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Costuming the Crown Exhibit opens at historic Winterthur estate: A conversation with the curators

The Crown is a worldwide phenomenon, and the gorgeous costumes are a huge part of what brings the Royal Family to life on our screens. Now the hit Netflix show is bringing 40 of its iconic costumes to a historic American mansion for a one-of-a-kind exhibition.

The elegant Winterthur estate, located about 45 minutes from Philadelphia in Winterthur, Delaware, will play host to Costuming the Crown through 5 January 2020. Fans will come face-to-face with some of the most memorable costumes from the series, including Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation robe and wedding dress, Princess Margaret’s wedding dress, and many others.

The exhibition explores how costume design plays a role in recreating history on the show, featuring the work of Emmy®- and BAFTA-winning designers Michele Clapton and Jane Petrie from series one and two of The Crown.

Princess Margaret’s wedding dress worn by Vanessa Kirby on series two of The Crown. Photo courtesy of Winterthur

Costuming the Crown recently opened for its nearly year-long run at Winterthur and Royal Central spoke with two of its curators to learn more about what it takes to put together a major royal costume exhibition.

Kristin Contino: How did the idea come about for the exhibition? Was it something Winterthur planned out and approached the show, or how did it all work? 

Jeff Groff: “We had done the exhibition in 2014, Costumes of Downton Abbey, which was very successful and drew plenty of people to Winterthur who I think never would have come. We were looking for another opportunity to draw people to Winterthur using something like costumes or a better-known kind of story to draw them in. It was our previous director Dave Roselle who launched us into Downton Abbey. He started watching ‘The Crown’, and he said, ‘Hey, can we do something with ‘The Crown’?'”

Kim Collison: “After Dave had suggested that idea I had curated a small exhibition with just the coronation dress from the show in 2017. And sort of tracking that piece down I got into contact with a number of different people from the production company on the show and the costume team, and we started the conversation about building the larger exhibition. It became clear that we might be able to proceed with a larger exhibition in 2018 so we pulled it together in about a year.”

Where were the costumes being stored? In terms of choosing which costumes were included, were there any that you wanted but couldn’t get? 

Kim Collison: “They were in a variety of places, many were made specifically for the show, so those were housed by the production company. But there were select pieces that either were rented by the larger costume houses in London or a couple that were commissioned by those costume houses.

Some of the more everyday clothes or the menswear go back to the costume houses, so if they’re not set aside as part of the production, they’re hard to get. We wanted to represent Peter Townsend, but so many of his clothes were just tweeds or a suit so we couldn’t come up with all the exact pieces for Peter to have an outfit.” 

Royal jewels from The Crown. Photo courtesy of Winterthur

Were you able to go to London while you were planning the exhibit? 

Kim Collison: “I went to England with our conservator of textiles, and she and I went to the different costume houses in London and the production company, and we met a rep from each costume team there and worked to pull everything together last May.”

What was it like working with the costume designers? 

Kim Collison: “It was a lot of fun. We had the opportunity to talk with them a couple of times before we opened, we talked over the phone, and they tracked things down for us through email, but then they were here for our opening. It was really amazing to get to know them better and to spend some time with them and continue to learn more while they were here.”

Jeff Groff: “I was really interested just watching how they were reacting to the costumes. They were so happy to see them but giving us a few little guidelines on things to tweak as they were on the mannequin.”

Kim Collison: “One of [the] things we tweaked while they were here, it took a couple of tries …  there’s a white tie outfit that Winston Churchill wears and just getting his medals in exactly the right place was a challenge. The imagery of it sometimes was inconsistent in the images we were looking at, so it took a couple of times to get it right.” 

Are all of the costumes the actual ones used on the show, or are some of them duplicates or re-created? 

Kim Collison: “There is one costume that is not an actual show costume, and that is the livery uniforms. They were still using them for season three, so we rented a similar livery costume from one of the costume houses. We did want to represent someone of that nature because we were talking about status in that particular section of the exhibition. We felt that costume helped us tell that story.”

Do you have a favourite costume and why?

Kim Collison: “Jeff and I curated this with Linda Eaton, she’s not with us today, but her favourite is a padded bodysuit that was used to give John Lithgow the shape of Winston Churchill. Probably the most unflattering piece in the exhibition but it’s really important in the interpretation. The idea of the costumes and the things that you actually don’t see is kind of important when you think about how the designers are taking on this role of helping to create the characters.

Mine is always changing! I think one of mine is one that has sort of proven to be the favourite of our guests; it’s a costume Margaret wore. It’s a dress that has pockets, and everyone loves this elegant evening dress with pockets. Not to mention the dress is handpainted and really beautiful.”

Jeff Groff: “More recently I’ve really been paying attention to the dress uniform Prince Philip wears, but it’s not only the whole uniform but the insignias: the Order of the Garter, the sash, all the different military medals and honours because it tells such a story about status and how the Royal Family is presenting themselves to the world. It’s also something that the costume designers knew they had to get right. They had to get everything done correctly because someone is sure to notice if it’s not.”

Prince Philip’s uniform worn by Matt Smith on The Crown. Photo courtesy of Winterthur

What was the hardest part of planning the exhibition?

Both: “Narrowing it down!”

Kim Collison: “We all loved the costumes for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, for instance. We couldn’t really do an exhibition of their costumes alone. That was really hard, cutting things because there were so many beautiful things to choose from. Inevitably, there are things after the fact I think I wish we had.”

Jeff Groff: “Same thing was true for the video clips, and we have a good number of them in the exhibition. We thought ‘ok we can’t have 20 video clips!’ But because the show is so well done and how Peter Morgan has written the script it tells the story so well of the Royal Family, and they really amplify how the costumes work.”

Are any of the cast members planning to come to Winterthur for the exhibit? 

Kim Collison: “We don’t have anyone set up for a specific date. They have all been invited if they’re in the area to come and see the exhibition. They’ve been encouraged by the people here representing Netflix, so we’re hoping that we will see some of them.”

What do you hope visitors will take away from Costuming the Crown?

Jeff Groff: “I think what we’re really hoping is sort of a combination of things. From the exhibit itself that they’ll enjoy understanding how costume design is done. The larger story of the Royal Family and ‘The Crown’ will really resonate with them in a different way. People understand how appealing history is and there are so many stories that come out of history. The costume designers enjoy taking a historical figure and making them a little more approachable and understandable through the costumes. I also hope they go and see the rooms, see the gardens, learn about how the du Pont family entertained here and get a capsule view of a time period.”

Costuming the Crown is open now through 5 January 2020, and several special events will be held throughout the year, including lectures, a tea party, royal trivia nights, and a special “Queen for a Day” beauty session. Learn more and purchase your tickets on the Winterthur website.

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