One of the most telling scenes in the new season of Netflix’s The Crown comes midway through the first episode, when Queen Elizabeth (now played by Olivia Colman) is preparing for a funeral. As the various units of Britain’s armed forces line up in formation by Buckingham Palace, the queen’s dresser readies the sovereign, clasping her signature three-strand pearl necklace, placing a black pillbox hat reverently on her head, and brushing any unconstitutional specks of dust off the shoulders of her wool coat. Outside, men in uniforms fire ceremonial cannons and pull a flag-covered coffin through silent streets. Inside, a woman puts on her own armor.
In its first two seasons, The Crown felt like a study of a woman abruptly given power she’d never had reason to expect, or to prepare for. The younger Elizabeth II was played by Claire Foy, an actor who nimbly portrayed her character’s endearing girlishness in early episodes, her disorientation at having greatness thrust upon her, and her growing competence and composure as head of state and sovereign of the realm. I wrote in 2017 that The Crown often felt like a superhero story, its central character trying to come to terms with the widening chasm between her desires as a person and her role as a monarch. And, like any superhero, the Queen relies heavily on costume to delineate her dual identities.
Clothes, in The Crown, have always been part of the aesthetic pleasure the show provides viewers—a crucial element of the absurd spectacle that is royalist Britain, with its fairy-tale carriages and gilded rooms, its Sèvres porcelain and Harris tweed. And yet, watching Season 3, I’ve come to appreciate more than ever how the series uses clothing to explore and subvert ideas about power, and what it looks like when a woman wields it. Typically when women gain access to a man’s world in popular culture, they dress the part, adopting masculine tailoring and fabrics: Think Tess McGill’s gray herringbone suit and heavy shoulder pads. The Queen is different. Her gender, and her femininity, are intrinsic to the way she governs.
The Crown’s costume designer, Jane Petrie, uses clothing to offer glimpses of insight into a character who, in Season 3, is becoming more and more unknowable. The first episode opens on the Queen sitting by a window, but it takes two and a half minutes before the camera gives a clear shot of her face. Instead, we see the symbols that have come to stand for her: a crown atop a head of regimented curls, the gates of Buckingham Palace flanked by two Welsh Guards, a pair of corgis striding across an ornately carpeted room. When Colman’s Queen finally comes into focus, she’s surrounded by a phalanx of men in dark suits. She, by contrast, wears a lilac dress with a love-knot detail over her breastbone, high-heeled black shoes, and pale stockings with seams running down toward her heels. Her authority is such that the men around her bend slightly backward when she enters the room, as if to surrender even the airspace to the head of state.
In reality, as in the show, the Queen’s deployment of pastel colors and pearls isn’t just a matter of personal taste. Since her coronation in 1953, when the Queen requested that her gown for the event be embroidered with symbols from countries in the British Commonwealth—English roses, Canadian maple leaves, Scottish thistle—every outfit she’s worn has been worn with intention. Clothing, for the Queen, is much more about diplomacy and visibility than style. In her recent book, Our Rainbow Queen: A Tribute to Queen Elizabeth II and Her Colorful Wardrobe, the writer Sali Hughes investigates some of the subtext of the Queen’s wardrobe, revealing that the monarch never matches her color palette to any country’s flag, to avoid accusations of partiality. And her penchant for bright colors, Hughes argues, isn’t about the monarch’s own preference; it’s to ensure that the people who have waited several hours will be better able to see her.
What The Crown suggests, though, is that the Queen also uses the clothes she wears to underscore her own authority. Season 3 is set in the 1960s and ’70s, capturing the period between the Queen’s 40th birthday and her silver jubilee in 1977—when she was no longer a young woman but was still habitually the only woman in most official situations. Like Foy’s character before her, Colman’s Queen wears comfier clothes when she’s off duty or at leisure: printed blouses, cashmere sweaters, Hèrmes scarves knotted over her shoulders. When she goes to the races, in her function as a breeder of horses, she cheerfully wears garish floral prints and hats covered in tiny petals. But in meetings with the prime minister, or when she’s obliged to dress down someone who’s stepped out of line, the Queen wears plain linen suits in darker colors. The outfit she wears to scold the statesman Louis Mountbatten (Charles Dance) recalls the military-green suit Claire Foy wore in Season 2 to deride the four prime ministers she’s outlasted as “a confederacy of elected quitters.” (Foy’s outfit was accessorized with a pillbox hat, a diamond brooch, and a defiant—even disdainful—tilt to the chin.)
In 2019, what’s most striking to me about watching these moments is how unabashed the Queen is about not only the power she has, but also the duty she has to exercise it. In the first two seasons of The Crown, she’s derisively nicknamed “Shirley Temple” by her uncle (the former King Edward VIII) and condescended to by prime ministers, all of whom are obligated by tradition to visit her whenever she asks them to. But in Season 3, after Mountbatten’s sister jokingly observes that she would’ve loved to have seen “the little girl admonishing the grand old admiral of the fleet,” Mountbatten can’t bring himself to join in the mockery. The woman who’s chided him commands his respect; her presence offers him no other alternative. After almost two decades on the throne, the Queen doesn’t just have comfort in the role she’s playing; she’s also certain that she’s the only one who can inhabit it.
To see a woman exercise this kind of authority over men onscreen is fascinating to watch. Colman, an indubitably brilliant actor, brings more of herself to the part than Foy did, but she’s able to capture the markedly divergent aspects of a woman who’s a wife, a mother, and a monarch in a long line of failures. Toward the end of the season, the Queen goes to visit the Duke of Windsor (Derek Jacobi), the uncle whose abdication made her father king. Although he’s on his deathbed, when the Duke hears of her arrival, he struggles to get dressed, mounting a herculean effort to put on a tweed jacket and knot his tie. It would be too great a final indignity, Jacobi makes clear, to greet the Queen in pajamas. Even at the end of his life, the duke is determined to meet her as her equal, in the clothes that signal the king he used to be, and emulate the power the Queen has long since assumed for herself.