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Ball Gowns Fit for a Queen

November 13, 1998|BETTY GOODWIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Movie: "Elizabeth."

The Setup: The early years of England's Queen Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett), known as The Virgin Queen, whose 44-year reign began in 1558.

The Costume Designer: Alexandra Byrne, who has done work for such films as "Persuasion" and Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet" and many theatrical productions.

The Game Plan: To most eyes, Elizabeth and her court look convincing--old, English and regal. In fact, as magnificent as the costumes are, Byrne hardly hid her head in the history books or glued herself to the walls of England's portrait galleries. Actually, the designer says she was quite inspired by Paris designer Christian Lacroix's buoyant, air-filled ball gowns and made a point of avoiding heavy, dragging robes. Indeed, every time director Shekhar Kapur caught her with research in hand, "he'd shout at me to throw it away," she says.

He wanted the clothes to do more with the emotions of the story. 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.

True Thing: Indeed, 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.) Perhaps most surprising is the costume used for the stupendous, show-stopping finale showing Elizabeth's transformation into the ceremonial Virgin Queen. It's a chalk-white gown elaborately embroidered with silver and a massive jeweled neck ruff that could choke a horse. Byrne dreamed up the ensemble after seeing many royal portraits, but never did Elizabeth wear virginal white.

Trivia: During the Tudor period, women filled out their skirts with heavy quilted petticoats and hip pads known as "bum rolls" that were stuffed with sawdust. For the movie, more negotiable tutu-like netting clipped like a topiary into a roll shape was used instead. As for the men, to fill out the legs of their britches, rather than wear sawdust padding, they were fitted with "little tutus" for their thighs.

"All the actors were a little worried, but they felt pretty good in the end," Byrne says.

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