To be honest – and I say this as an unashamed Downton obsessive, so making no claim whatsoever to modish tastes in television – I didn’t think I was going to much like The Crown. It sounded to me like the kind of British national portrait whose value resides in its high resale value to American audiences. It felt like anachronistically well-trodden territory, in the Netflix age; as kneejerk-compelling yet as fundamentally “so-what?” as the redesigned shape of a Toblerone bar. I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel as if I have been deprived of thinkpieces on the lines of “Not the Union Jack Waving type but the Queen is Actually Rather Marvellous”, over the past couple of years.
But in a week when Prince Harry’s new girlfriend, Meghan Markle, has been subjected to such febrile and malicious scrutiny that Kensington Palace felt the need to issue a statement reminding the world that her life “is not a game” and calling out the media on the “racial undertones of comment pieces”, it seems clear that, like it or not, what the royals look like is a subject that still compels. And anyway, when the Emmy-winning Game of Thrones costume designer Michele Clapton has recreated the Queen’s wedding dress at a cost of £30,000, it would be a dereliction of fashion editor duty not to take a look. Also, it stars Claire Foy, who I have been completely obsessed with since her mesmerising Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall.
Well, guess what? I was wrong. It is brilliant. And the costume budget makes perfect sense, in a show in which the fashion does so much storytelling. Take the wedding scene. It is deeply emotional, not in the starry-eyed, you-may-kiss-the-bride swoony way of some wedding scenes but in its portrayal of a woman who is facing up to the challenges of both her public and private lives. The moment where the princess steps down from the car outside Westminster Abbey is heartstopping: this is mostly about Foy’s incredible face (did I mention I’m obsessed with her?) and how the firm set of her jaw contrasted with the liquid anxiety swirling in her eyes, but it is also in the cut of the dress, the way the high neckline does nothing to flatter her shape but accentuates the heave of her chest as she takes big gulping breaths to calm herself.
“Duty” sounds like a word from another era, but the royal soap opera still speaks to modern audiences because the tension between our public and private selves is a pressure that has not gone anywhere. If anything, we are all the more aware of this pressure. Once upon a time, the perk of being one of the little people was that once you had finished your work for the day, you could clock off and put your slippers on and mind your own business until you had to turn up for work the next morning. But in the 24-hour connectedness of modern life, we have created for ourselves a scenario in which relationships, social life and family are all on public display – in other words, we have recreated for ourselves the situation that celebrities such as the royals have struggled with for decades. The Crown is very good on how the royals must keep up appearances, especially Jared Harris as King George VI, who keeps the knowledge that he is dying carefully hidden under the hospital corners of his smile. Thanks to social media, most of us know a little better than before the challenges of making small talk on days when we want to crawl back under the covers.
The Netflix drama, the first 10 episodes of which are reported to have cost £100m to make, is named not for the Queen herself, or even for her country – but rather, for what she wears on her head. There is no clearer image of the symbolic power of what we wear, than that of the diamond diadem. The royal family dazzlingly demonstrate the role of clothes in public life, because the more ostentatious the public role is to be, the more ostentatious must be the look. Matt Smith as Prince Philip is unexpectedly dashing in uniform. In his civvies, however, spitting acidic asides about being left at home to measure curtains by his more high-powered wife, he gives off a quiet venom that was matched on television last weekend only by David Attenborough’s racer snakes. Foy’s wardrobe as the Queen is compelling for its fundamental lack of vanity. Clapton, the costume designer, told a recent interviewer that the designs were meant to look as if Elizabeth’s clothes had been made after one fitting – whereas her sister Margaret would have insisted on four or five fittings, because their different personalities, as well as their roles, meant that this is how it would have been. Clapton has captured something really interesting about the lack of self-regard in the Queen’s own wardrobe that seems to contrast with the Disney-princess level of vanity we have come to see as normal for women in public life. And while veracity is important, costume drama must add enough artistic licence to make the look speak to modern audiences. There is plenty in The Crown that does this: the white fur evening stole that the Queen wears in the second episode is remarkably evocative of the faux-fur “Crown” jacket currently on sale for £99 in Alexa Chung’s M&S collection. Meanwhile, Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret is a very modern style icon, in her off-the-shoulder silhouettes and modishly swept-up eyeliner.
Last week, the Daily Mail reported that Markle was “not in the society blonde style of previous girlfriends”. Its point being, as Afua Hirsch pointed out, that she is mixed-race. The tabloid press, which has been desperate to marry Harry off for years, is now fuming at not being consulted on her hair colour, possibly the most baffling British quibble since British Rail complained about snow on the line. When a member of the royal family is calling for enlightenment against racism and sexism, it feels as if it’s time to take another look at the royals. Because when we talk about how they should look – whether it’s Markle’s skin tone, or the glamour gulf between the princesses in The Crown – we give away a lot about what we consider to be ideal. A crown represents universality as well as celebrity, righteousness as well as power, and honour as well as glory. The world looks very different than it did when Elizabeth became queen, but the royals are a long way from being out of the picture.