With Queen Elizabeth II passing on before the airing of The Crown’s Season 5, the Netflix series is no doubt the most anticipated and controversial ever, with former British Prime Minister John Major calling the scene showing him with Prince Charles discussing a plot to oust the Queen “a barrel load of malicious nonsense” and the actress Judi Dench declaring, “No one is a greater believer in artistic freedom than I, but this cannot go unchallenged.”
Given its incredible popularity, the retelling of the lives of the British royals has the whole world invested in the characters, who are like dear friends that one misses at the end of each season. You can just imagine the pressure on the production team to pay even closer attention to each detail that defines each personality, from the correct accent to the hair and makeup and, of course, the wardrobe.
The task is even more challenging because of the fact that the season’s period—the ’90s—is relatively recent history and their looks have been ingrained in our memories. In this season, the Queen is 65 and faces public perception of her irrelevance, feels distant from her husband, her children have unsuccessful marriages and to top it all as the most fitting metaphor, Windsor Castle goes up in flames—making her declare 1992 as her “annus horribilis.”
To reflect these tumultuous events, the Queen’s costumes have transitioned from Season 4’s “sugar colors and pinks and apricots” worn by Olivia Colman to darker, autumnal shades for Imelda Staunton. “We have to portray a melancholic, middle-aged woman looking back,” says costume designer Amy Roberts. When she’s at Balmoral Castle, however, she’s in her happy plaids and cardigans, “when you see what she jolly well would’ve liked her life to have been—out with the dogs and horses.”
Princess Margaret, on the other hand, has a fashionably bolder wardrobe as the partying sister, played by Lesley Manville. Custom printed textiles were commissioned for her: “There’s a scene where she gets out of the bath and puts on her makeup wearing a kimono and a fantastic turban in the same fabric,” relates Roberts. At a party, she wears “a bright, sassy ’80s pink dress in a big ’80s shape—a tulip skirt with big shoulders—and since she’s unfulfilled and angry, she’ll just go for it, whereas the Queen always has to be buttoned-up and a lot safer.”
Known as a smart dresser, Prince Charles, essayed by Dominic West, had to be impeccably styled. The double-breasted suits are done in rich fabrics of gray, navy, royal blue and Prince of Wales checks. “As you look at Charles himself, he’ll wear a tie, a pocket square in an extraordinary pattern which doesn’t necessarily go with the tie—it’s terribly visually clever. He’s terrifically talented at that.”
The menswear this season stands out because of the baggier, ’90s cut of the suits compared to the tighter ’70s and ’80s varieties.
With Elizabeth Debicki’s Princess Diana, whose media exposure created fixed images in people’s minds, Roberts was faced with the biggest challenge. Season 4 had her in the pastels, colorful prints and puffy sleeves of a shy ’80s teenager fast-tracked into a fairytale princess, but now undergoes a transformation as “The People’s Princess” chased by paparazzi.
Although some of Diana’s costumes are near-replicas of significant outfits, contemporary pieces were added as well: “Particularly knitwear—the odd piece that you find that’s so perfect. But there’s a lot of making so you can control the color palette and complement the fantastic set design of Martin Childs. There’s also a lot of the story that Peter Morgan writes about, where we don’t know what happened, and that’s what makes it so interesting to design for.”
For Diana’s private life, for example, Roberts and her team had to imagine what she would wear hanging around with her boys at home (slouchy, formless sweaters) or when she’s in cloak-and-dagger mode (puffer coat, baseball cap and sunglasses), paranoid that she was being followed while visiting Martin Bashir and her brother in secret. The Princess’ relaxed ’90s looks of athleisure and high-waisted mom jeans have actually found their way back into current fashion, making them relevant to the new generation.
Outfits for significant public moments, of course, had to be accurate, like the businesslike black jacket and gold earrings for the Bashir interview where she had a mission to accomplish, or in divorce discussions where she wore power suits. Most of all, the “Revenge Dress,” the most famous of all, could not be tampered with: a figure-hugging number designed by Christina Stambolian with an asymmetrical hemline, off-the shoulder bodice and chiffon train, worn to a Serpentine Gallery event in 1994, the same day that her husband, Prince Charles, admitted on national television that he had been unfaithful to her. Splashed on all the front pages, Diana in that dress was a pop culture moment and a potent symbol of defiance. “In a moment when her marriage was falling apart, she chose to fight back in a way that said, ‘I’m gorgeous and sexy and bold, and this is what you’re missing.’”
That night marked Diana’s pivot to become a more independent woman, wearing more daring and sensual pieces from the likes of Versace, an Italian designer, instead of the usual British designers favored by the palace. She even wore more black—a traditional no-no for the royal family outside of funerals—and varnished her nails in red instead of the “Ballet Slippers” pink worn by the Queen who encouraged even her grandchildren’s wives, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, to adopt the same understated color.
When Diana had to see the queen, however, for one of her final meetings, even if she was in a sharp suit, the color was lilac. Roberts wanted the look “to be powerful but not threatening to the queen.” When she met heart surgeon Hasnat Khan, whom she would date for two years, the designer put her in a mint green suit, “like the first shoot of a young plant in spring heralding the possibility of a new relationship.”
In costuming The Crown, they always try to balance the accuracy with naturalism. “There’s a tone to each series and I think for us it’s about finding moments when you use color—here it was to express tenderness, softness, a hopefulness.”
After doing all the research and being absolutely grounded in accuracy, Roberts believes “you have to be more poetic about it rather than just slavishly copying everything. I think you can be imaginative and glamorous. Although there’s a historical element, there is also a cinematic and operatic quality that blurs the lines between fashion and art.”