Not discriminating against other monarchies - I love them all - but there is something magical surrounding the British monarchy. The drama and intrigue of real life has often been intertwined with fictional portrayals in period dramas. Films and television have recreated the political and personal lives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Victoria and, now, Elizabeth II. Netflix's The Crown recreates the reign of the present Sovereign to portray the early dynastic and political crises of the longest reign in British history.
If there is one thing I love equally than royal history is fashion history. Fans of period dramas tune in not only to see plots unfold but also to see what new ensemble a character is wearing. But, most importantly, did the costume designer stay true to the times - or dared to break against the norm? Looking at The Crown's featurette above (WATCH IT!), designer Michele Clapton certainly stayed true to form.
Spanning from the late-40s to the mid-50s, The Crown coincides with the golden age of couture. In the U.S., Charles James (who has been revived from the annals of fashion history) placed his cinched his clients in corsets whilst applying hip pads when necessary. (Should we also give him credit for drag couture?) Paris's Christian Dior, James's contemporary and fashion admirer, would follow suit and create extravagant couture pieces that dramatically changed fashion - despite initial opposition. Sir Norman Hartnell, incorporating similar elements several years later, would create his new Queen into something both fantasy and fashionable. Beginning with her coronation gown, Elizabeth II would use designers not only to build her wardrobe but also her royal image. Haute couture - high dressmaking - was more about costume rather than comfort. For a brief moment its wearer transformed into something otherworldly, something extraordinary.
The golden age of couture recalled the days of Charles Frederick Worth - the first couturier - who was himself influenced by the court gowns of the Old Regime. Hartnell's gowns were curated, designed and crafted for Elizabeth II to be trendy but authentically British. (French fashions were left for princesses.) Beyond the sumptuous gowns and cinched waist, the 1950s was a time where leaders of society & politics wanted to restore confidence and faith in the people's mind. Cushioned between the trauma of the 1940s and the drama of the 1960s, the 1950s would be transfixed in our minds as a decade of stability, style and elegance. At least, that's what we're led to believe.
Behind the glitz and glamour was true hardships for millions of people. At a time when many French consumers were still under post-WWII austerities, Dior's first collections were lambasted for its extravagant use of fabric. Queen Elizabeth's Coronation - including her gown - incorporated the vestiges of a decaying empire. And we are all too familiar with the Jim Crow laws and segregation of the American South. Though period dramas allow us to visually romanticize an era (Gone With the Wind, anyone?), it becomes more painful to show the realities of the time.
Not saying I'm not going to binge on the upcoming Netflix series on November 4th. But we should look beyond the fiction - and fashion - of period dramas and take time to understand more of the complexities of the time.