In the fifth season of The Crown, the Royal Family faces an unprecedented and formidable challenge that tests their position in 1990s Britain. Imelda Staunton portrays Queen Elizabeth II as she approaches the momentous 40th anniversary of her reign. Meanwhile, Dominic West takes on the role of Prince Charles, who grapples with mounting pressure to seek a divorce from Princess Diana, played by Elizabeth Debicki. This pivotal event presents an existential crisis for the monarchy, as the public openly questions their role and relevance in society. Emmy-Award winning costume designer, Amy Roberts returned for the fifth season of The Crown to help pave the way in terms of the sensitive balance of storytelling between historical events and private, intimate affairs. I spoke with Roberts about the massive undertaking of preparation and research faced by her team, adapting the Royal Family for the nineties, collaborating with the actors, and the unique characterizations brought on by the costumes.
Spencer Williams: I first would like to begin with the scope of this project. Obviously, The Crown is a rather massive project. At this point, you’ve been on the show for a little while, but I imagine it doesn’t get easier. To set the stage, what does the preparation look like for The Crown? How much time do you usually have, and what goes into the prep and the research?
Amy Roberts: We do get a good amount of time. It’s a job that you can do properly. Netflix and Left Bank are very respectful of every department’s work, which is a lovely thing, and they’re very supportive. You never feel that pressure of running out of time and not being able to do it properly. We do get a good amount of time to seep ourselves into the research. The whole point of this job is storytelling using those brilliant scripts that we’re given. We start off with a huge board of every lead character, and they each have a little visual journey on this massive wall of the real people. I think with research, you do it, and then you’ve got to forget about it; you have to put your stamp on it.
It’s about the Royal family, but I still maintain that it’s also about dysfunctional families, isn’t it? I’ve always said doing The Crown is like doing this huge opera. The breadth of The Crown and the vision of the designers, the set designers, the props, the decorators of the rooms, the hair and makeup, it, and the clothes and the uniforms and the crowd scenes. It’s a terrific project, seeing that all coming together. That’s what’s been very important and special about doing this job.
Spencer Williams: Is it even possible to say how many costumes you think move through your workshops each season?
Amy Roberts: I can’t! Each season has ten episodes, and there are probably 300 speaking parts. Everyone is fitted or has a costume made for them, and the same applies to every member of the crowd. They are all fitted. It is a mammoth undertaking. We’re lucky enough to be able to do it but I think it shows, doesn’t it? There’s as much care in the Queen as there is in a man on the street. Also, we have the most brilliant team who are so enthusiastic and love the job. I always call myself the captain of the ship and I kick-start the costume design. But it is all of these brilliant people who get to achieve that for you.
Spencer Williams: There is obviously a lot of historical context in the series, and then there are moments I am sure the show has some creative liberty. As the costume designer, could you talk about the balance between understanding when you and your team are creating a look that is to be historically accurate versus when you are creating an original design? Does the guidance come from the scripts?
Amy Roberts: There are moments where you’ve got to be forensically accurate about. They’re in the scripts. You’ve got weddings and funerals, particular speeches where the Queen is giving a speech… we have to be fairly spot on with those.
But there are huge sways between those scenes that aren’t there, as you’ve already said, where it’s more imagining what those people might wear. But also, Spencer, to be honest, I want to give it a look and a style. I almost have to forget it’s the Royal family a little bit. It’s storytelling. Like I say, it’s a story about this big, dysfunctional operatic family. The fact that we think we know them, of course, we don’t. So there is a fine balance. For example, when Margaret was played by Helena Bonham Carter, visits the American President. That dress was nothing like what she wore. We wanted something startling and glamorous. You are dressing Helena Bonham Carter!
Spencer Williams: In comparison to previous seasons, the fifth season takes place in a slightly more contemporary period, being set in 1991 to 1997. Before this season, your work covered at least 1964 to 1990; tell me about this evolution across the show in the costumes. How did your team grapple with this evolution, and does the period shift affect Buckingham Palace the same way it does the rest of the world?
Amy Roberts: I think a little less. The Queen is the Queen. Remember, we have new actors, so that helps us move along because we’ve got new bodies. The Queen Mother, for example, never changes, does she? She always looks like she did in the 1930s. Having new actors physically helps you visually and the audience in believing the story.
The Queen doesn’t necessarily say, “Hey, we’re in the nineties now.” Whereas somebody like Diana will, it’s always the younger ones that pull us into the era. Diana leads the way through her casual-wear. We only see her in a couple of public events, so we are dealing with her again, almost like a prisoner in her flat. She wears puffers and jeans…It was interesting how the younger people on the team and the production absolutely loved her clothes. They’re quite relevant again.
Spencer Williams: Imelda Staunton brilliantly plays Queen Elizabeth this season. Could you talk to the evolution of the Queen’s costumes, what sort of changes do we see in the colors, fabrics, and silhouettes?
Amy Roberts: The Queen is older now and grayer, a bit thicker around the middle. So we make those little adjustments, and yes, her style does change a bit. You realize her dresses actually become more simple, more accommodating to her, and slightly more ample figure.
Spencer Williams: This was a very memorable season for Diana, Princess of Wales, played by Elizabeth Debicki, as the references are very top of mind to this day. I imagine this must have been quite a daunting task?
Amy Roberts: I think if you think about it, Spencer, it’s daunting. I think if you thought about doing this job, you just wouldn’t; you just got to jump in. She’s just this gorgeous woman, and we’re going to do her proud, hopefully. And Elizabeth, of course, is gorgeous, so that’s helpful. I remember we thought it was very cloak and dagger, wasn’t it? She’s really paranoid. So the fact she’s wearing those big nineties coats and sunglasses with the baseball caps, it’s like hiding all the time, isn’t she? She’s in disguise almost when she leaves the house and goes to visit her brother, and then she does the famous interview, and they all come hidden in a car. It’s a bit like a thriller, in a way.
She’s a mother now, and she’s laying about at home with the boys eating hamburgers, and she’s in jeans, barefooted; she’s slightly more real. We’ve had very few scenes with her in the public eye. We rarely see her out and about in a glamorous dress. There are a couple of moments, but most of her scenes are in private. I think the challenge was to depict what Diana would wear in private.
Spencer Williams: This season, again, we see a new cast come in to fill the roles of our leading characters. The relationship between the costume design and the actor can sometimes be quite intimate, so I am wondering if you could tell me what it is like to essentially costume the same character with a new actor? Does it feel like you are starting fresh, do you exchange notes? New ideas?
Amy Roberts: Yes, you’re starting again! After the two seasons, I always think even though it’s new, the wheels need oiling a bit for all of us. After seasons three and four, I don’t think it’s noticeable, but to me, we’ve all settled in, and the actors have settled into playing their roles. We, as a team, have gotten used to them. Their body shapes, what works, what we can push, and then you start all again with seasons five and six. It’s a good thing to have a kick up, not get lazy about things.
I think it’s important to be collaborative. Their input is as valuable as mine. I think any costume designer you must have talked to will say it’s a very intimate relationship with an actor. Being intrigued by them as people, how they’re going to portray this character, how they feel, and you are dressing them. It’s quite odd sometimes, especially the first meeting. When you don’t know each other, you’ve got to talk about your vision and what they might feel. That’s nerve-wracking. Then maybe the next time, they’ve got to come in their underwear and have their measurements taken. It’s a very curious journey.. and it is a journey! Very rewarding, infuriating, irritating funny, and lovely. All those things, really.
Spencer Williams: My favorite character in terms of the scope of the television series has always been Princess Margaret. This season she is played by Lesley Manville. In terms of her costumes, Margaret never feels afraid to play around with her looks and sort of pushes the envelope, even if it is in a subtle, royal manner. How would you describe Princess Margaret’s style?
Amy Roberts: I think you are right, and in a way, yeah, you look at her reference pictures, we do push it a bit more and make it a bit more fashionable. We can do that a lot with her. In that scene where she meets Peter Townsend and she hasn’t seen him in years, Lesley and I both thought, well, she’s going to go for it. She’s not going to go in a nice little navy number. She’s going to go for it and put on some armor and get out there. So I said, let’s do the brightest pink we can find with that.
Because it’s Lesley Manville, honestly, Spencer, you could put her in a black bin liner, and she owns it. I’ve never worked with an actress quite like that, where she just comes in, gets her body padding on because we needed to make her a little bit more curvy… gives her a Princess Margaret bottom, and she just welcomes it! She owns what you give her. She’s so excited. So she puts this pink dress on, and that’s it. She does it. She gets on with it, and she goes into that wood-paneled room with all those naval uniforms and old guys in blazers. Wham! She really stands out. Pops!
Spencer Williams: The Crown has now been on for five seasons, fifty episodes, with more on the way. You have been with The Crown now for a little while and, I believe, worked on the final season. Looking back, what has this experience meant to you?
Amy Roberts: It meant huge amounts of stress, and in season three, when I started, I didn’t know what I’d let myself in for. It was so overwhelming and huge. And what they do, they do double banking. But I kind of got the hang of it. But of course, why do I come back? The way you can duck and dive from 1953 to 1911 to the nineties, all held together by this incredible storytelling, and you are nothing without a decent script. It’s been so rewarding, and you know, the final product is going to be excellent because everybody on the team in costume design, hair, makeup, and props is phenomenal. They’re at the top of their game, and it’s exciting. It’s exciting. Spencer, I think that’s what I loved. It’s thrilling and scary. And you can be brave and bold, and that’s a lovely thing in this job.