The clothes in Netflix’s The Crown are impressively, forensically accurate. Prince Charles wears the three-button, narrow-lapel suits he favored as a youth before switching to drapey double-breasted numbers later in life. When she’s in Scotland, the queen wears tartan skirts, waxed Barbour jackets, and a silk scarf pushed forward atop her head like a countryside crown. Perhaps most impressive is Princess Diana’s wardrobe, playful sweaters and frilly necklines that the show’s costume designer, Amy Roberts, clearly went to great lengths to research. (See GQ Dianologist Rachel Tashjian’s excellent Twitter thread of The Crown’s scenes side by side with actual history.)
It’s a show that thoroughly examines the appearance of power, and in the fourth season’s second episode, “The Balmoral Test,” the royal family invites the season’s spotlighted outsiders, Princess Diana and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, to its Balmoral estate in Scotland, where they’re both subjected to an informal vetting of sorts. In it, Roberts uses clothes to neatly illustrate the women’s complicated relationships with the British royal family.
As a newly elected Thatcher and her husband, Denis, fly to the estate, Denis offhandedly remarks: “Apparently, the royal family routinely subject all their guests to secret tests to find out whether someone is acceptable or not acceptable, you or non-you, part of the gang or not part of the gang. Apparently, it’s ruthless!” As soon as they arrive at Aberdeenshire, it’s clear they’re at a loss. Early on, a housemaid remarks that Margaret hasn’t brought any “outdoor shoes” — double-soled brogues for walking in the countryside — and accompanies the quip with a sharp “hm.”
Later, the Thatchers arrive at tea in traditional dinner clothes, Margaret in a frilly purple dress and Denis in black tie, while the royals are still in their knitwear and tweeds. Thatcher, a woman who made her own way into politics, only knew how to dress for the formality of 10 Downing Street, as though she were still meeting with the stodgy cabinet that’s trying to stymie her grand plans for slashing government spending and privatizing national industries. “Do you think they’ll come to lunch tomorrow in their pajamas?” Prince Philip asks loudly. You get the same feeling watching it happen as if you yourself have simultaneously arrived at every party you’ve ever overdressed for, misunderstanding unwritten dress codes to devastating personal effect.
There’s no evidence that Thatcher ever dressed so inappropriately during her time at Balmoral, but the show takes liberty with such details to underscore the deep cultural gulf between the Prime Minister and her queen. Perhaps most poignantly, the Iron Lady shows up to a stag hunt in a delicate blue dress and black pumps while everyone else is in waxed cotton hunting coats and thick shoes. (Her Majesty explains: “Next time, you might not want to wear bright blue. It means the stag can see you.”) It’s often said that the queen first fell in love with the Scottish Highlands on cherished trips there with her father, King George VI. Thatcher, on the other hand, grew up in Lincolnshire as the daughter of an alderman who owned a smoke shop and grocery store, a considerably less posh childhood with far fewer pastoral jaunts. As the queen recalls fond memories of walking through the sweeping landscape with her father, Thatcher recounts how she spent her youth working with her father in the grocery store and listening to him practice his speeches. “Work was our play,” she says coldly.
Barbours, the all-weather jackets favored by hunters and fishermen at the turn of the 20th century, had by the time of the “Balmoral Tests” attained an association with the crown that gave it an air of nobility: In 1974, five years before Thatcher was elected prime minister, Phillip granted the company its first Royal Warrant, a sort of tony seal of approval. The queen gave a second in 1982, and Prince Charles gave a third in 1987, five years before he and Diana separated. For Thatcher to have forgone one wasn’t just a matter of poor dress protocol, it was to have stepped out of sync with an aspect of the royal identity itself.
In “The Balmoral Test,” Thatcher comes to see the royal family as upper-class twits, similarly to how she views her cabinet, which is full of traditionally minded Conservative Party colleagues who fear her reforms will create mass unemployment — correctly, it would turn out. Tagging along to a Scottish folk festival, Thatcher dismisses the performers and, the camera suggests with a series of cuts between Thatcher’s eyes and her hosts, the royals as well: “I’m struggling to find any redeeming features in these people at all.”
Mere moments after Thatcher departs, Diana arrives at Balmoral to audition for a courtship with Prince Charles. When Phillip requests her company on a hunting trip, she comes prepared in the right clothes: muddy boots, a warm Shetland sweater, and her very own Barbour. He asks if she’s up to the task of walking through the mud and she responds, “I’m a country girl at heart. The muckier, the better.” Such dress is second nature to Diana, who was born into British nobility and grew up playing with Charles’s brothers, Andrew and Edward, at the Sandringham estate. She not only blends in perfectly, but she cements her place in the Windsors’ hearts by correctly identifying the direction of the wind to help Phillip down a wounded stag.
After Diana leaves Balmoral, Charles unhappily phones his paramour Camilla Parker-Bowles to report that Diana passed the family’s tests with flying colors and received “rave reviews from the whole ghastly Politburo.” “They want me to marry her,” he said. Of course, they did get married, Diana’s assimilation rewarded. In real life, photos of the newlywed Charles and Diana wearing Barbour jackets at their country home inspired thousands of “Sloane Rangers” to adopt the same uniform. But, as the rest of the season teases out, only the picture was pretty, with Camilla boxing out Diana from Charles’s heart.
We often think of our clothing choices as artistic expression — mossy coats go with earthy shoes like colors in a painting — but fashion is more about language. The royals’ and Thatcher’s and Diana’s costumes allowed them to speak to who they were as people and project how they wanted to move through the world. But at the end of the day, clothes can only say so much, and projection runs into reality. The queen, her family, and Diana were all born into power. Insulated from the workaday political concerns of their day, they dressed for leisure. During her premiership, Thatcher became known for ironclad power dressing, skirt suits with orthogonal shoulder pads and pussy bow blouses that, as a sign of her lasting influence, became a favorite of conservative women everywhere. In the episode, she returns to London from Balmoral, sacks three ministers, and lays the groundwork for her reform program, a consolidation of her actual power.