Inside Winterthur’s New Exhibit “Costuming the Crown”
Get up close to 40 costumes from the first two seasons of Netflix’s acclaimed series The Crown, on view now through Jan. 5, 2020.
When Netflix’s original series The Crown debuted in 2016, it was an instant hit, receiving critical acclaim. In its first two seasons, it amassed an impressive number of awards and nominations for the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and British Academy of Film and Television Arts, plus 26 nominations for Primetime Emmy Awards.
The show, which follows a fictionalized version of the life and reign of the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II, brings to life the internal tumult of a young Elizabeth taking the crown after the untimely death of her father, King George VI. Thrust into the monarchy at the age of 25, Queen Elizabeth, portrayed by the exceptional Claire Foy, presents as a conflicted character, torn between loyalty to tradition and the changing times. The audience watches as she grows from a woman uncertain of her role in the monarchy to one seemingly in control—but at a cost to her marriage.
The first two seasons, which capture two decades of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, also star Matt Smith as Prince Philip, Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret and Victoria Hamilton as the Queen Mother. John Lithgow successfully and powerfully portrays the seemingly inimitable Winston Churchill, while Jeremy Northam plays Anthony Eden, Churchill’s short-lived successor. Princess Margaret’s love interests are Ben Miles as Group Captain Peter Townsend and Matthew Goode as Anthony Armstrong-Jones, her eventual husband. Collectively, they deliver a compelling narrative, showing moments that non-royals or members of parliament wouldn’t have been privy to.
The acting and writing aren’t the only things exceptional about The Crown. So convincing are the set and costume designs that the show convincingly takes viewers back in time to the mid-20th century.
The costumes for the first two seasons were created by Michele Clapton, who is known for her work on HBO’s Game of Thrones, and Jane Petrie, who has worked on several episodes of Black Mirror and movies like Suffragette and Star Wars: Episode 1 the Phantom Menace, respectively. Each worked to create authentic garments, sourcing fabrics suitable for the time.
Both Clapton and Petrie received award nominations and wins for their work on the show, including winning Primetime Emmys and BAFTAs. Both also took home Outstanding Period Television Series wins from the Costume Designers Guild Award in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Viewers can get an even better appreciation for some of those award-winning costumes at Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library’s latest exhibit, “Costuming the Crown.” The Winterthur, Del. display, which runs through Jan. 5, 2020, features 40 costumes from the show, including the coronation robes worn by both Foy and Smith.
The exhibit is the first of its kind for The Crown and took curators about two years to put together. Thankfully, it wasn’t their first such exhibit. “Costuming the Crown” follows on the heels of Winterthur’s highly successful 2014-2015 “Costumes of Downton Abbey” exhibit, which also featured 40 costumes.
Unlike “Costumes of Downton Abbey,” “Costuming the Crown” is focused less on the history than it is on the costumes and designers. As such, it wends its way through the gallery, marking four distinct sections. “The first section of the exhibition is called ‘Establishing Roles.’ Here we open to the costumes that were used to recreate the coronation in the series,” explains Winterthur’s manager of exhibitions and collection planning, Kim Collison. “We’ll look at how a young princess assumed her role as the queen in this elaborate ceremony, through the costume and regalia.” Here, crowns and coronets by costume jewelry maker Juliette Designs are also on display.
The exhibit then moves to “Dressing the Part,” displaying costumes based on styles worn by the royals, carefully recreated based on historical documentation. Here, viewers find some of the attire Foy wore on a royal tour in the first season, as well as uniforms.
Visitors then moves into “Creating Character,” where the designers had the greatest amount of freedom to imagine what the royal family might have worn in their private daily lives. “Although we’re doing historic pieces, there’s still a story within there where we can give our own take on it,” says Clapton. “Sometimes the best costumes are not the most ornate or the biggest or the brightest. It’s the ones that engage with the story and underline the emotion of the moment.”
There’s no shortage of that in the exhibit. Among the subtler, but significant pieces are ones worn by Foy as a young Elizabeth, including a polka dot dress worn on a royal tour in 1952. There’s also the somber black outfit she donned upon returning to London after her father’s death, marking the official beginning of her reign.
“The final section of the exhibition, ‘Capturing the Image,’ looks at how the royal family branded themselves in official portraits and on television,” explains Collison. Here, visitors see the butterfly gown worn by Kirby’s Princess Margaret and another worn by Foy for an official portrait.
Sprinkled throughout “Costuming the Crown” are accessories, including hats, shoes and gloves worn by various characters, tiaras and crowns, plus sketches for different characters with accompanying swatches of fabrics. Televisions also show clips of the scenes in which certain costumes were worn.
Exhibit showstoppers include wedding gowns worn by both Foy and Kirby, as well as several other gowns worn at formal events throughout the series. There are also pieces from a young Prince Charles, portrayed by Julian Baring, and Lithgow’s Churchill, including a bodysuit that helped him adapt to the prime minister’s shape. “John was very keen to the body and physically how Churchill stooped and stood and moved, and so we created a suit which helped give him that silhouette,” explains Clapton. “But actually what was interesting is, as he moved forward with the character, we actually took layers away because he physically made himself into that character.”
Other costumes include dresses worn by Eileen Atkins as Queen Mary and Hamilton’s Queen Mother. The controversial Duke and Duchess of Windsor, portrayed by Alex Jennings and Lia Williams, also make appearances in the exhibit.
Together, the pieces tell a story that threads through both seasons, but selecting which 40 costumes to display wasn’t an easy task. “It seems so obvious once it’s up,” says Linda Eaton, Winterthur’s head of curatorial. “But what we needed to come up with was, ‘What’s the narrative? What’s the story?’” Once they came up with that, “everything started falling into place.”