“I designed 2,000 costumes!” exclaimed Alexandra Byrne as she discussed her work for Mary Queen of Scots after a screening of the film at the Aero Theatre on December 5, 2018. Byrne won an Oscar for her work on Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) and designed the costumes for Elizabeth (1998) as well. Byrne explained that she uses costumes to tell the contrasting stories of the queen so close to her heart - Elizabeth - and Queen Mary of Scotland.
“The nugget of the film is when the two queens meet,” Byrne said. Although the queens have been bitter rivals, in this scene Byrne uses color to forge a link between the two, with Elizabeth dressed in burnt orange to match the rust of Mary’s armor.
Married to the French sovereign, Saoirse Ronan’s Mary spent much of her life in a decadent, sophisticated French court before arriving on the rugged shores of Scotland to claim the Scottish crown. Beautiful and charismatic, Mary wears bright fabrics when she is doing well, especially the blue of the Madonna beloved in Mary’s Catholic faith. Her fortunes change, however, when her husband is assassinated and she is forced to marry and be intimate with an advisor who betrayed her; a grotesque costume combines the black of mourning from the former with the bridal white of the latter, unified by her sense of defeat. Then, in her dramatic death scene, Mary tears off a dark dress to reveal a scarlet garment beneath it, in order to be beheaded in the red of the Catholic martyrs. Byrne commented that she had to be careful in her use of red throughout the movie to preserve the strong visual impact of that scene.
More measured in her use of power and better supported by the men around her, Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth begins the film in dresses that reflect her regal status, but shifts to wearing dark fabrics when smallpox so disfigures her face she can’t bear to be seen in public (the white make-up she wears for most of the 45 years of her reign is her effort to cover up her smallpox scars). She suffers a crisis of confidence over Mary, the famed beauty. Elizabeth chooses not to marry, fearing any potential suitors would be interested only in her title, and further empowers herself by using potential betrothal as a ploy. In the end, the victorious Elizabeth, a long-reigning monarch and still one of the most widely known queens in English history, dresses the part in jewel-encrusted, gold brocade and other elaborate gowns. She becomes the fully confident ruler.
“We speak the same language,” Byrne said of her collaboration with the film’s director, Josie Rourke. Both women have extensive theater backgrounds, with Rourke currently serving as the Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse Theater in London. “The storyboards are important,” Byrne continued, noting their usefulness for discussing story points that would impact costume choices, as well as a tool for the development of a single thematic idea for interpreting historical fashion.
Mary Queen of Scots comes down to the question of how a woman can maintain power in a world of men. Given a theme with such contemporary resonance, Byrne sought to make the costumes relatable to current audiences. She commented that historical costumes can create distance between the characters and the audience and she wanted to avoid that. She chose to use a very contemporary fabric - denim - to dress her queens.
Byrne concluded with kudos to her hard-working team. “Without my team, it would all just be in my head,” she said. They worked so hard, they wore off their thumbprints!" said Byrne. The results of that hard work are a crucial part of the storytelling in Mary Queen of Scots and a useful lens through which to view the movie.
Judith Resell is a volunteer for the American Cinematheque.