The two youngest generations of the British royal family are making most of the news these days. So it may be hard to recall that Queen Elizabeth II, now 93, Britain’s longest-serving monarch, inherited the throne at 25.
In its first two seasons, Netflix’s “The Crown” took viewers back to Elizabeth’s earliest years with minute detail and convincing authenticity. From the tiny symbols of the monarch on the brass buttons of the livery (the red and black uniforms of the royal household), to exact re-creations of coronation robes, crowns, wedding gowns and uniforms bedecked with medals and honors, “The Crown” portrayed the life of a fledgling queen taking hold of an empire and asserting her awesome authority.
An exhibit of the costumes and regalia created for the Netflix series — “Costuming ‘The Crown’ ” — has arrived at Delaware’s Winterthur, the erstwhile du Pont mansion near Wilmington that houses a museum, garden and library, and holds an encyclopedic collection of art and antiques left by Henry Francis du Pont. The exhibit’s display of costumes ranges from the coronation robes worn by the queen and Prince Philip to Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s white-tie evening suit with breeches, to the Duke of Windsor’s windowpane jacket — right down to the wellies the queen wears in the stables. Wall text and photos, together with video clips from the series, nail down the exhibit’s theme: how costumes make history vivid and enjoyable.
Winterthur estate historian Jeff Groff notes that shows like “Costuming ‘The Crown’ ” and 2014’s “Costumes of ‘Downton Abbey’ ” have “a buzz you don’t feel in more scholarly exhibits.” I’m in the first ranks of confessed Anglophiles, so on my visit to Winterthur, I buzzed right along.
For many “Crown” fans, Claire Foy, who played Princess — and then, Queen — Elizabeth in Seasons 1 and 2, became the queen. Even in Foy’s absence, the costumes tell a compelling coming-of-age story.
The exhibit begins with her dramatic golden coronation robe and ends with a white gown bedecked with a blue sash and tons of medals used for the official coronation portrait. But the many costumes in between examine Elizabeth’s maturation from the princess who suddenly inherits the throne upon her father’s death to the confident queen who faces off with Churchill and takes on Philip during a rocky period in their marriage that coincided with the 1954 royal tour of Australia. (The time frame of Season 2 ends in 1963; Season 3 is expected to be released this year, with a new, older cast.)
That isn’t to say that there aren’t several costumes designed to illustrate Elizabeth’s extremely traditional nature. “The Crown’s” two Emmy-winning designers — Michele Clapton for Season 1 and Jane Petrie for Season 2 — draw a sharp contrast between Elizabeth and her younger sister, Princess Margaret. Here we see Margaret’s dramatic strapless gown, worn when she stands in for the queen to address foreign ambassadors. It was designed to distinguish Margaret’s role from the queen’s, and it’s displayed next to a gown that similarly captures the queen’s character, the formal green dress and delicate lace jacket that the queen wears at dinner when Margaret begs for approval to marry the divorced Group Capt. Peter Townsend.
Both ensembles are in the “Creating Character” portion of the exhibit. Unlike the exact copies of coronation robes, wedding dresses and military uniforms, these designs were invented based on period clothing and on the series’s script.
One truly behind-the-scenes part of the exhibit is actor John Lithgow’s “fat suit,” a padded shoulder-to-thigh undergarment, complete with a strategic fig leaf on the display mannequin. In a testimony of the efficacy of good costuming, it — remarkably — helped turn the 6-foot-4 actor into the 5-foot-6 Churchill.
Churchill’s white-tie evening suit is complete with breeches banded with the gold insignia of the Order of the Garter, together with all his military medals and sashes. To re-create it, and the military uniforms worn by King George VI as he gave away Elizabeth at her wedding, and by Philip in a variety of scenes, the designers consulted Maj. David Rankin-Hunt, a decorated veteran and 30-year employee of the royal household who always was on the set. In addition, the costumers rented regalia from London’s nearly 200-year-old Angels Costumes, which has about 1 million costume pieces. Another company that specializes in copying the crown jewels provided crowns, tiaras and jewelry, based on descriptions in a book issued by the royal Stationery Office.
Cases in the exhibit hold brilliant scepters, crowns, coronets and tiaras. Everything you might want to learn about who is allowed to wear each, and when, is set out in the exhibit’s wall text. Who knew, for example, that only married women wear tiaras?
Clips from two memorable scenes from Seasons 1 and 2 are shown with the costumes worn in them. After Princess Elizabeth is asked by her dying father to stand in for him on an upcoming world tour, she and Philip arrive in Nairobi to be greeted by the British governor general and leaders of several tribes. Philip mocks some of the chiefs when walking past them, and the princess tells him to be respectful. The exhibit displays her re-created polka-dot shirtdress, Philip’s tropical-weight white uniform, and the feathered and beaded headdress of the tall Maasai chief who glares at Philip.
A scene set nine years later depicts the 35-year-old queen consulting her favorite designer, Norman Hartnell, in anticipation of the visit of President John F. Kennedy and the first lady. “One doesn’t want to feel second best,” the young queen tells him. In the video clip playing on the wall, Hartnell steers her toward a blue gown with a gathered bodice and full skirt. When Jacqueline Kennedy later appears in a sleek light blue satin sheath, the queen — only three years older — does, it seems to the viewer, feel second best. The historical photo of the royals and the Kennedys is displayed next to a still photo of “The Crown’s” portrayal.
Other reproductions made for the film usually were executed by teams of seamstresses with about two weeks’ lead time. But, we learn, the beaded and embroidered wedding gowns for both Elizabeth and Margaret took far longer. Elizabeth’s alone took six embroiderers seven weeks. The queen’s coronation robe and Margaret’s strapless gown were similarly huge projects — and it shows.
The gold coronation robe and Philip’s red velvet, ermine-trimmed robe and coronet, brightly displayed at the exhibit’s start, tell the visitor immediately that, while these are costumes, seeing them up close is just as convincing as seeing them on the tube. The hem of Philip’s robe looks as if it has just swept through Westminster Abbey. (Ely Cathedral, north of Cambridge, substituted for the Abbey for weddings and the coronation.) Although many of the “embroidered” symbols of the Empire (England’s rose, Scotland’s thistle, Northern Ireland’s shamrock) were actually hand-painted onto the queen’s Imperial Mantle, they look real.
Projected on the wall between the mannequins dressed in the queen’s and Philip’s coronation regalia is a quote written by “The Crown’s” screenwriters. It is spoken in the series by the Duke of Windsor, who renounced the throne to marry Wallis Simpson, as he watches Elizabeth’s coronation on television from France. “It’s an unfathomable web of arcane mystery,” he says.
“Who wants transparency when you can have magic?” Indeed.
Nathan is a writer based in the District.
The Pavilion Restaurant
at Winterthur Museum
Winterthur Visitor Center
5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur, Del.
The Pavilion Restaurant in the Winterthur Visitor Center provides a scenic view of the gardens and a variety of soups, salads and sandwiches. Open 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Soups starting at $5.50, salads starting at $12 and sandwiches starting at $14.
Henry Francis du Pont Dining Room
Also located inside the visitor center, the Henry Francis du Pont Dining Room features dishes inspired by life at the Winterthur estate during du Pont’s time. Three-course prix fixe lunch $35 per person; reservations required. Lunch offered Thursday through Saturday with seatings at 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
Winterthur Museum, Garden
5105 Kennett Pike, Winterthur, Del.
Tour through the 175-room mansion’s permanent collection of 90,000 items of American furniture, textiles, painting and metalwork, displayed in rooms decorated during the time the du Ponts lived there. The museum also offers tram rides through the estate, garden tours and special events related to “The Crown” exhibit including royal trivia, tea and lectures. Admission to the museum, which includes the special exhibit, $20; seniors and students $18; $6 for children 2 through 11.
1001 Longwood Rd., Kennett Square, Pa.
The gardens are spread over 1,000 acres and also feature 20 indoor gardens. The gardens, with frequent seasonal displays, are open 365 days a year. General admission $23 per person; seniors and students $20; $12 ages 5 through 18; children under 5 free.
Brandywine River Museum of Art
1 Hoffmans Mill Rd., Chadds Ford, Pa.
This museum within a few miles of Winterthur is known for its collection of paintings by three generations of the Wyeth family. General admission $18 per person; seniors $15; $6 for students and children 6 through 18; free for children under 6.
For the author’s complete list of Delaware recommendations, visit washingtonpost.com/travel