A fairy tale white wedding gown and a black revenge dress are two unforgettable fashion bookends on The Crown, drawing a definitive line between the start and end of Prince Charles’s (Dominic West) and Princess Diana’s (Elizabeth Debicki) unhappily ever after. Of course, the story doesn’t end there, and another indelible Diana sartorial turn takes center stage in the final season episodes, which document the fateful summer of 1997.
In Season 6 of The Crown, the first part of which premiered Thursday, the line between Diana’s public and private lives is blurred when the paparazzi trail her every move—and outfit. Bathing suits become as ubiquitous as formal or work attire.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead.)
The array of swimming costumes (as we Brits call them) worn by Diana take center stage in the first part of The Crown’s swan song, with costume designer Amy Roberts capturing the playful, sporty, and sexy imagery that dominated the tabloids in what would turn out to be Diana’s final months. Of the many style moments covered in Peter Morgan’s Netflix series, it turns out that swimwear is the one I find the most fascinating. It may not get quite as many column inches as some of Diana’s other off-duty looks, but this aesthetic captures Diana at her most relaxed—well, until the leak of her relationship with Dodi.
There’s also the tension between the attention paid to Diana on these vacations and the goals she had., Intrusions into her leisure time overshadow the anti-landmine campaign she worked so hard to shine a light on. The framing of her nearly-naked back on the front page of The Sunday Mirror while embracing her new boyfriend, Dodi Fayed (Khalid Abdalla), is at odds with her attempts to harness her celebrity for worthwhile causes.
Peter Morgan hammers the disconnect between Diana’s activism and the frenzied reaction to her burgeoning relationship. Cutting between Diana at a press conference in a crisp white Ralph Lauren button-down and the swimsuit-clad headlines doesn’t need much deciphering to understand Morgan’s message. In one image, she dresses in masculine-leaning neutrals; in the other, she’s wearing an eye-popping neon pink floral bathing suit. Except for Pamela Anderson on Baywatch, a person in a one-piece probably hasn’t caused this much attention before or since—that Anderson also had her private life invaded is an eerie coincidence.
The Animal Print
These sequences also contrast with the Mediterranean vacation Diana took with Charles and their sons at the start of Season 5, when their marriage was in its final doom spiral, fraught with debate over what constituted satisfactory holiday activities. The one time Diana wore a bathing suit, Charles announced he had to cut the trip short due to “a diary conflict.” Never has leopard print looked so defeated as her sarong flutters in the wind. Luckily, Diana’s closet gets a luxury yacht do-over this season.
“I like your swimming costume, by the way. Who’s the designer of that?” asks one chatty paparazzi when Diana approaches the flotilla of shutterbugs. “Didn’t know you were so interested in fashion, Nick,” she quips. Diana is on first-term names with many of these men, and another asks if her contrasting animal-print Gottex sensation is a deliberate choice to steal the spotlight on Camilla’s (Olivia Williams) birthday. Everything is framed through this war between exes, and this daring halter neck could be seen as the revenge bathing suit—it certainly eclipses the more conservative cut from Season 5.
As The Crown depicts it, Diana’s decision is not informed by the celebrations that Charles is hosting later that day, or that is not the primary reason. (Others have argued it was deliberate to deflect from Camilla.) She tees up a big surprise for what she has planned next and simply asks for the photographers to let her sons enjoy their family vacation. The impromptu photo shoot is her bargaining power; picking her most risque, playful print is purposeful. Stealing Camilla’s (and, by extension, Charles’) thunder via her outfit is simply the icing on this tabloid-luring cake.
Bold patterned attire resonates during this scene because it highlights Diana using her main currency: her style and fame. However, even when she can dress however she pleases, she is still not free.
Charles is furious with the headlines overshadowing his tasteful bash for Camilla, and his personal secretary tries to offer some spin that the tabloid commentary is less favorable, calling Diana a “loose cannon,” “an exhibitionist,” and “off the rails.” Ah, nothing quite like the smell of misogyny in the morning papers. Charles doesn’t care how shitty they are being about his ex-wife when she looks this relaxed and happy—though if anyone “wins” this season, it is Charles who gets the sympathy edit.
The sexist dial is set to maximum thanks to the long-lens intrusion that will become the norm by the end of this summer. Sensible icy blue will soon replace the spark of leopard and neon numbers.
The Blue One-Piece
Of course, the most memorable visual involving a bathing suit isn’t what Diana is wearing in those first kiss shots—I had to check to see if the version Roberts created matches the real thing, which it does. Despite its bright pink shade, that swimsuit is not pulling focus. Instead, the shot lingering the longest is Diana sitting alone on the edge of the Jonikal yacht diving board in an unfussy block blue one-piece.
An interpretation of this image shot from behind (a go-to Crown perspective that holds us at arm’s length) dominates the Season 6 key art. Straight to the point, it doesn’t play coy about this stage in the Windsor (and Spencer) story. It was taken days before her death, and it is impossible not to imbue this moment with a deeper meaning. It is a Rorschach Test with loneliness and freedom on each end of the spectrum. It is also an image that Naomi Watts reenacted in the critically derided 2013 Diana, which depicted the last two years of her life.
As with the bridal gown and revenge dress, this garment barely gets any screen time—the most memorable outfits are so impactful they don’t require more exposure. The second episode, “Two Photographs,” ends with Diana alone on the diving board, striking a contemplative pose in this simple swimsuit similar to the one burned in our collective minds.
Episode 3 takes a different approach to this yacht get-up, with Debicki shot in a tight close-up when she wears this memorable swimwear in the pre-credits scene. The glimpse of the straps is our only clue to its second appearance. Other bathing suits get the spotlight during Diana’s back-and-forths with a mob of photographers who are only placated for so long.
Diana’s first foray into holiday attire early in the season is not hiding in plain sight. When Diana is reintroduced to Dodi—they briefly met at a polo match in Season 5—she is sporting a two-tone neon green and purple one-piece with a matching sarong, referencing another swimsuit she wore. Diana’s coordinated look hit me square in the nostalgia chest as I had a similar beach cover-up. Did Diana influence me? I could embellish and say yes, but my 13-year-old self was more likely to take style tips from the cast of Friends or Clueless than a royal—even an ex-royal. Instead, this reflects how influential Diana’s fashion choices were (and still are) as they trickled down to department stores and the mall—the cerulean blue speech from A Devil Wears Prada rattles around my head.
Part of my fascination with this season of vacation clothing on The Crown comes from the visceral way my memory lights up during these encounters and how Roberts recreates and reinterprets the significant public and private moments. Of Diana’s work and leisure wardrobe in those final months, the rotation of sunbathing outfits offers a definitive visual and underscores the paparazzi’s role that summer.
Diana’s fashion icon status is only part of the intrigue stemming from the note-perfect costumes. It boils down to capturing a side absent for much of the series: effortless joy. When she is with her two sons, she is content—even with the photographers floating nearby.
So many moments of Diana on The Crown are steeped in gilded cage misery, from her engagement announcement to the Panorama interview. Frivolity is in short supply, which is why the first part of Season 6 is bittersweet, as there is a glimpse of how the ex-HRH could experience personal and professional happiness. Debicki radiates in her portrayal of this narrow window before it slams shut in Paris.
No one needs a tiara when they have the freedom to sail.
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