:

This is a faithful recreation of what Elizabeth wore to her sister’s wedding. What interests us here is how you can make the argument that real-world looks like this one can be seen as the impetus for costume motifs like “Blue for duty.” We don’t claim to be cracking any sort of code here. Costume designer Michele Clapton has been open about her methods and thinking behind her work on this series, so anything we say here is meant as a way of reading the work separate from the artist rather than trying to divine or explain their thinking. But this strikes us as a good illustration of The Crown‘s approach to storytelling overall; how the show takes what we know about the public lives of these characters (like what they wore or said and when) and what we’ve heard about their private lives, and then combines the two and extrapolates from them in order to fill in the details.

In other words, Betty’s sucking it up and doing her duty by supporting her sister, embodying all the themes of the series so far while also embodying the costume design motifs that have played out – and all based on real-world actions and images. Tony may be a bad match for the family, but by God, she’ll stand on that balcony draped in blue and wave her approval to the crowd, because that’s what’s needed of her at that moment. Duty in blue.

And finally, before we move onto the “Jackie Kennedy Sure Was a Hot Mess, Wasn’t She?” episode, another faithful recreation of history:

 



This can also be seen as a jumping-off point for a costume motif. In this instance, Margaret’s choice of gown is a good reason to assume she had a decent understanding of the kind of romantic, Hollywood-inspired fairy-tale princess drag (this ensemble is as much Disney as it is Windsor) that was expected of her at this time in her life. From that, you can make a whole bunch of costume design choices that back up or support that point, which we’ve seen in Margaret’s costumes throughout the series.

We can see that same sense of history and iconic women’s style choices informing the next episode, although we consider it one of the worst of the series, to be honest.


The Crown is always scanning real people’s lives and looking for a theme to hang on them. For the most part, it does a very good job, but in this episode, it took a few things we know about the private lives of the Kennedys, blew them way out of proportion, and wound up making both of them as well as the Queen look fairly bad for no good reason.

Let’s start with this scene, which isn’t particularly notable from a costume perspective, as we’ve seen Elizabeth in some minor variation of this look dozens of times already. But the point is to establish something that we haven’t seen much evidence of before now: her vanity. Elizabeth, we are told, is feeling and presumably looking older. It’s kind of hard to sell that with Claire Foy’s unlined and youthful face, so they simply plopped her down in a scene that would guarantee she looks like crap.


We’ve commended the show before for its occasional tendency to not shy away from making the subjects of the story look a little silly. No matter how many universal themes of family, love and duty you can tease out of the real family’s lives, the fact remains that they live really, really odd day-to-day lives in comparison to everyone else. The combo of TV trays and a footman more or less in charge of TV reception, combined with Elizabeth’s complaining and somewhat backhanded comments about Jackie establish that we’re in for an episode of Silly Windsors.

Costume-wise, everything’s kind of blandly low-key. Elizabeth is dressing less identically to her mother as they both get older, but she’s still neutral and unfussy, drawing a distinct comparison to the high-style of the First Lady, even if it is just as colorless as seen on a black-and-white screen.


We’re supposed to take the fictional Elizabeth’s sudden bout of insecurity as a reason why the real Elizabeth chose this blue gown to wear for the occasion of a dinner in the Kennedys’ honor, but we’re not sure it really scans.

 


It’s a fairly faithful recreation of what Elizabeth wore for the event, but it’s also of a piece with a lot of what she wore at that time. There’s no real reason to think this dress stood out to her as some sort high-fashion response to Mrs. Kennedy’s trip to Paris. It looks like a great deal of sturdy, go-to styles she deployed at the time.

What’s interesting to note is how Jackie’s look for the occasion was re-interpreted from the real thing:

 


In some respects, Jackie’s real dress for the occasion was just as fussy as Elizabeth’s – and slightly uncharacteristic of her own style at the time. This look, however, is a sort of generic Jackie drag that tries to nail the essence of the woman’s style and draw a sharp distinction between herself and Elizabeth. We’re not sure it really works, but then again, we didn’t think much of their interacting with each other really worked. Elizabeth has spent her life meeting all of the world’s most accomplished and refined women. The idea that she would be so taken aback by the American First Lady that she would spend months questioning herself and her attractiveness is about as believable to us as a Jackie Kennedy who routinely broke protocol and spilled the deepest, darkest secrets of her life to someone she doesn’t know.

Look at how the dowdiness dials are turned up to eleven for the scene where she digs to find out what Jackie said about her:

That is easily one of the ugliest things she ever wore on the show.

Another faithful historic recreation:



If we’re to take this real-world ensemble as some sort of response or reaction to Jackie’s own style – or even her Paris wardrobe specifically – it doesn’t really work. This, to us, is an illustration of how the extrapolation from real-world interactions can’t be supported by the real-world style choices that the costumes need to faithfully recreate.

 


Bad Kennedy drag.

This, on the other hand, was good Jackie drag:


It’s possible this is based on an actual ensemble she owned or wore. It certainly seems designed to remind you of her greatest style hits of the period. But whether it’s a recreation or not, it serves the story really well. She comes to this house penitent and a bit ashamed. The somber tones of her outfit underline her own feelings.

 


And they also serve to draw a sharp distinction between the two women. They’re dressed in similar shades, but totally different shapes and styles. Jackie’s look is all modern Chanel, whereas Elizabeth’s has a fussy English maturity to it, perfect for the setting and the actions required of a tea-and-scones scene.

Then this happened:

And we CANNOT EVEN.

At this stage, we pretty much know all there is to know about the workings of this fairly fucked-up marriage, and in no accounts was “drunken spousal abuse” a factor. It’s just an awful storytelling choice, shoved into the episode to give it a salacious tone the series won’t allow itself when discussing the main characters. Compare how over-the-top this scene is next to the ones that hint in the lightest and subtlest manners that Prince Phillip may have had sex with someone other than his wife.

 


As news of the assassination plays out, in a series of scenes that never quite depicted this news from this angle, the members of the royal family are dressed in the basic day and night-wear we’ve come to expect from them throughout the series. There’s the overwhelming sense of stifling normalcy about it; sitting around watching news of an acquaintance’s murder play out around the world.

 

With that, comes an increasing sense of powerlessness on Elizabeth’s part. You know she’s feeling an urge to reach out or connect with these events in some way, but she’s bound by her location, bound by her station and rules; stuck in a frilly pink dressing gown, wanting to make a difference somehow.

Cut to:

That’s as sharp a costume distinction as you can make while still bridging the divide between both women with color. Pink dressing gown to iconic pink suit.

 


Even the Queen Mother is feeling this connection (in her pink nightgown), as the wife of a world leader for many years. This hits her as hard or harder than it does her daughter, and she feels just as connected but maddeningly removed from action.

But Elizabeth, you will note, is now dressed for work.

 


Which she promptly gets down to doing, woman to woman, but also world leader to world leader. This is as much a diplomatic matter as it is a personal one, making her work clothes in this scene all the more important and central to its themes. Had she sat around in a pink dressing gown writing this note, it would have had an entirely different feel to it.

Still: not a great episode, as far as we’re concerned. It’s likely that there simply wasn’t enough story in the real world interactions of these people, leaving the creators, who seemed determine to force a story out of said interactions, to make some strange and off-model choices for the show.

 

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

 

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