the crown

Dowdy Rules

Photo: Des Willie/Sophie Mutevelian/Netflix

When you’re the queen of the British Empire, it is necessary to appear as though you’re prepared to attend a parade in your honor at a moment’s notice, even within the confines of your own, uh, palace. You must appear approachable, yet demure. A little elegance is allowable, yet you must also take care to not look flashy, lest you draw raised eyebrows. Our first glimpse of Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II features this signature uniform — one of many mostly shapeless monochrome skirt suits punctuated by a string of pearls that she wears in season three of The Crown. In an intentionally neutral outfit, designed to look presentable without polarizing her subjects, the queen gives off a whiff of stereotypical spinster. Does she have an appointment with the prime minister or is she about to deliver a sternly worded lecture to a noisy neighbor? Maybe both!

In her debut scene Colman strides into a room in a boxy pink skirt suit, designed to obscure the female figure, paired with a handbag hanging rigidly from the elbow, and a coif so stiff it resembles a helmet. She’s there with her all-male army of advisers to examine a new stamp featuring her profile. She is older now, settled into her position. Her head secretary praises the portrait, calling it “elegant.” Without so much as a backward glance, the queen jokes that she is now an “old bat.” He presses on, insisting that the postmaster general could hardly tell the difference between the previous portrait (a glowing Claire Foy, who last season sported playful hats and even a sheer blouse) and the new one. Again, his boss won’t entertain such flattery.

“Age is rarely kind to anyone,” the queen states resolutely, setting the tone for the entire season.  Her advisers are immediately silenced; they cease attempting to massage her ego. She wants to approve the stamp, not stand around wasting time while a crowd of middle-aged men lie to her about her appearance.

Such is the genius of her turn toward frumpy fashion: The queen uses her modesty as a tool to pacify her advisers, so that they remain her cooperative informants. But the dowdiness of her clothes is merely a comforting lie. Underneath her ill-fitting garments lies an experienced, determined, resilient woman.

Alongside her prim pearls, Colman’s signature accessory is her scowl. It’s the type of look that sends shivers down the spine of both her disobedient oldest son and the grown men tasked with keeping her happy. Yet, part of her job is to appear unthreatening, as inoffensive and benign as possible in the public eye. Hence the rotating set of rectangular, pastel-hued dress suits she wears in meetings with the new prime minister, Harold Wilson. No matter how lamblike she may appear in those pastels, all those frowning men clutching their notebooks serve at her pleasure. For a lesson in how to make men quiver in fear, look no further than Colman, who manages to look intimidating even while wearing flesh-colored stockings. The power she has!

There is something so liberating about her style. Watching her, so self-assured and poised, makes me want to choose unfussy, comfortable, and sophisticated outfits, free from the burden of following fashion trends. Though these clothes imply an uptight and reserved attitude, wearing them might also make a woman feel uninhibited, at liberty to say exactly what she means, protected by an outfit that otherwise suggests total propriety.

The queen is ready to tackle her day, unencumbered by distractions of fashion. She’s got documents to sign, important hands to shake, a train to catch. Queen Elizabeth refuses to juggle impossible beauty standards alongside the equally impossible standards of her job. Imagine how productive we would all be if we, too, could harness her dowdy energy. Our new queen is embracing frumpy fashion, and it looks good on her. She can rule a kingdom in a cardigan, no crown necessary.

Dowdy Rules