It’s the inverse of our usual Oh the Bad Movies You’ll Watch conundrum, which is typically “fabulous story, boring costumes.” Anonymous (2011) has one of the stupidest, most preposterous, and frankly annoying stories in historical film, but the costumes are gorgeous and show a decent level of historical accuracy. I don’t know which problem is worse, just that sometimes (often? always?), it’s like hunting for unicorns to find frock flicks with good stories and good costumes!
The film is an insanely fictional tale suggesting that 16th-century courtier Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans), actually wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, plus has an affair and bastard son with Queen Elizabeth I (played as a old woman by Vanessa Redgrave and as a young woman by Redgrave’s daughter Joely Richardson). Oh, and de Vere himself is one of Elizabeth’s many bastard children (eww). Anyway, at least the visuals are fabulous, so screencapping isn’t such a pain, and I’m going to ignore the irritating story and focus on the clothes, specifically, the women’s gowns because that’s how I roll.
Costumes in Anonymous
Although she had done little period work before and was mostly known for German movies and TV, costume designer Lisy Christl was nominated for an Oscar for Anonymous. Not only were this film’s Elizabethan court costumes opulent, they were well researched. The Hollywood Reporter even got Christl to name-check one of our favorite books:
“‘For every dress in the film, there’s the original portrait in the background,’ says Christl, who also relied on Janet Arnold’s 2001 book Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d as a guide. After months of research, Christl spent five months hunting flea markets and costume shops for vintage fabrics. To hold down costs, she even scavenged bits of fine embroidery from wonderful old Indian saris, scarves, and Romanian aprons to help decorate the 20 resplendent gowns she made for the queen.”
That’s the way to do things! Research and scavenge, that’s how I do it too. And particularly for the older Queen Elizabeth, Christl nailed the look. She visited the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Westminster Abbey archives to research costumes for Anonymous, and this work shows up on screen. Obviously, she was working within a limited budget and timeframe, so she cut some corners, but she didn’t sacrifice basic accuracy.
As Christl told Interview Magazine, she aimed for details appropriate to period:
“For example, black, red, green, and blue were the colors for the nobles, and there was a very simple reason: to dye these colors was very expensive. The next thing was the fabric worn by the noble people, because silk was very expensive. You couldn’t buy fabric around the corner, and silk was shipped from all over the world. So these details already give a kind of a frame where you can move and where you can’t. So this was kind of a starting point to jump into this Elizabethan England.”
Also, her team did as much as they could to work with the materials they could afford. She said in the New York Daily News, “Not a single yard of fabric went into the costume making without the dying, boiling, washing, distressing, waxing process.” These elaborate surface treatments look more sumptuous in the brooding candlelight used throughout the film. Director of photography Anna Foerster described how she and the film’s director Roland Emmerich wanted the movie to look like a historical painting, such as one by Johannes Vermeer: “With the new developments in digital cinematography, we could really take advantage of candlelight and firelight. For a period piece, using available light — candles, fireplaces, whatever comes in from outside — makes it real.”
Anonymous is by no means perfect in costumes, and what’s good about the costumes doesn’t make up for a supremely annoying plot. In fact, it’s really just the later 1590s gowns worn by Redgrave that are amazing and show the most accurate work. But the earlier gowns are still pretty and not in a WTFrock fashion or even a stripped-down basic look (a la Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, 1998, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, 2007). Let’s run through the costumes in the film, both for the young Elizabeth and the older Elizabeth. The film jumps back and forth in their timeline, but I’m going to go chronologically by costume period.
Young Queen Elizabeth, Blue Brocade Gown
Young Queen Elizabeth, Orange Satin Gown
Young Queen Elizabeth, Orange Damask Doublet
Young Queen Elizabeth, Smock
Young Queen Elizabeth, Red Velvet Court Gown
Young Queen Elizabeth, Dark Blue Kirtle
Young Queen Elizabeth, Black Satin Gown
Anne de Vere, Stripe Doublet
Old Queen Elizabeth, White Gown
Old Queen Elizabeth, Pale Blue-Lavender Gown
Old Queen Elizabeth, Stays
Old Queen Elizabeth, Green Kirtle
Old Queen Elizabeth, Black Gown & White Ruff
Old Queen Elizabeth, Black Gown & Red Ruff
Old Queen Elizabeth, Black Gown & White Ribboned Sleeves
Old Queen Elizabeth, Black Gown & White Embroidered Sleeves
Have you suffered through Anonymous just for the costumes?