A ‘Queen Charlotte’ Costume Designer on This Month’s Other Coronation
In the opening monologue of “Queen Charlotte,” Netflix’s new “Bridgerton” prequel, the title character imagines being impaled by her whalebone corset.
“If I move too much, I might be sliced and stabbed to death by my undergarments,” Charlotte, played by India Amarteifio, tells her brother with a scowl.
The series’s characters are constricted by their circumstances and their costuming alike, said Lyn Elizabeth Paolo, who designed costumes for “Queen Charlotte.” Minutes into the first episode, for instance, Charlotte is cinched into a gown encrusted with sapphires and squeezed into a marriage to King George III of Britain. The show, created by Shonda Rhimes, weaves the pair’s eventual love story together with threads on race and mental health.
The six episodes of “Queen Charlotte” required more than a thousand costumes inspired by the Georgian and Regency periods, Ms. Paolo said, including an estimated 500 crowns. Ms. Paolo and her fellow costume designer, Laura Frecon, combined “gobs of research” with more modern inspiration from Dior and Alexander McQueen. “We’re having a little fun with history,” she said.
In an interview that took place days after the coronation of King Charles III, Ms. Paolo discussed the process of creating costumes for fictionalized versions of a coronation and a royal wedding. She also weighed in on her favorite looks from the real-life coronation. Her remarks have been lightly edited and condensed.
How did you tell the story of Queen Charlotte’s character development through her costumes?
I wanted to see why Golda Rosheuvel’s character on “Bridgerton” dresses the way she does. There was a Met Ball about 10 years ago based on the work of the designer Charles James, who I’m obsessed with. I said to Shonda, “I’d like this to feel as if young Charlotte is going to that Met Ball.” Charlotte’s costumes become more ornate as time goes on because she is embodying the whole of the royal family. Hence, her wigs keep getting taller, and her costumes get wider and more ornate.
Queen Charlotte’s elaborate wigs, and the depiction of her hair as a Black monarch, have been praised since the first season of “Bridgerton.” Tell me about the decision for young Charlotte to wear her natural hair.
The original sketches that we did for Queen Charlotte, before any of the casting process was done, had her with big, natural, curly hair. I had shown those images to Nic Collins, the hair and makeup designer, when we first started. She’s so talented, and she’s such a purist about period. She had said, “Do you think we can do this?” So she and Shonda spoke and decided to do it. As the disclaimer at the front of the show says, it’s based on history, but we’re not going to stick to the aesthetic 100 percent.
Which costumes were inspired by real-life royals?
Charlotte’s British wedding gown evoked Queen Elizabeth II’s original coronation dress, which I saw at Kensington Palace. There was a lot of iconography on that particular gown that related to the Commonwealth: thistle, a leek for Wales, Tudor roses. That same iconography is on George’s jacket and waistcoat for the wedding.
Which details of the coronation scene were the most important to get right?
The crowns are exact copies, except they obviously do not have real jewels. But not unlike the real coronation, it wasn’t all about the monarch. If you look to the side, you see all of the barons and baronets in their robes of state, which we created even though they’re just lining the stage. It was a massive amount of work for the costume team, but I think it pays off because you get the sense that it’s a bigger image than just George and Charlotte: It’s the whole country watching this.
Did you watch the real-life coronation?
I’m English, so I absolutely watched. I love the pomp and ceremony of it all.
Which looks stood out to you?
I loved Kate’s reimagined flower crown. I know a lot of people were really upset that she didn’t wear the crown jewels, but I thought having she and her daughter together was quite delightful. This summer, at every festival in England, everyone’s going to be wearing that. It’s going to start a new cottage industry.
The “Bridgerton” franchise is also, let’s say, appreciated for its sex scenes. How do you dress characters for those?
I always make sure that actors know they’re protected by the costume department. If an actor doesn’t feel comfortable with showing their front or their back, that changes how a gown opens. But the good thing about this period is that there are so many layers. The dress can come off, but then you’ve still got the shirt on, and you’ve still got the petticoat, and the undershirt. It’s kind of wonderful in a way because we never got down to, sort of, naked naked. The response has been really positive. I have a lot of people write to me and say, “I want lingerie like that!”