“Let’s meet digitally” … the phrase many hear most often these days. In addition to work meetings and social gatherings being moved to virtual formats, so have many fashion exhibits from major museums around the world.
Exhibits about Christian Dior and his life’s work (from the Musée des Arts Décoratifs), Elsa Schiaparelli and her foray into surrealism (from the Victoria & Albert Museum and Google Arts & Culture) and the works of Comme Des Garçons through the eyes of its famed collector Takamasa Takahashi (from the National Gallery of Victoria) are just a few of the digital experiences 2020 has brought us. For some, this author included, it’s been a welcome advancement in the fashion exhibition space. Now many more people can experience the art of fashion from a museum curator’s point of view. Yes, it may be a new experience to only see these pieces and related works of art through the computer. But for many it’ll be similar to standing there live and in-person (it’s not like visitors can touch the pieces in a fashion exhibit anyway).
Anything that makes fashion more accessible to more people is a good thing.
The latest exhibition to hit digital screens is “The Queen and The Crown”, organized by Netflix (yes, that Netflix) with the Brooklyn Museum and its Senior Curator for Fashion and Material Culture, Matthew Yokobosky. It showcases costumes from two of Netflix’s recent series, “The Queen’s Gambit” and the fourth season of “The Crown”.
When I sat down to watch Netflix’s new series, “The Queen’s Gambit”, several weeks ago, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Not having done any research beforehand, I thought perhaps it would have something to do with royalty. A few minutes and a Netflix description later, I found that the miniseries is about a young chess prodigy named Beth Harmon set in the late 1950s into the 1960s as she navigates her path to becoming one of the best chess players in the world.
Of course, “The Crown” was quite familiar and the fourth season had the arduous task of recreating 1980s Great Britain in the Thatcher years with the first glimpses of Diana, Princess of Wales, in her beginning steps as future Queen. The story, as always, revolves around the sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II.
Besides both series being incredibly successful for Netflix, it’s not 100% clear on the outset as to why they were paired together for an exhibition … except of course the similarity in name. But this exhibit gave me an opportunity to reiterate how, in both series, fashion plays a quiet role in showing the journey of a character.
This is especially present in the portion of the exhibit focused on “The Queen’s Gambit”. Using a keen combination of show clips, costume designer and lead actress commentary, detail closeups, sketches and information, the curators showed very clearly Beth’s journey from young orphan wearing a pale green linen dress with her name embroidered in a heart to a confident chess master with the world at her feet wearing a white cashmere wool ensemble meant to resemble the White Queen.
Costume designer Gabriele Binder ingeniously infused patterns into many of the main character’s looks to remind the viewer of chess, albeit it in very subtle ways at times. In fact, the first look to do this was the Townes’ Dress, a ladylike silhouette laid out in a chessboard type pattern. As Beth’s knowledge of the intricacy and abstract quality of chess grew, the more subtle the homages to the linear nature of a chess board became as seen in the I’m Chess-Dress, Small Black Dress and the Beth’s Pride Coat which were all worn during the series’ final scenes in Moscow playing the greatest Russian chess players of the time.
Overall, the costume designer hit just the right notes when it came to matching the swinging 1960s looks of a young female coming into her own and having the funds to invest in designer fashion. There were vintage pieces used from designer André Courrèges, the futuristic French designer who many say define the era, as well as styles inspired by Pierre Cardin and London-based Biba. Miss Beth Harmon didn’t just like fashion, she had true taste and style.
Interestingly most of this dual-series exhibition’s looks were dedicated to “The Queen’s Gambit” with only seven of them from the newest season of “The Crown”. It’s not clear if that was on purpose, or due to availability. Of those seven looks, three were from the wardrobe of Diana, Princess of Wales, two from Queen Elizabeth II, and one each from Princess Margaret and The Right Honourable The Baroness Margaret Thatcher.
The late Princess Diana’s pieces were notably the most engaging due to their vibrancy which matched what many saw as the hopefulness for the future of the monarchy. Two of her looks were from Charles and Diana’s very well-received trip to Australia that took place early in their marriage: the Australian Tour Two Piece and the Australian Tour Dress. Both looks lived in red / pink color palette meant to show that Diana wore hues that most royals did not. The style descriptions also mentioned the painstaking work that the costume design team went through to match Diana’s looks from the 1980s without access to every piece:
“Through a combination of sourcing vintage fabric, dying existing ones and having it made as well as continuing to hunt for it, the team made a collection authentically fitting to the rest of Diana’s season 4 wardrobe.”
Also, perhaps a missed opportunity here was that the descriptions about Princess Diana’s wardrobe did not describe if there was any diplomacy dressing behind Diana’s choices for the Tour at the time. Royals specifically cater their outfits to highlight the places in which they are visiting, whether it be choosing a local designer, showcasing the national flower through a pattern or wearing hues that match the country’s flag. Whether Diana did not partake in this subtle diplomacy on her first of many tours around the world is unclear. But the context would have been nice to have from a global perspective.
The other, and quite unforgettable piece, from Diana’s wardrobe on the show was the recreation of her iconic wedding dress originally designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel. The style notes made it clear that this dress was not meant to be an exact match to the original. “The famous wedding dress, though not an exact replica, captured the same spirit and style of the iconic design by David Emanuel, the original designer.” Many may argue that Diana’s wedding dress is one of the most famous in the world, and because of that, Emmy Winning Costume Designer Amy Roberts did have an easy task. But since it is so recognizable, many – myself included – know that it wasn’t exactly right. The original dress was larger than life, creases and all, and that felt a bit lacking on the show.
Through similar means of descriptions and videos like “The Queen’s Gambit”, minus costume designer commentary, the other styles on display from “The Crown” show the state of mind that the great women meant to wear them were at this time in their lives. Queen Elizabeth II is becoming everymore a figurehead whose fashion choices reflect her role and the sensitivity around the sentiments of a nation. Margaret Thatcher’s royal blue suit with sharp shoulders shows her rise to a prominent woman in power. And Princess Margaret’s less-than-happy color palette shows the pain she felt in her personal life.
The most wonderful thing about this exhibit is that it was built for digital – not just made that way out of necessity. It’s easy-to-navigate, highly interactive and incredibly interesting. To elevate the pieces themselves, several works of art from the collection of the Brooklyn Museum were placed around the digital exhibit to give looks and themes further content from an artistic point of view.
Overall, “The Queen and The Crown” gives us all a chance to take a deeper look at the series we know and love. Both Amy Roberts and Gabriele Binder are extraordinary costume designers who bring to life people’s lives in the most amazing of ways. In a time when escapism through platforms like Netflix are all that many of us have for enjoyment, seeing more of and appreciating their great work is most welcome.