The Art Of Craft: Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne Dresses ‘Mary Queen Of Scots’ In Denim

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Twice costuming Queen Elizabeth I between 1998 and 2007—withElizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age—costume designer Alexandra Byrne knew well the opportunities and challenges of dressing the Queen, going into Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots. Setting out on the Focus Features release, which charts the tempestuous relationship between the Queen and her cousin, Mary Stuart, there were certain practical realities to deal with up front, to do with limitations on period wear. “Nobody had really made this period in big quantities since I’d done Elizabeth: The Golden Age,” Byrne explains. “It would be the same stock hanging on the rails, [however many] years later, and that meant that you would be struggling to fit people, let alone make artistic choices.”

Bearing this challenge in mind, Byrne arrived at an unlikely “creative and practical solution” which would make the job of costuming the film possible. “Having done the period before, I was very aware of the big frocks and big costumes, and I felt that this film absolutely was not about that. I didn’t want it to be a revolving door of, ‘Here comes another Queen and another prop,’” the designer reflects. “I was interested in limiting my materials so that I was manipulating a fabric, as it were, to tell the story.” That fabric, in this case, was denim.

For the most part, Byrne would build the costumes of Mary Queen of Scots out of the sturdy cotton fabric, which worked for the project and its setting on a number of levels. Employing a bold color palette, the designer crafted stunning contrasts between the drama’s two central characters—women who couldn’t be more different, who also happened to share an experience of the world that no one else could understand. Below, the artist gives an exclusive breakdown of “Mary Marigold,” a piece of pre-production art that spoke to the nature of her pursuit with her latest film:

Illustration by Belinda Leung

 For Mary Queen of Scots, costume designer Alexandra Byrne sought an aesthetic that brought immediacy and accessibility to the
16th Century.

 For Byrne, the use of denim was an aesthetic choice that made sense right out of the gate. The Elizabethans “didn’t have dry cleaners, they didn’t have tumble dryers, so men and women, they lived in their clothes, they got wet, they dried in the sun. Their clothes would have been molded to the body. That made me think of jeans. I wanted a fabric that gets better with wear.”

  Unlike many designers, Byrne doesn’t use sketches to conceive of her costumes. “I believe very strongly that if you do that, you deny yourself extraordinary moments—not of serendipity, but the coming together of all these incredible talents and things that you can grow, and the moment on the body when things are working.” 

 Instead, she uses research to create mood boards, in concert with an illustrator, which reflect the emotion of a certain scene. “All the cutters, the makers, the dyers, everybody is surrounded in this world of my mood boards.”

 Created with a digital tablet, the illustration above is for Saoirse Ronan’s Mary Stuart. The flower associated with this particular royal is the marigold (which appears all over the image), its yellow-gold hue suggestive of fertility, sexuality and seduction. Mary frequently wore indigo, the color of the Scottish court, after being widowed and leaving France behind around the year 1561. 

For more from our conversation with Alexandra Byrne, read on.

What excited you about returning to Queen Elizabeth I with this film?

I was reading the script with knowledge of the period, both historically and practically—the history of how people dress, how the clothes work, but also practical knowledge of what it takes to make these dresses, and, the stock that is available in the costume houses. Reading it with that body of knowledge was rather amazing because the script was, and as I was reading it, I was able to have a very strong and instinctive response as to how I could clothe this film.

But the story is so strong. You’ve got the two Queens meeting—well historically, that didn’t happen, so straight away, one is liberated to a certain extent. We knew we were absolutely not making a historical documentary. I felt the power of the story was about these two extraordinary women who were both queens, and how they held on to their thrones, within a world of predatory men. That’s really the essence of the story I wanted to tell.

Within the script, the scene where the two Queens meet is so extraordinary. The last thing that should happen in that scene is that you are distracted by the clothes. Technically, that means I had to work out their story arcs, but also have an image of how I wanted them to appear. What is their pairing in that scene? And sort of reverse engineer after that, because that scene is the essence of our film, really. Combined with that, I also knew that the men had to be sexy, and the Elizabethan costume is not sexy for men. What defined the man as being attractive in Elizabethan times was his legs—and obviously, from the codpiece, there was a huge focus on the crotch.

Courtesy of Alexandra Byrne

Can you expand on why denim was a material that made the film possible, on a costume level?

Particularly in Mary’s court, I wanted the dirt and the mud to become the pattern and the decoration on the costume, and I needed a fabric that was factory friendly, because I knew I’d have to do factory [production] for all the crowd costumes. Once you start to stylize or create a world for your story, you can’t suddenly pull in stock pieces. Combined with the practical aspect of filming in Scotland, with rain and mud, we could [potentially] destroy anything, and the loss and damage would not be popular at the end of the film, so there were lots of things all spinning in my head and this took me to thinking, “Denim.”

How did Josie Rourke respond to the idea?

I took the idea to Josie and said, “Look, this is where I’m at. Do you like the idea? Because if you don’t, I don’t think I’m the right person [for this job].” She loved the idea, but it also took a whole lot of faith on her behalf because at this stage, it’s words and descriptions, with some reference. Obviously, it takes a bit of time to get something that you can really assess and look at, but I think everybody was quite excited by the idea, and I think it did set a tone that we then all worked from.

How did you begin the process of bringing your denim-based costumes to life?

The first thing we did was to make an Elizabethan man’s doublet—a jacket, in denim—and it was horrible. It was really the worst kind of costume. [Laughs] It took a bit of time and thought, and actually, what I realized was that in doing that, I was denying what I was trying to do. We all have such a preconception and knowledge of denim in our lives, and I had to bring that into the Elizabethan—which is what I was trying to do, but I hadn’t really understood what that meant. It’s about the juxtaposition of modern and period to create a look for the film. What is the balance? Where do you put orange topstitching? Can you use rivets? What is the balance of language that creates the right look for each character, for the story, and how you want to move the characters?

Liam Daniel / Focus Features

Normally, when you make a size fitting, I always use calico because it’s a cheap, quick fabric. But for Saoirse [Ronan], I thought, “Let’s do it in denim because I have to work this out.” It was a basic fitting to get proportion, and scale, and movement on her, but we put a modern shirt cuff on the end of an Elizabethan sleeve, and that was a bit of a eureka moment, where I went, “Oh, I get it! This is such an exciting balance of language. Every costume is going to require this kind of exploration of detail and balance to make it work.”

Generally, what is your process in tackling a specific historical context? What was most important to capture with regard to Mary Queen of Scots?

I try to research a period as much as I can, to understand the clothes, the fashion, the history, the social history, the customs, how people put their clothes on, what the hygiene standards were, all of that. That becomes a bank of knowledge that informs decisions you are then making to tell the story. There comes a point where you have to work very instinctively, and trust that your instinct is being informed by this body of research that you’ve done. Within the film, I thought it was important that we did tie it in to the history that we know and understand, and that comes from portraiture, within the camera. There are portraits of the Queens at the time, and particularly Elizabeth was very strategic. They were symbolic; she was using the power of her appearance to replace the iconography of the Virgin Mary in newly Protestant England, so I wanted to tie in that use of portraiture.

When Mary comes back to England to meet with Elizabeth, there is a 25-year time passage from that meeting to the execution, so we use the changing face of Elizabeth in three portrait-related looks to give that passage of time. So, it’s not all denim we’re using—there are practical moments of portraiture, too. And of course, James I on the throne at the end, that is, again, taken from a historic portrait.

The film hinges on the strong juxtaposition of its two central characters. What role did color play in drawing a strong line between your two Queens?

As a costume designer, color is one of your biggest storytelling tools. It’s hugely important to me. Elizabeth, her journey to the throne, she was very bright, very well educated and she learned to be strategic from a very young age. She was declared illegitimate; she was sexually compromised by her step-uncle; she was sent to the tower. As a Queen, she had the stability of a very wealthy country and was at the top of a pyramid of power, supported by astute politicians. She was incredibly aware of the power of her appearance, so up to the point where she gets smallpox, Elizabeth’s style of dressing is very strategic. She goes outfit by outfit, she dresses for each occasion, and I use color to show that it’s a complete [range].

Liam Daniel / Focus Features

When she gets smallpox, she is already undermined by reports of Mary’s charisma and beauty. To get smallpox in the 16th century, it could kill you, and if it didn’t kill you, you would be hugely disfigured. So, she goes very under the radar and is suffering a massive loss of self-esteem. At that time, Mary is accepting her offer from [Robert] Dudley, who is the love of her life, so things are not good for Elizabeth. She goes very monochrome and desaturated, and then when she’s going to meet Mary, she says in the script, “I’ve had this wig made. I wanted you to see me at my best.” She drags herself up to this put-together appearance, which is where we take her back into color with the burnt orange.

Mary’s journey to the throne was different. She grew up in France—Catholic, privileged education. When she comes back to Scotland, she returns as a widow. She’s lost her title, her lifestyle and her jewels. Her approach to life from there is very pragmatic. She’s been dealt a hand of cards—how do I make this work? So, I wanted her clothes to be very evolved. They grow from one to the other. White was the color of mourning in the French court, so she comes back in this very pale robe, and as she is kneeling and starts vomiting, the indigo of her petticoat starts to stain through into her skirt.

She begins to move into Scotland and her hair changes gradually from the French look into a different look for Scotland, as did the shape of her skirt, and the scale. But it’s pragmatic. In Scotland, it rains, the sun is shining, it hails, all within one day, so her clothes have to be practical. She would have been out riding in the rain, so what was the Elizabethan wet weather gear? She would have got covered in mud, so I used the mud almost as a decoration on her clothes, and the mud spatter reveals a resist print of her coat of arms on her skirt. It all builds through to her meeting with Elizabeth, where she’s been in battle again. The orange-rust things on her body are from her armor, which limits the palette in that meeting with Elizabeth. Plus, I’ve got two incredible redheaded queens to dress, so that’s another balance of the palettes within the film.

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