In my continuing series of deep-dives on classic frock flicks we’ve talked about a lot but never shown all the costumes, it’s time for Elizabeth (1998). This was our second podcast (recorded when Golden Age premiered, because, even way back then, we weren’t fond of going into actual movie theaters to watch stuff!). We’ve looked back at the film on its 20th anniversary (that makes me feel old!). But still, where are all the costumes? Finally, here they are, folks!
The film has a title card that says the year is 1554, but don’t let that fool you, there will be no other indication of time’s passing or what year things happen until the very final title card of the movie. That one says Elizabeth reigned for another 40 years, meaning the flick ends in 1563. Nine years, huh? There’s really no way to tell that within the film itself, by the dialog, plot, or costumes. The plot itself is a hodgepodge of stuff that happened during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, mostly, but not exclusively, at the beginning. Stuff is just picked from her timeline and thrown in and around with other random things that seemed like a good idea to writer Michael Hirst (who went on to write The Tudors, FWIW) and director Shekhar Kapur. This is one of the original “playing fast and loose with history” frock flicks. That’s intentional, as Kapur said in an interview with The Guardian:
“I had had a big success with ‘Bandit Queen’ and was being offered a lot of films … I hated history and knew nothing about Elizabeth except that she was a renaissance queen and a virgin queen, so I was surprised to be approached. The producers thought of me because they were afraid of making a regular costume drama, and were attracted to the fact that in ‘Bandit Queen’ I hadn’t followed normal cinematic grammar.”
“When they first approached me it was odd because period drama doesn’t attract me. The British film that interested me at the time was ‘Trainspotting.’ So when we started shooting, the joke was that this was the ‘Trainspotting’ version of British costume drama.”
That said, the costuming isn’t as wackadoodle as its sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007). Costume designer Alexandra Byrne was just getting her feet wet when it came to 16th-century nonsense here. The general silhouette is historically accurate, the fabrics are gorgeous and usually a good approximation for period stuffs, and there’s only a few places where the designs and details veer far from actual 1550s to 1560s fashion. In an interview about Golden Age, which I’m sure applies to the earlier movie as well, Alexandra Byrne said:
“I think the great thing about Shekhar and I working together is that I’m fascinated by history, and he’s utterly disinterested. So I think we temper one another really well.”
It explains the balance, I guess!
As we said in our podcast, there’s a bit of a Bollywood influence via the fabrics, bling, and the sense of grandeur, which sometimes works well. Comparing this to Golden Age, the later film is where the same tendencies really went overboard. The Indian influence, well, again that’s directly from the top. As Kapur said in an SGIFF interview:
“When I was doing ‘Elizabeth,’ I asked myself, ‘Can I be Ang Lee?’ Because Ang Lee so easily made ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ and I looked at it and I couldn’t tell it was a foreign director, I thought it has to be a British director. I’m not like that. I have to bring myself to the film. I don’t know how else I can be an artist. So if you look at ‘Elizabeth,’ it’s very Indian. It’s very melodramatic in its colours and its presentations and the ways characters conflict with each other. So it’s actually a very Asian film. Unlike Ang, he has that ability to be somebody else. I can’t, because I have to be myself, I have to put the film to my heart, and then show it.”
I don’t think that’s a bad thing, necessarily. I don’t agree with all the ways the plot deviates from history (this film does Mary of Guise dirty!), but I do like a lot of the visual and stylistic choices. Together, the package makes for an entertaining film, if a little shallow, and when knowing the history, that makes me sad because it doesn’t have to be shallow. This feels like a comic-book version of QEI’s life — big, bright, lots of “pow!” “zap!” but missing details.
We said more in the podcast and in other posts, so I’m going to focus on the costumes here, going mostly chronologically through the film.
Elizabeth’s Blue-Green Field Gown
Cate Blanchett begins as Princess Elizabeth and her first outfit is when she’s out dancing in a field with her ladies-in-waiting, circa 1554. Queen Mary’s bad guys come to arrest her. And yeah, we’ve snarked this a fair bit, including the hair.
It’s not a terrible dress — this is a generic 16th-c. shape, and I guess that gauzey stuff around the elbow is supposed to be a wide Tudor sleeve. But it’s all very stylized and romanticized. Because she’s just a young girl, wild and free, right?
Elizabeth’s Smock & Stays
Next, Elizabeth is taken to the Tower of London (which IRL was in March 1554), and she’s only wearing her smock and stays. I guess it’s supposed to humiliate her? It’d be pretty damn rude.
If this is meant to be a dress, it’s super flimsy, and one of the guys offers her a cloak, so I’m saying it’s underwear. On that matter, in The National, Alexandra Byrne said:
“When I am doing a period film, I need to know everything I can about that time, so that at least I feel like I am in control of making the decisions that are going out of period. For example, I think a lot of people look at these films and feel they are accurate — they’re not. Blanchett is never wearing the correct Elizabethan shaped corset. We created a new shape and look, because people’s shapes are so different now.”
Anyone else out there letting out a big sigh and eye roll? People’s shapes are not dramatically different in the 20th or 21st century than they were in the 16th. There’s simply no evidence for that — height and weight may vary based on diet, but humans come in all the variety of shapes we always have! We have the same waists, the same number of ribs in the same places, the same breasts (and variety of breast sizes, shapes, and density), and all the other body parts that can be affected by a corset. Sheesh. People’s bodies may not be accustomed to wearing restrictive garments as we might have several centuries ago. That’s a totally different thing.
As for the type of corset Blanchett appears to be wearing … it does look reasonably appropriate for the period! “Cone-shaped” is the standard style for mid- to late-16th century stays (and yes, I’m side-stepping the whole, “did they wear separate stays or were their gowns stiffened?” debate; it varies by geographic region and exact year, so I’m OK with generalizing for a movie). What I can see in this film’s costumes is a cone-shaped corset or bodice. No need to defend your choices, Ms. Byrne, that part looks fine.
Only a couple corset-like garments from the era survive, and one is this pair of stays that was made for the effigy or mannequin made of QEI and dressed like her for her funeral procession. The very end of the 16th century had a more exaggeratedly narrow cone shape than earlier, when this movie is set.
Elizabeth’s Buttoned Green & Mauve Gown
From the Tower, Elizabeth goes for a convo with her sis Mary, and the princess has been allowed to put on a dress.
Can’t see much of it, but that button-front is a bit odd to me. I’ve only seen buttoned-up 16th-c. bodices that were doublet-style, meaning the bodice extended up to the neck, usually with a short collar.
Elizabeth’s Pale ‘Long Live the Queen’ Gown
Queen Mary gets a deathbed scene, so it should be suddenly 1558. Then Elizabeth is told of her ascension while she’s in this pale gown. Notice how she does looks more mature with her hair up than in the previous photo with her hair down — I’m not saying the cliche doesn’t work, just that it is a cliche.
This is the first pretty darn good 1550s gown in the movie. The sleeves are made of a sheer material (more noticeable in large pix and onscreen), which is inaccurate, but the style and shape look right out of period images. Compare:
Also notice that this Foschi painting shows a woman in a doublet-style bodice with either buttons or jewels imitating buttons. That’s more common than the buttoned bodice in the previous gown.
Elizabeth’s Coronation Robes & Gown
Time to put a crown on her! Elizabeth’s coronation took place in 1559, not that this movie would say so. But the coronation robes and gown are easily the most historically accurate costume of the whole flick.
After the ceremony itself, she sheds the robes and parties in the dress, still with her hair down because she’s just a virginal young thang, right?
Elizabeth’s Red Damask Robe
After Elizabeth and Dudley get some post-coronation shagging, the next morning, Norfolk barges in and warns of a Scottish invasion. The queen is wearing a long red robe, and her hair is all undone. She’ll be wearing a lot of robe-like garments.
Elizabeth’s Embroidered Stays
I don’t find this to be the stupid trope that Kendra does (she may be thinking of the final scenes when Elizabeth is getting made up as the “VIRGIN QUEEN”). Here, the queen is contemplating all the heavy political shit she now has to deal with, and it’s like the trappings of her body are momentarily inconsequential.
I also have to point out the eyes and ears painted on the sheer curtains surrounding her bed. They’re first noticeable when Elizabeth and Dudley have sex, and the image totally reminds me of the eyes and ears embroidery on the queen’s gown in the Rainbow portrait. Plus, it signifies that she always has people watching her and listening to her.
Now, about the corset itself … the LA Times had an interview with Alexandra Byrne, where it said of this film’s costumes:
“Silhouettes are interpretations of the period, not bogged down in mind-numbing details. Such as? Corsets. Elizabethan corsets were actually ramrod-straight; in the years just after the film ends, corsets were fitted with a piece of wood, shaped like a ruler, to keep them even straighter. In the movie’s more romantic vision, Elizabeth wears corsets in the style seen three centuries later — soft and curved.
The one costume that approaches what Elizabeth actually wore is the gold brocade dress worn with an ermine-lined cloak for her coronation. (Byrne made an exception to the curvy corset and used a straight one to symbolize the burden of Elizabeth’s new position.)”
People, this is exactly why Frock Flicks exists! The poor LA Times writer doesn’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to historical clothing. As I’ve written extensively, this is our beat, we have the expertise not found in a generic press kit.
I have to skip “mind-numbing details” or I’ll scream. “Ramrod-straight” is something of a misunderstanding — you could look at the QEI effigy corset and, yeah, see it that way, but if you look at portraiture, you’ll see cone-shaped. “Corsets fitted with a piece of wood” that’s a busk, and it’s common starting at the end of the 16th century when a “pair of bodies,” that is, corsetry lacing up the front, becomes a true corset, lacing up the back and with a busk in the center front for stability.
‘Straight corset symbolizing the burden of the queen’s position’ is utter and complete bullshit because Elizabeth was born a princess, and as an upper-class female in the 16th century, she would have worn stiffened bodices of some kind all her life. It’s not like Elizabeth wore yoga pants and baggy T-shirts until her sister died and then, damn, gotta put on a corset!
Lastly, I don’t see anything “soft and curved” in the corsets or bodices in this film.
Elizabeth’s Red Damask ‘Riding’ Outfit
She wears this big swooshy robe thing when she gets a bad message from Mary of Guise, then she jumps on a horse and rides to talk to Dudley. Seems impractical for a riding outfit, but like I said, she wears a lot of robe-things. This one sure is pretty, the fabric is gorgeous, but it only bears a slight relation to historical fashions. The hair, gold net snood, and what she’s wearing under the robe look very 1550s though.
If I’m charitable, these robe-like garments in the film might be allusions to what The Tudor Tailor book calls English fitted or loose gowns which were so common in 16th-c. England among both middling-class and upper-class women. It’s one of my favorite 16th-c. fashions, and I’ve written about it before, plus QEI was painted wearing them.
The general style is a full-length, sleeved gown made all in the same fabric, fastening up the front from neck to hem. The fitted gown tended to have a waist seam which allowed the skirts to be full, but it might be cut all in one piece from shoulder to hem. The loose gown has no waist definition and flows straight down, loosely!, from shoulder to hem. Either would be worn over another gown, called a kirtle (which is sometimes what we think of as just the dress with a closely fitted, supportive bodice and attached full skirt). The fitted or loose gown’s skirt could be worn open to show a contrasting fabric of the kirtle. The gown-and-kirtle combo was worn over a high-necked smock, and it was fashionable to wear a ruff with the ensemble.
These fitted or loose gowns were popular fashions in the 1550s through 1580s across Europe, and they were called by various names, such as ropa in Spain and zimmara in Italy. In the Gripsholm Portrait of QEI, the gown doesn’t appear to have a defined waist, so let’s call it a loose gown, and it’s worn over a high-necked, buttoned kirtle, plus heavily embroidered lower sleeves that would be pinned to the red velvet short sleeves of the gown.
The robes Elizabeth wears in the film don’t appear to be cut like these 16th-c. fitted or loose gowns, and these movie robes aren’t all the same design. They get progressively less and less historically accurate.
Elizabeth’s Red Velvet ‘Act of Uniformity’ Gown
For her big speech to Parliament in 1558 (not that this movie is keeping track of the date), she wears her power color of red. It’s a striking effect.
QEI did wear some red, and reddish hues, in general, show up in period portraiture. So all red, burgundy, and orange tones in this film get a point for accuracy there.
Elizabeth’s Grey Velvet ‘Meet the Duc’ Gown
The Duc d’Anjou courted QEI between 1578 and 1581, and it’s not clear what exact year(s) he visited England, but the film just jumped from 1558 to 1578 at minimum. Or it just threw Anjou in 15 years early. Whatever! Shekhar Kapur hates history. And I hate this dress. Maybe “hate” is too strong — I just don’t understand it. There are a bunch of disconnected things going on in the same outfit, which is a lot like this movie.
So maybe, if I stretch my brain, that split-front bodice is inspired by this:
And maybe, just maybe, the sleeves are inspired by this:
But it makes my head hurt to think too much about it. Moving on.
Elizabeth’s Masquerade Outfit
Some kind of masquerade party happens on barges along the Thames in celebration of Anjou. But Elizabeth is ignoring the Frenchman in favor of canoodling with Dudley. She’s swathed in red, orange, and gold sari fabrics, and he’s wearing a black jerkin with gold sari trim over a red shirt (and he’s wearing boots when he should be wearing tights and shoes). It’s all very Bollywood and hard to screencap, but pretty. Until the arrows start flying in an assassination attempt on the queen.
Elizabeth’s Red Damask Robe Lined in White
Her ladies-in-waiting clean her up after the assassination attempt. The queen and Dudley aren’t injured, but a whole lot of blood gets spilled onto her. I’m never clear about who else was in their boat and how all that blood gets onto the queen. She puts on this robe, and while it’s in a large-scale damask like previous ones (say, the “riding” outfit), that white collar means it’s different. Plus, check out the back construction…
WTF are those pleats?!? That’s like a sack-back gown, which is an 18th-century style. I’ve never seen it used in 16th-century fashion, so if you have, please, show me, especially if it dates to 1550-80 England and is possibly something Queen Elizabeth wore! Because here’s what the back of a loose should look like:
Elizabeth’s red gown is about 200 years early for this technique.
Elizabeth’s Blue Gown
Just a quick scene where she walks through court, past Dudley. This gown is kind of the same style as her early gowns, with the addition of sleeve slashes, a contrast print stomacher, and some sheer thingy around the neck. IDK what that is, it looks like horsehair crinoline stuff.
Is it just me?
Elizabeth’s Black Gown With Embroidered Sleeves
My very favorite costume in this movie! She wears this to watch a court masque and when she finds out that the Duc d’Anjou is not the right guy for her. The shape of the gown hits all the right notes for the 1550s-60s. The embroidered sleeves are an excellent touch with a pattern reminiscent of period embroidery.
I wonder if this 1570 portrait might be an inspiration for this costume — it’s certainly got the ‘black and white with embroidery’ vibe down.
But the embroidery is more like this sleeve, a common style, which could be done in monochrome or bright colors.
Elizabeth’s Red & Gold Robe
A quick glimpse of another robe, this one for late-night troubles. Can’t see much of the shape, but it seems loose and flowing. The gold scroll embroidery feels like an Indian textile.
Elizabeth’s White Fitted-ish Gown
OK, what the hell movie is this costume from? Not anything historical. This is Game of Thrones worthy, 20 years in advance. Looking at this first photo, you might think this could be an 16th-c. fitted gown, just in modern fabrics. So, cool, maybe.
But the questionable fabric choices aren’t the worst of it. What we have here is another adventure into 18th-century dressmaking! But in the 16th century.
Let’s look, again, at what a fitted gown should be. This portrait by Hans Eworth even shows a high standing collar, but look at the sides of the body, it’s fitted and nothing is hanging behind (there are hanging open sleeves from the elbows).
Middling-class ladies shown by de Heere, but the drawings are clearer for how 16th-c. fitted gowns are constructed and how that does NOT include wide back pleats.
Elizabeth’s Burgundy & Gold Doublet
This doublet is perhaps the best merging of Shekhar Kapur’s Indian sensibilities and Alexandra Byrne’s historical research. The gold embroidery has got to be Indian made or sourced, and it beautifully evokes the rich embroidery found in 1550s-60s fashion. Having the embroidery on velvet gives depth and a feeling of solidity and, yes, heaviness — this wasn’t a light, airy period, so stop trying to make it that way! They were going through a mini Ice Age, and people dressed accordingly. Plus, when you’re showing upper-class persons, they would be wearing their wealth on their backs. People didn’t want to look cheap or low-status.
Elizabeth’s Grey-Green Fitted Gown
Closer to a historically accurate fitted gown, but it’s still not quite. Some elements are there — the gown is fitted through the body, it has a waist seam, and the skirts flare away. But the sleeves and collar are a tad fantastical. And the whole back of the gown looks like it’s stitched down and then releases into a pleated skirt, which is another 18th-century dressmaking technique. This pleated-back style is sometimes modernly called “en fourreau,” and I haven’t heard of it being used this early.
I know that’s not the clearest screencap, but it looks like this is going on across the back:
Or, if it’s not actually pleated down, the pieces were cut very narrow at the top and then very wide at the bottom and pleated together. That would be considered wasteful of fabric by 16th-c. standards — remember, fabric was very expensive back before the Industrial Revolution, so you cut and patterned things efficiently.
In comparison, I feel like his portrait of the Countess of Lincoln shows the historically accurate version of the movie’s costume.
Elizabeth’s Purple & Black Gown
Only briefly seen as she prays and decides to replace the Virgin Mary in her subjects’ eyes, this purple gown is trimmed with very Victorian black lace and beading. I mean, I love the fuck out of it, would do the same myself, and would totally wear it. But I know it’s not a 16th-c. style.
Elizabeth’s Big White Gown
This is how she ends the film, showing symbolically and saying literally “I have become a virgin” and “I am married to England.” The final title cards says she reigned for another 40 years, meaning the movie this ends in 1563. But the heavily painted-white and big-wigged look that QEI took on didn’t happen until later in her reign when she was actually older — she did that to try to look young, and it’s been called the ‘mask of youth.’ She’s only 30-years-old here, so not particularly old yet!
This final gown seems to take many design elements from the Armada portrait — the circular ruff, the hanging sleeves, the center-front bodice trim, the split skirt, all the little bows as trim, and the geometrical print fabric for the sleeves and petticoat, plus all the pearls.
But instead of the colors of the Armada portrait, the movie’s costume is done in white like the Ditchley portrait, which sets the queen apart as, not only virgin, but standing above England.
I often ignore men’s costumes (or run out of time for them!), but I have some things to say about a couple of these fellas!
Robert Dudley’s Lace Shirt
The obligatory 16th-c. heartthrob of the late 1990s, Joesph Fiennes is first shown frolicking with Elizabeth and her ladies, circa 1554. And while we give him a lot of guff for the open collar, at least this shirt with tons of insertion lace, is pretty darn historically accurate.
Compare with this portrait, a little later but the same gist.
Also a little later, and it’s a woman’s smock, but the same techniques were used on clothing for all genders at the time.
Robert Dudley’s Green Damask Suit
The main outfit Dudley wears throughout the first half of the movie is in this gorgeous green damask lined in pink. Sometimes he adds a short cape, also in the green, but lined in a sort of yelllow-tan Indian print.
Robert Dudley’s Pale Doublet
He starts wearing this outfit around the time the Duc d’Anjou leaves (historically, that would have been 1581, but whatever). The doublet is a pale color that looks white in some lights and then shows maybe a faint pink cross-weave. He wears it with black pants.
Other Men’s Costumes in Elizabeth (1998)
Just a grab bag of outfits that caught my eye! First, the French ambassador Monsieur de Foix wears an excellent embroidered velvet suit. Can’t tell if it’s dark blue or purple, but it’s not black. He first shows up at the coronation party circa 1559.
When the Duc d’Anjou arrives, he plays a trick and sends this guy out as him, then Anjou pops out as a “surprise.” But the fake Anjou has a much better outfit IMO.
I couldn’t get decent screencaps of Anjou himself until the party when he gets himself kicked outta town. Hey, it’s a good outfit!
Christopher Eccleston plays the movie’s big baddie, the Duke of Norfolk, and he’s there right from the start. But this is his shiniest outfit that gets the most screentime. I think he looks like a matador. Maybe someone thought the weird lines of that shoulder thing would emulate armor, but in fabric and fringe?
Trying? Your guess is as good as mine.
And since I covered a few of the men’s costumes, let’s plow through costumes worn by some of the other women in this movie.
Mary of Guise’s Costumes in Elizabeth (1998)
The mother of Mary Queen of Scots gets the short end of the stick in this movie. She’s alternately made to look like a vicious warrior (cool, I guess?) and a scheming floozy (not at all cool). Also, she gets murdered by Walsingham, which did not happen. If somehow you’re OK with all that, hopefully you can get with me and agree that the costumes Fanny Ardant is made to wear to portray Guise are deeply shitty.
Unfortunately, all the period images available of Mary of Guise are from early in her life, around the time she married the Scots king. That’s a good two decades before this film. But it’s clear that she would be wearing whatever’s fashionable in England for an upper-class woman. She was no slouch.
But what do we get? A hodgepodge of costume crap that looks someone realized, “oh shit!, there’s one more person we need to dress for this movie, what’s left in the back of closet?”
The first time we see Mary of Guise, she’s on the battlefield, and her Scots troops and French allies have won against the English, so this would be in 1559 (not that I’m seeing it). She shouldn’t be wearing armor at all, and then she’s wearing a random puffy shirt with a cheap lace collar tacked on, some skirts made out of over-dyed bedsheets, an old curtain thrown around her shoulders, and either a ratty modern wig or a terrible case of bed-head.
Later, we see Mary wining and dining Walsingham, with Anjou very randomly in the background (all French people must stick together?). I think this Snark Week meme speaks for all of us.
Embroidered bodice over a purple bodice over a drawstring-neck blouse, frizzy hair, modern makeup. THE WORST. At least if this movie is going to dress her so awfully, they put her out of her misery (circa 1560, if this movie had a timeline).
Elizabeth’s Ladies-in-Waiting’s Costumes in Elizabeth (1998)
Their names aren’t spoken, so I have to treat them as a group. Their gowns are that generally accurate 16th-c. style, but it’s the little derivations that make them look less or more historically accurate.
In the first scene, much snark is to be had. For me, it’s the sheer sleeves that make the ladies-in-waiting’s outfits look less period.
Circa 1558, when Elizabeth gets the nod that she’s now the queen, her ladies gowns have gotten a little upgrade: opaque fabric sleeves! HUZZAH!
At the coronation party, the ladies get very pretty damask dresses in shades of pale green.
For the rest of the movie, they wear these gowns that are in a mix of solid colors and patterns, and the later have a Bollywood feel. There’s a good view when they’re cleaning up the queen after the assassination attempt. Also, two of the ladies are wearing sleeveless doublets over their gowns, though I think that only happens in this scene.
What’s your take on the costumes in Elizabeth?