A virtual exhibition dedicated to the costumes of a woman who is a symbol of an era:
Queen Elizabeth II and the history of her dresses
“Must see movie list.”
“Historical TV series or action film?”
“TV season in ‘costume’.”
First of all I would like to reassure you. If you came across this article thinking you could get some information on the world of textile art, this is what you were looking for! Don’t worry about the misleading opening words, these are just some of the most sought-after phrases lately through the telematic network. After this premise, an expression of surprise mixed with questioning will probably be drawn on your face, but do have a little patience and continue reading.
I must confess that the primary intent of this article is to give you food for thought, to open a window of study between the real world and that interpreted by cinema, to lead you into the history of fashion and costume.
In a historical period like ours, made up of stops and isolations caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, I rediscovered, like many of you, the pleasure of reading a novel, of participating in “virtual” visits to museums and art collections and why not, also to devote time to watching an auteur movie. In particular, I have often let myself be fascinated by TV series and period movie, or by historical plots and settings. Like a painting or an artistic representation, in fact, cinema often offers us glimpses of daily life, of past and contemporary customs and traditions, which, taken with the right interpretations, allow us to know aspects that would otherwise be difficult to interpret without the appropiate school education.
Since its inception, cinema has been closely connected to fashion and the development of the sector; clothing, in fact, has the fundamental task of expressing the essence of the character beyond the outward appearance. The style of Hollywood stars has become part of the collective memory, just think of the unmistakable and flawless dress worn by Tom Ford as James Bond in Agent 007, just to name an example.The talent of skilled costume designers made it possible for cinema to impose itself as a diffuser of fashions, despite the fact that at the origins the actresses and actors personally provided for their wardrobe, also resorting to special theatrical tailors. The figure of the costume designer, born in Hollywood in the second half of the 1920s, acts as a “hinge” between the establishment of the seasonal trend and the narrative of the film.
A non-trivial encounter between film and fashion, so much as to weave stimulating collaborations even with real artistic institutions. An example of this is the exhibition inaugurated at the Brooklyn Museum (2020) and dedicated to the most significant looks and costumes worn by the female protagonists of the homonymous drama dedicated to Queen Elizabeth II. The Crown is a historical genre television series, born in 2016 from the pen of Peter Morgan and produced by Left Bank Pictures and Sony Pictures Television for Netflix; the fiction focuses on the figure of the sovereign of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II and the royal family. Amy Roberts, costume designer in The Crown, winner of an Emmy Award, had the delicate role of being able to re-propose the style of one of the most photographed women in the world in a contemporary and modern way. The costumes worn by the characters of the TV series were created thanks to an accurate work of documentation; they are not real copies of the originals but clothes made taking inspiration from the real wardrobe in order to make the whole credible and historically correct. The theatrical tailoring experts, referring to written and iconographic sources (portraiture, fashion magazines and photographs) were able to reconstruct not only the clothing but also the resulting gestures, accessories and hairstyles to match.
On the left, the actress Claire Foy, interpreter of Elizabeth II in The Crown, wears a fur coat and a light blue satin dress; on the right, instead, a historical photograph of Her Majesty the Queen. Copyright © Nick Verreos
As also emerges from the cinematic narrative, Elizabeth II’s journey from princess to queen was characterized by an impeccable taste in clothing, which allowed her to resist the sometimes excessive temptations of fashion, making her style an icon out of time and space. The clothes worn by the sovereign have, in fact, the task of conveying her political and religious role, giving her power and prestige.
The vastness of the royal family’s wardrobe is well exemplified in the various scenes of the series as well as by the direct testimonies of those who really took care of her Majesty’s clothes: the wardrobe keeper and the couturier. In fact, the queen needs more dresses in a year than most of us need in a lifetime; four or five changes of clothes a day to adapt to the various commitments of her dense agenda represented a factor of normality. Although Elizabeth II is famous for also appreciating second-hand clothes, adapted from previous models or prêt-à-porter, she prefers clothes specially designed for her, perfectly fitting in the packaging and in the choice of materials.
Elisabeth’s fashion, or Lilibet, as she is called by her family, has evolved according to her political and religious roles, public and private, occasional and daily events. Norman Hartnell (1901-1979) and Hardy Amies (1909- 2003) were among the most significant architects of the sovereign’s fashion, just think that the first of these created two of the most important dresses for her: the wedding dress and the one for the coronation.
Elisabeth has always adopted a resolutely English and aristocratic style: from comfortable coats worn on public occasions, to formal dresses in official ceremonies; the Queen is therefore a living example of “changing fashion”.
However, her Majesty received the authorization to choose her clothes only around 1947, the year before her engagement, before then Lilibet’s clothes were entrusted to the care of collaborators in the royal wardrobe.
In the early years of her life, the princess wore dresses made with noble but extremely practical materials, with an austere taste, but above all Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret, were dressed identically: hand-embroidered dresses, coats with velvet collars, simple sweaters and plaid skirts to play with.
“They wore cotton dresses, almost always blue with small flowers, and coordinated wool jackets when it was cold”. Cit. by Marion Crawford, the princess’s housekeeper (Eastoe, 2013).
Philip Alexius de Laszlo, Princess Elizabeth of York, 1933. Public domain
Norman Hartnell, Elizabeth’s couturier, made her first official dress in 1935, in honor of the marriage of her uncle, His Royal Highness the Duke of Gloucester to Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott and for the coronation ceremony of her parents, which took place on May 12, 1937.
“Now I will describe to you how we were dressed. They were white silk dresses with antique cream lace, and we had little gold bows in the center, all the way down. We had puff sleeves with a little bow in the center. Then there were the purple velvet cloaks edged with gold “. Cit Essay written by the young Lilibet (Eastoe, 2013).
At the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth preferred ball gowns almost reminiscent of fairy tale princesses, or stiff satin dresses, adorned with beads and with decorative motifs intended to enhance her role. In the past, Lilibet’s taste in clothes resembled that of her mother, so much so that she preferred pastel colors, silk or light wool dresses with identical overcoats.Later, however, towards the end of the forties she began to choose skirts with a particular cut, wide and sober but tight at the waist, elegant suits adorned with some jewels. Her Majesty, however, discovered from a young age that crowns and hats were a staple of her wardrobe; in particular, the latter are indispensable accessories for Elisabeth, so much so that she almost never shows herself in public without them. Among the favorite milliners was Aage Thaarup (1906-1987) who created numerous models in the 1940s and 1950s for both the Queen Mother and the sovereign.
Hats with artificial leaves, flowers or fruits, adorned with colorful feathers or simple silk fabric are just some of the completely original models worn by Elisabetta. Copyright © Nick Verreos
Finally, one of the most important dresses worn by Elizabeth II, that is, the one made for the coronation ceremony, which took place on 2 June 1953. The dress embroidered with silk threads, pearls, crystals and opals to represent the national and Commonwealth member states was Norman Hartnell’s most complex garment; just think that the skirt, supported by three layers of crinoline, the cloak and the trains weighed 13.6 kilograms!
This is because clothing and accessories are an integral part of the role embodied by the sovereign: the clothes must be unique, everything must be aimed at enhancing her personality and function.
“The golden rule for the royal wardrobe is that clothes are comfortable, suitable for the person wearing them and appropriate. The first canon of good taste consists in dressing appropriately for the occasion. A queen does not choose clothing to impress. Since there is no one of a higher social level than her, she has no need. Cit. Colin McDowell (Eastoe, 2013)
Coronation dress: on the left, His Majesty arriving at Westminster Abbey for his coronation on 2 June 1953
The same official ceremony in the film The Crown. Copyright © Nick Verreos
Bibliography and sitography:
Eastoe, Elizabeth. The style of a queen, TEA S.p.A., Milan, 2013