Behind the fabulous fashion of new Netflix series The Crown
Hands up if you’re slightly – ok majorly – obsessed with Netflix? Guilty as charged. With a huge variety of tv shows, movies and documentaries, Netflix has made catching up on all the best new shows oh-so easy. And top on our list to watch is brand new, exclusive Netflix series ‘The Crown‘, about none other than Queen Elizabeth II.
Promising political intrigue, personal dilemmas and the story of a young woman in power, ‘The Crown‘ is set to be another Netflix success that we can’t wait to get stuck into. Apart from the captivating storyline, we also can’t wait to see all the stunning, intricate costumes on this epic production.
We were lucky to chat to award-winning costume designer Michele Clapton about her latest work on The Crown. Find out how they replicated famous outfits worn by the Queen, the importance of historical accuracy, what goes into the design process and how the characters’ developments are reflected in the costume.
Tell us about your career and how you became a costume designer.
I started off in fashion and then I had a small company for a while, but ultimately I didn’t really enjoy the business side of things and I found it quite restrictive. So I then went into styling and styled a lots of bands from the 90s, and I progressed and eventually moved into film and TV.
I’ve always enjoyed period, and up until a while ago I didn’t realise how much I also enjoyed fantasy, which I love, but coming back to The Crown does reinforce how much I love period. Even when I was stylist I was always quite theatrical in my design and my styling, it comes naturally to me. I was a New Romantic, and I think that’s where it all stems from!
Tell us about your design process – how does it begin and how do you translate ideas into physical costumes?
It always begins with long discussions beforehand with the directors. With The Crown particularly, it was a long process of discussion; we looked at a lot of footage and it was always very important that we wanted to try to make the big iconic pieces as beautifully and as realistically as we could. We put a lot of time and money into realising those, because the whole essence of what I think we were excited to explore was this more private life. It’s respectful but it’s also enquiring; we strived to make everything as believable as possible so people could think that we were working with originals, and this bought us more credibility to explore the private life which is the pay off, the exciting part.
And of course we have great researchers which is so important. You have to surround yourself with people who are constantly informing you. I tried to read as many books and watch as much footage as I could so that I could find my way into the period of the 40s and 50s; we had flashbacks to the 30s as well. But at some stage you have to take all this information and decided what you’re going to do.
So was it a case of using history as a reference but not replicating costumes exactly?
Exactly, I’m really interested in that and we’re not doing a documentary, we’re creating a drama. So yes, you should be well informed of the period but you have to take it and create something; we’re trying to create something which is beautiful and interesting. And I actually felt at the end that I had much more respect for the royal family as people – that’s the whole point, that we were trying to create people that are tangible and understand their emotions rather than a family locked away. So it was really interesting – it’s not exactly what they’re like, but it’s our take on it.
Throughout the series you represent the public and the private life – how do the costumes reflect the distinct difference between them?
In the beginning it’s interesting as we look at the Queen Mother with the 40s influence, and then we look at Margret and Elizabeth and how they slowly sort of move away from each other – we see a very clear distinction in the way the costumes go. Margaret is someone who adores costumes and is very into style, and I know she liked Dior and she worked on how to wear the costumes. I think she used to walk them down the corridor in them! Where as with Elizabeth, she’s happy in her job and happy to being a normal woman, which I think that comes across in the way we dressed her – it almost becomes like a uniform for her. It’s her job, so although her costumes are beautiful and they fit, there’s not the joy of costumes there. She likes them but it’s not a passion for her – so we tried to show that. In The Crown, there’s a fashion show and she’s says “gosh how many do I need?!” – her clothes are part of the job, so when we see her just in the land-rover with a head scarf, that’s when she seems to be her own person.
With some of the more opulent pieces – like the actual crown – is it challenging to replicate them?
The crown we did actually rent – although there is a lot of jewellery that we did have to replicate. We had to be particularly careful, especially for Wallace as we didn’t have permission to replicate those pieces. The jewellery is so important and so for some pieces our lawyers had to agree to change 25% of the pieces, but we still tried to make it look as similar as possible. That being said, there’s a lot of jewellery we had permission to use, especially on the Queen and Margaret, and it was so important to have those details. There are so many lovely little pieces that just give the characters more depth and we tried to get everything correct.
Even for the wedding dress, we wanted it to be exact and just as show stopping. We had six people for two months beading the train – and 40-50 people helping with hand-embroidery and beading… it took months to do. Even the bridesmaid dresses were constructed from scratch! And that’s what I love, I love getting into the detail – I hate not being thorough in design and I always try to do as much by possible by hand as it shows on screen. You have to go into that detail and Netflix supporting that has been great!
You mentioned you have more of a respect for the royal family – would say that you feel like you know the Queen’s style more and how would you describe it?
I mean I think I do, it’s often to do with the emotional journey on the show and I hope I understand her style more and that I understand her as a woman a bit more. In some ways, we all need to protect ours and give ourselves a sense of support with fashion so we tried to do that; when Elizabeth was unsure we would give her a ‘uniform’, which was like a man’s suit but a dress. Then it gets really paired down because she’s not thinking about fashion, she’s thinking about her conversations. And that’s the difference between her and Margaret – Margaret does think about what she’s wearing and how’s she’s presenting herself… so the costumes do underline the script in a way.
And do you think the Queen will be watching herself?!
Who knows! You always wonder – I think it will received well though as it has an opinion but it’s not disrespectful in anyway. In my mind it makes her very human and that’s important – she was a young woman and she had no idea that this was going to happen and she thought it would happen much later. The show sort of reflects the loss of her private life in many ways.
Apart from the women, there are also the men’s costumes. Did these require as much detail?
Yes of course, actually a lot of the men’s suits were done with weighted fabric which is so hard to get that now – we eventually found a shop in Portugal that did 18oz fabric. It makes such a difference in the way the costume moves and the way the men feel in it… we made 95% of the principal women’s costumes and the men’s too! We made all of the livery for the palace, we made most of the uniforms. There was a huge amount – it was a mammoth task! Uniforms are another art completely and you have to know what you’re doing, so we had specialist to help with that… I mean you think a uniform is just a uniform and they’re all the same, but then there are these strange little things where people can wear them slightly differently and it’s a minefield, so I really admire the knowledge of some of these experts!
It was wonderful doing the Duke of Edinburgh and all the suits because they were so stylised at the time. We read a lot of books about how they dressed and the people who sort of knew the characters and what their take was on them; he was incredibly fastidious and particular about his naval uniform – that’s who he wanted to be. He was also a moderniser – he wanted the coronation to be televised – so we tried to show this with him wearing a belt instead of braces, which felt more modern at the time. There are so many little details that we tried to explore through the costume, looking at how people wore things back then – even down to the way the ties are knotted… it’s fascinating.
How long does the process of design and the creation of these costumes take? How long did it take to prepare for The Crown?
Obviously we have the time before filming to prepare, but we prepare all the way through filming too – you just keep going all the way! Even in the last week of filming we were still making costumes. You just keep meeting deadlines all the way through, and all in all it was 9 – 10 months of constant making. It takes its toll, it’s exhausting, but it was also so exciting and I just loved all of the actors on that show. It was a great journey together even though it we were all so tired!
You mentioned you love period – is there a particular period in time that would be your dream era to design for?
It’s funny, I have always wanted to design for this era so that’s why it was so exciting, I love the 30s but I’m also very open. I think it’s always more about the project than anything else that makes it interesting. I don’t have a history degree, so every time I start a project it’s like exploring something new. One of my designers is a historian so that helps and you have to delegate – I design everything but I have such a great team to pull it together, there’s no way you can do it alone!
I have to ask as I’m such a huge fan of Game of Thrones – what was winning the Emmy for that like and how was the experience working on such a huge show?
It was great! It’s always lovely to be recognised by your peers – it’s been a great show to design. With The Crown you have parameters and a time period, with G0T I had to make my own parameters and so that’s what I did! It became almost like working in a period as I could say “that’s what they wear over there” and the costumes all have to make sense – physically and geographically. Now it does feel like I’m working on a period piece! But it was lovely to step away and do The Crown, I always try to do a film between each season of GoT or something different so I can step back and come back refreshed.
Apart form GoT and The Crown, are there any other TVs shows that you look up to in terms of costume – who’s the best dressed cast?
I’ve got no time to watch anything these days! But I do love Peaky Blinders, I think that’s a great show and so well done, especially the first few. I think the hair and makeup on that is just fantastic! The standard of TV is getting so much better these days – it’s like doing six films back to back.
Finally, any advice for aspiring designers/those who want to work in film?
I would say come in and get the experience. We took a lot of people on for The Crown! I think there are so many areas in film and in costume to work in so difficult to know what exactly you want to do – some people love costume design, some love dressing – and it’s just great to go and get experience actually on a film. And just make sure it’s what you want to do it, as it can be lonely at times when you’re away for so long, so you have to consider all those things.