'Charles is very stylish': how The Crown's costume designer brought 1980s to life

Season 4’s wardrobe includes Diana’s Cinderella dress and Thatcher’s power shoulders

Composite image showing Princess Diana and Prince Charles (left) and The Crown S4 - Princess Diana and Prince Charles
Diana’s dress at the Wentworth hotel ball ‘is kind of crazy, pure 80s, shimmery, slightly trashy, but it just moves so beautifully’. Composite: Anwar Hussein/Emics Entertainment; Alex Bailey/Netflix
Diana’s dress at the Wentworth hotel ball ‘is kind of crazy, pure 80s, shimmery, slightly trashy, but it just moves so beautifully’. Composite: Anwar Hussein/Emics Entertainment; Alex Bailey/Netflix

Last modified on Fri 13 Nov 2020 14.44 EST

With its power bouffants, sweetie-wrapper party dresses and alarming shoulder pads, some call the 1980s the time that fashion forgot. But in the fourth season of The Crown, which starts on TV tomorrow night, the era’s extraordinary clothing plays a pivotal role in bringing the decade’s stories back to vivid life. Some looks were faithfully recreated, while others were more loosely inspired by the actual wardrobes of the royal family, as the show’s costume designer, Amy Roberts, explains below.

Diana, Princess of Wales, Wentworth hotel ball, Australian tour

Prince Charles and Diana’s 1983 Australian tour took on existential significance for the royal family, coming at a time of burgeoning republican sentiment. Diana was strategically deployed in the charm offensive, photographed as a doting mother, with baby William on her hip, wearing a seemingly never-ending supply of photogenic outfits.

This Bruce Oldfield gown, in a shade of blue recalling Walt Disney’s 1950 Cinderella, represents the high point of a very successful tour. “It was a deliberate choice to put her in this,” says Roberts. “There is a lot of irritation going on, on that tour, but this dress was the moment you felt maybe they did love each other. There’s sort of romance and youthfulness. The dress is kind of crazy, pure 80s, shimmery, slightly trashy, but it just moves so beautifully at the dance, when it’s all breathless and exciting.”

The biggest challenge was sourcing fabrics with the specific weight and drape, and distinctive colour palette, of the era. This particular fabric came from London’s Brick Lane. Afterwards, the Crown’s “genius cutters” recreated the dress from scratch, “working out all of those frills – it looks like a lizard down the side.”

The Queen, played by Olivia Colman, at the Braemar highland games

The Queen was mostly seen in “sugar almond colours” during the 1960s and 1970s of series 3, but now looks a lot more sombre in greens and browns, showing that she has “settled into her life as Queen and matriarch, and has become that steady background figure in everybody’s lives.”

Composite image showing Queen Elizabeth II (left) and The Crown S4 - Queen Elizabeth II (OLIVIA COLMAN)
The Queen (played by Olivia Colman, right) is now a ‘steady background figure’. Composite: PA; Des Willie/Netflix

The bow on her blouse “is a pointer to Thatcher, really,” says Roberts, who tried to accentuate developments in the women’s relationship through their outfits. The handbag is a recreation of those the Queen famously carries, by Launer, with similar recreations created for Thatcher.

Those near-identical bags, as well as Thatcher’s pearls, show that she is “emulating The Queen” at first, something that falls away as the power dynamics change later in the series.

Princess Margaret, played by Helena Bonham Carter

“We just ran with Margaret, because we were dealing with the most extraordinary creature that is Helena Bonham Carter,” says Rogers, “so we went with the spirit of Margaret and how Helena was portraying her.”

This heavily boned swimming costume was inspired by corseted Rigby & Peller swimming costumes worn by the real Margaret, but its colour is fiction: all of Margaret’s clothes on the show occupy a “bruised” colour palette, reflecting a tragic stage of her life. “I look at my notebook for her, the samples of all her fabrics, and they are all sombre and strange.”

Comosite image showing Princess Margaret (left) and The Crown S4 - Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter)
‘Sombre and strange’: Helena Bonham Carter portrays a tragic stage in Princess Margaret’s life. Composite: Anwar Hussein/Getty Images; Netflix

Prince Charles, played by Josh O’Connor

Roberts found Charles to be quite an eccentric, though elegant, dresser. “He wore beautiful pocket squares and handmade shoes – the lot,” she says. “I think he’s a very stylish dresser, actually.” Pocket squares can still be found in “those swizzy shops in Jermyn Street, though we would often find a fabulous piece of silk and make them” because the modern incarnations tend to be “less inventive” than “the beautiful paisley, natural dyed” versions that were popular in the 1970s.

Composite image showing Prince Charles (left) and The Crown S4 - Prince Charles (JOSH O’CONNOR)
Charles ‘wore beautiful pocket squares, handmade shoes – the lot’. Composite: Tim Graham Photo Library/Getty Images; Des Willie/Netflix

O’Connor loved wearing Charles’ double-breasted suits, which he wears to pace around, looking stylishly stressed with his hands in his pockets.

“I often find that actors feel pretty fabulous when they put on a suit they would never wear in their personal lives. It always amuses me that Tobias, who plays Prince Philip, will stagger on set at some horrible early hour in an oatmeal sweater and trousers; an hour later he comes out in a suit and we all swoon.”

Margaret Thatcher, played by Gillian Anderson

Thatcher’s wardrobe required “forensic, meticulous” construction, in order to create a version of the prime minister’s famous power shoulders that did not look like “a 1980s parody” on Gillian Anderson’s small frame. Anderson wore body padding, stepping into a creation which, she said, was “a work of art on its own, like a sculpture”. As for the clothes, “they were made to couture standard, with a lot of meticulous fittings and actors having to be very patient. Gillian would just zone out.”

Composite image showing Margaret Thatcher (left) and The Crown S4 - Margaret Thatcher (GILLIAN ANDERSON)
The pussybow blouses worn by Gillian Anderson’s Thatcher had come into fashion as women sought an alternative to ties. Composite: Keystone/Getty Images; Des Willie/Netflix

Apart from one iconic moment – the PM in knife-pleat skirt waving from the doorstep of No 10 – Roberts didn’t make facsimiles of historical looks but “absorbed all the images”. The pussybow blouse, an enduring symbol of female power, had come into fashion as women searched for an alternative to ties to wear in male-dominated workplaces – the US vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, even wore one for her historic acceptance speech this week. Thatcher’s blouses were created from silk, mainly found in Paris, though during the course of the series any softness disappears. “At the beginning she was quite grey – she looked ordinary – and as she gets more powerful she drops her voice and looks more streamlined with padded shoulders.”

A turning point after the Falklands war was represented with “what we called ‘the Spock suit’, dark purple with wide shoulders, very militaristic, no hint of bows or softness.” She wears it in a meeting with the Queen, in which she is “bombastic – at her worst, in a way”.