Costume Designers Bend Period Rules for Today’s TV Audiences

Had Phoebe de Gaye wanted to go for total accuracy in portraying the era of Elizabeth of York, who was married to England’s King Henry VII and mother to King Henry VIII, she could have spent a lot of time with extreme headdresses and dangling facial gauzes or veils. But those watching “The White Princess” may note that neither are present in the Starz series.

“I would have loved to experiment with those things, but headdresses would have interfered with composing shots, and the gauzes would just have come between the audience and the actor,” the costume designer says. “You want to create a a window into the past for today’s audience, so you give it complexity and conviction, but you don’t want it to feel like a history lesson.”

Such is the tightrope costume designers in historical dramas, especially royal historical dramas like “Princess,” “Victoria” and “The Crown,” all faced this past season: they are helping portray individuals who are not only historical but have publicly well-documented lives, yet who need to translate for both modern audiences and the small screen.

“When you’re telling a story, you have to indulge people in a visual way they will understand,” says “Crown” costume designer Michele Clapton, who opted to give a young Queen Elizabeth II a pair of jeans to symbolize the relative freedom she had before ascending to the throne. “I couldn’t imagine in the beginning that I would ever put the Queen in jeans, but after researching it, we felt we could.”

“I couldn’t imagine in the beginning that I would ever put the Queen in jeans, but after researching it I felt we could.”
Michele Clapton

There are three key areas costumers of royalty focus on: big showpiece scenes including coronations, weddings and funerals, which often feature very well-documented, recognizable outfits; select images or footage from semi-private life (think of Elizabeth II in the Highlands of Scotland in her scarves and boots); and the unknown, intimate inner lives of the rulers.

The first two categories require scrupulous attention to detail. The last area, Clapton says, was her “place to play, and allowed her to extrapolate what royalty might have worn.

Rosalind Ebbutt, who provided costumes for Masterpiece’s “Victoria,” had a similar freedom — and restriction — of movement. Like “Princess,” which takes place between the Gothic and Tudor periods of English history, “Victoria’s” fashion also straddles a change in clothing: post-high waists and pre-crinolines.

“No one knows exactly what Queen Victoria’s nightdress looked like in 1839,” she says. “But you’re not doing a museum piece. Sometimes you do something because it will work better for our storytelling.”

In the end, while it may be threading the needle — in more ways than one — to find the right level of accuracy to portray in royal storytelling, Clapton says costume designers are aware they’re being judged by keen-eyed audiences.

“If they see a hole in the idea of a costume, we’ve lost them,” she says. “But if you tell a story that indulges people in a way they will understand, it can really help create character. I see the royal family more as people now.”

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