Costume designer Michele Clapton knows a thing or two about designing crowns for formidable female rulers. She designed the fantastical Westeros and beyond looks for the first five seasons of "Game of Thrones" and returned to the HBO series for the last two episodes of season six to create four costumes, including Cersei Lannister's triumphant leather coronation gown and lion crown — for which she won an Emmy to add to the other two sitting on her mantle. (Along with a BAFTA and two Costume Designers Guild Awards, thank you very much.)
During her hiatus from "GoT," Clapton stretched her extensive costume design talents with two period pieces, including the Queen Elizabeth II historical dramatic series, "The Crown," which debuts on Netflix on Friday, November 4. The streaming giant's latest big budget binge-able series launches an ambitious plan to chronicle the British monarch's life with six 10-episode seasons — the first starting in 1947 with a 21-year-old, just-married Elizabeth (Claire Foy). The decade following covers the beginning of her reign, the early years of her marriage to Prince Philip (the 11th "Doctor Who," Matt Smith), dynamics — as a young female monarch — with an aging Prime Minister Winston Churchill (and a government full of crusty old men) and relationship with her younger sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), who wants to marry a divorced man. (Keep in mind, Elizabeth's father became King after his brother, Edward, abdicated to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson.)
For Clapton, costume designing for the sweeping series was more than precisely replicating dresses and gowns well-documented in media and historic photos from the time. "What [executive producer Stephen Daldry and director Philip Martin and I] tried to do is to talk about [the series] as a drama and how we wanted to portray [Elizabeth] in her moments that everyone sees and maybe in moments where no one really knows. So we're guessing," the costume designer tells us from her workroom in Belfast on the set of "Game of Thrones." She estimates that 95 percent of the principals' costumes are custom-made, while the extras wore majority vintage from the late '40s and early '50s. "There's such a high standard for the Queen of England," she says.
On top of researching an exhaustive amount of historical photographs and records, Clapton also poured through her collection of vintage Vogue issues for inspiration. "I love all the adverts in those old magazines for underwear," she says. "Because it illustrates the ideal figure and how they achieved it." Clapton also used dress patterns from the '50s, particularly for the more spirited and fun-loving Princess Margaret and studied designers of the era including Hardy Amies for men's suiting, Dior (more New Look) and royal dressmaker Norman Hartnell, who designed Princess Elizabeth's gown for her 1947 wedding to Prince Philip.
The intricately beaded wedding gown was one of the iconic looks that Clapton and her team had to meticulously recreate, not just in terms of silhouette, but also how it fit on Foy playing Elizabeth. The endeavor offered up quite a few challenges, including the fact that bolts of fabric don't come as wide as they did back in the '40s. "I actually think the train is about three inches narrower than it should be," says the designer, explaining that a visible seam wasn't an option. The train alone took six weeks to embellish with a team of students and embroiderers on rotation, while the bodice, the skirting and the appliqué were all crafted at the same time at separate locations.
"A lot of people worked on that dress, but it was really important to make it right. It's really funny because it's not actually a shape that I particularly like," she says, about the puff-shoulder, long-sleeve gown, which might not look so flattering to contemporary eyes. "It was so tempting to go, 'can't we change that sleeve?"
Thanks to a happy coincidence, Clapton and her team didn't have to make Elizabeth's coronation gown, another well-documented high-profile fashion moment. Swarovski had actually created a replica for an exhibition, which the costume designer happened upon — "it was the angels" — and the company offered to loan the dress for the shoot. Clapton initially declined thinking it wouldn't fit, but, after realizing how full her plate was with the rest of the costumes, took Swarovski up on the offer. "We tried it and actually it was a little bit too long, but we put [Foy] in high shoes and it was amazing," she says.
Clapton didn't have the opportunity to custom design, say, a twisty feline crown for this queen, either, as the headpieces and royal jewelry had to also be exact or near matches to the real deal. But she did make an effort to style the heirlooms to quietly express the Queen's personality and mood. "[Elizabeth has] quite a bit of sweet taste," Clapton explains. "So the brooches she wears are particularly poignant. There's one when Prince Charles was born — it's a bouquet of flowers — and I see her wearing that now. So there's a sentimental sense to her."
But as a 27-year-old Queen of England in a post-World War II era of political, cultural and historical shifts she wasn't always able to show that sentimental side, especially to a male-dominated 10 Downing Street. "We decided to put her in something which is almost a uniform, so it was the equivalent of a man's suit," explains Clapton. "So it was like an armor and she could hide behind this incredibly formal dress. It isn't particularly feminine. It’s very high buttoning and even the buttons are covered."
Elizabeth's costumes also communicate the contrast in personality and responsibilities between the more conservative Queen and her fun-loving and more fashion-forward sister, Princess Margaret (essentially the Prince Harry of the two). "[Elizabeth is] promoting new young Britain — a hopeful Britain after the war," Clapton explains. "She can't be too extreme and I don’t think it's in her nature to want to be that. Her costumes look like they have one fitting. 'That's fine, thank you very much.' Margaret's look like [she's had] three or four fittings."
Speaking of fittings, Clapton is immersed in those on the set of "Game of Thrones," which she's back on full-time to finish out the last two shortened seasons of the beloved series. "They're getting less people on 'Game of Thrones' now, so it's a bit easier compared to the start," she jokes. She'll definitely have her hands full as the show-runners were happy to let her explore her creative freedom and work on other projects, too. So perhaps more period pieces, like the Nicole Kidman-starring, early 20th century-set movie "Queen of the Desert." ("She’ll go on to winning more than Emmys, I predict," Kidman said about the costume designer at a Vogue/CFDA talk last year.)
"I just like challenges and I like to do different things," Clapton says. "It would be awful if I only did one thing. It would be so dull." And for us, too.
"The Crown" premieres on Netflix on Friday, Nov. 4. Follow Michele Clapton on Instagram @micheleclapton.