Here at Fashionista, we methodically document Meghan Markle's every coat, dress, hat — just about anything. And you can bet we'll be posting away on May 19, when she marries Prince Harry. (And according to the odds and the goss, fellow Brit and friend of Fashionista Savannah Miller just may have called her wedding dress designer already. Just saying.) But none of us is as much of a Meghan Markle fashion expert as the lead costume designer of the upcoming — and quite possibly greatest — Lifetime movie, "Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance" became in dressing the dramatized versions of the couple and members of the British Royal family.
"I felt like such a stalker designing this show," laughs Claudia Da Ponte, over the phone from her home base of Vancouver, where the movie was shot in addition to Los Angeles.
"Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance," covers the lives of the former "Suits" actress and the royal ginger snack up through their engagement, which the two adorably discussed on BBC One. Because that moment, along with their blind first date — possibly arranged by mutual friend and Ralph Lauren PR director Violet von Westenholz — and much of their whirlwind romance, weren't documented on social media or captured via long-focus lens camera-toting paparazzi, Da Ponte and her team had to essentially play detective (like Major Case Squad level detective) in determining the royal wardrobe.
"We did a timeline," explains Da Ponte, who only had two weeks to research and prep for the made-for-TV movie fast-tracked to air on May 13 before the real royal wedding. She painstakingly coordinated press clips, video footage, fashion credits from sites that breathlessly track Markle's outfits, like Meghan's Mirror, and the former actress's own Instagram, Twitter and Facebook — before she shut down all her social media accounts in January — to points within the timeframe of the movie.
"We were able to piece together a timeline of roughly what she wore and then, basically, we used brands she actually wears in real life and we just tried to match everything to reality as much as we could." (For me, this conjured up the Charlie Day "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" crime board meme.)
"We have a Halloween scene and on her Instagram, there's a post of her with a pumpkin and she's wearing a sweater, so we kind of emulated that look," Da Ponte added. "Which is a challenge itself because because anything she wears sells out in like five minutes, basically, of it being on her body." So the costume team tried matching exact pieces and brands, including Self Portrait, Mackage, Aritzia and Line the Label, or finding similar replacement alternatives. "I really wanted to keep it as authentic as possible," Da Ponte says.
That's hard to do when so many moments were never seen publicly, like the couple's first date. That in particular became an intense team discussion among the director Menhaj Huda, the producers, Michael Weiss and Meredith Finn, and Da Ponte.
"They wanted her in a dress for their first date and she's a very classy lady, so we wanted a very classy dress," explains Da Ponte of outfitting "Jessica Jones" actress Parisa Fitz-Henley as Markle for that pivotal scene (pictured above). "It was actually a Victoria Beckham dress, and we're like, 'Hey, it's a British designer.'"
Da Ponte also used her detective skills for the portrayal of their three-week-long trip to Africa to celebrate Markle's 36th birthday, which brought royal engagement speculation to a fever pitch. Luckily for Da Ponte, one paparazzi photo exists from the jaunt: a long-lens shot featured in British tabloid The Sun, featuring Harry in a button-down and dark cap and Markle in a tank top, skinny jeans and gladiator sandals, while carrying a burgundy travel fedora. "We matched everything as much as we could," Da Ponte says.
Da Ponte also referred back to the humanitarians' previous — and well-documented — trips to the continent, such as Markle's 2016 visit to Rwanda with nonprofit World Vision. Plus, copious photographs of Harry's many excursions to Africa, inspired by his late mother Princess Diana's dedication to charity work, provided inspiration. "We did a lot of khaki, we did a lot of linen shirts. Rolled up sleeves or the odd polo shirt, but we kept it as true to his style as well," says Da Ponte.
But there weren't any specific outfit reference points to dress Harry and Markle's chill, romantic and relatable proposal moment, with the comforting aroma of a roasting chicken (possibly from style icon Ina Garten's recipe book) spicing up the room. So Da Ponte used a touch of creative license, but kept the aesthetic as authentic to the real Markle as possible.
"She tends to wear a lot of stripes — 'classic but modern,' would be how I describe her style — and I was like, 'OK if you were at home cooking chicken, what would you be wearing?'" Da Ponte says, about Fitz-Henley's soft knit and denim pairing. "Obviously, we decided that it should be casual. She wouldn't be cooking in a prom dress. So ultimately it was more just about being true to Meghan's style and what we thought would be practical for the scene."
Dressing small-screen Princes Harry and William (played by Burgess Abernethy) wasn't quite as complicated as their female counterparts. "Harry and William kind of wear very similar things repeatedly," laughs Da Ponte. "So I'd say the boys are easier to dress on this than the girls. Prince William has been living in the same blue suit for a long time." To outfit Laura Mitchell as Kate Middleton, Da Ponte referenced sites like What Kate Wore and employed the same "stalker" board timeline technique.
"I'd have, say, five reference photos of what she wore in a week, and then I'd be like, 'OK let's do something similar to this because our date falls roughly in that timeframe," she explained.
At this point, it's still a mystery as to where the appearance of Princess Diana, played by Bonnie Soper, falls within the movie's timeline, whether in a dream sequence or flashback. "Our actress flew in from L.A. and, in her fitting, we tried 50 different vintage blue dresses and then that was the one we just selected. It's supposed to be a very similar reference to something Princess Diana wore in real life," says Da Ponte. The vintage look is vividly reminiscent of the cerulean blue skirt suit, purchased from Harrods department store, that Lady Di wore to announce her own royal engagement to Prince Charles.
"When [Soper] stepped down from the trailer, she did this thing with her eyes. The same thing Diana used to do. It was like, 'Whoa. Princess Diana is with us.'"
Fittingly for a queen, or more specifically the Queen, dressing Elizabeth II doppelgänger Maggie Sullivun was "a bit of a challenge" for Da Ponte, who, yes, watches "The Crown." But not because the talent was being difficult (or because she wanted to show up charismatic fashion icon Jackie Kennedy during the First Lady's visit to Buckingham Palace).
"Obviously, the Queen has everything basically custom-made and our timeframe from when Maggie got cast to when she went to camera [was really tight]," says Da Ponte. "We did our best and tried on a million different things and when she put on certain outfits, we were just like, 'Bam that's it! That's the one."
Since Da Ponte basically immersed herself in a crash course of everything Meghan Markle and the Royal Family, she probably also has deeper insight into what type of dress the soon-to-be HRH Duchess of Sussex will wear for her wedding day.
"I haven't really given it much thought as to who the designer would be, but I just envision something beautiful, still classic," Da Ponte says. "Her style is classic, but contemporary and I think she's going to remain true to that. I don't expect some insane crazy princess over-the-top pouf thing. Mind you, she did go pretty girly with her Ralph & Russo dress for her engagement photos. Everything she wears is modern day — conservative still — but she pushes the limits a little more than, let's say Kate, but she gets away with it. She's not about to be the future Queen of England."
As for her costume visions for a followup movie — "Harry & Meghan: A Royal Marriage, " perhaps — on Lifetime? "I think reality will determine whether or not there's a sequel," Da Ponte says. When it comes to Harry and Megs, we believe in that fairy tale ending.
Follow Claudia da Ponte on Twitter @claudiadaponte. 'Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance' airs at 8 p.m. on Sunday, May 13 on Lifetime.
Top and homepage photos: Courtesy of Lifetime