Do period drama costumes shape our perception of royalty?
Our version of the current royal family is carefully constructed and organized. Held at a distance behind a red velvet cord, we will never see the chambers and offices of royal power. In other words, other than in the dramas of the time.
In film and television dramatizations of familiar royal tales, audiences are presented with a fictionalized and glamorized take on royal history. Sumptuous silks and golden houses compose the lush material world on screen. In reality, they’re a far cry from bed bugs, tedious political documents, and the stench of recently used chamber pots.
The visuals are so rich that audiences will often remember the magnificent costumes, forgetting the gory details of the War of the Roses or the shady political machinations of the royal court.
From tall, jeweled headdresses of the Tudors to ball gowns and tiaras of the modern on-screen royal family, these costumes provide a brilliant plating to people and to the story that is, at times, quite dark. These individuals become disguised characters. They become nothing more than well-dressed princes and princesses, kings and queens in stories that often surpass reality.
Costume choices can reinforce well-worn and familiar royal stereotypes. If you imagine Queen Victoria in mourning, you could imagine Judy Dench in black silk and a widow’s bonnet. Thinking of Elizabeth, I could make you imagine a royal Helen Mirren in a ruff protruding from her neck. And party-loving Charles II conjures up Rufus Sewell’s shiny curly locks in a long wig.
Costumes can also challenge and drastically rewrite the way we see past royals. Hans Holbein’s portraits of Henry VIII in his later years and early screen depictions are of a portly king and a jeweled monarch. The costume of Joan Bergin of Henry VIII of Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors (2007-2010) rather consisted of a lot of leather, tight doublets and open shirts. Bergin’s costumes transformed the serial groom into a sexy sportsman, saving this young incarnation of Henry VIII from historical oblivion.
Dress like Diana
The crown is the latest screen treat to give us a glimpse behind the royal curtain and fans can’t seem to get enough of Princess Diana, portrayed by Emma Corrin.
Unlike Henry VIII, Diana didn’t need an image update. The princess was a fashion icon during her lifetime, and The crown Season four costume designer Amy Roberts took the opportunity to recreate some of Diana’s true iconic outfits. Roberts’ recreation of Diana’s early wardrobe was remarkably faithful, walking a fine line between historical fact and fantasy.
Such was the fashion fury that brands took hold of the outfits, creating wearable versions for a new generation of Diana fans keen to emulate the late princess. In October 2020, Corrin made the cover of Vogue in a Diana-esque 1980s concoction and copies of Diana’s iconic sheepskin sweater can be purchased for Â£ 250. While Diana’s 1980s chic (now considered a period costume) has seen a revival in mainstream fashion, it resonates with a desire to cosplay as a royal.
Even in historical monarch documentaries, which are presented as authentic and factual accounts of Britain’s royal past, historians like Lucy Worsley are known to disguise themselves to bring long-dead monarchs to life. While Worsley’s “ dress-up box ” version of the story may not be for everyone, it plays on the desire to humanize historical figures. Like the living history performers who (before Covid) inhabited the sites of the historic royal palaces that Worsley oversees, donning a doublet and pipe resuscitates members of the royal family that we can only see in paintings at the oil.
The costume can help us time travel, but by lacing up a corset, tying a frill, or even donning a Sloane Ranger Barbour jacket, a modern human comes across as royal, which makes that person a caricature. The costume creates distance between the real person with all of their problematic behavior and turns them into a beautifully dressed symbol of bygone britishness. There is certainly magic in the costumes, but that magic can obscure the darker parts of royal history, which are to be remembered.
Serena Dyer is a lecturer in the history of design and material culture at De Montfort University. This article first appeared on The Conversation.