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The Golden Age Of Costumes

Oscar-nominated for her designs in the first 'Elizabeth,' Alexandra Byrne creates a more feminine queen -- even in full armor -- for the sequel.

November 21, 2007|Elizabeth Snead | Special to The Times

Costume designer Alexandra Byrne ("Finding Neverland," "Hamlet") has been nominated three times for a best costume Oscar, including a nod for her work on Shekhar Kapur's 1998 film, "Elizabeth."

And, like so many others who worked on that award-winning film about young Elizabeth's ascension to the English throne, she was thrilled to dress the queen (a role reprised by Cate Blanchett) again.

"You just begin to see her transformation into the white-faced iconic image at the end of the first 'Elizabeth,' " says Byrne. "There is a passage of time and we come to her again, 27 years later, around 1585, as a powerful, confident monarch who has found her stride and established her style."

But the costumes and colors in the new film are radically different from the first.

"Shekhar is not bound by historical accuracy," Byrne explained. "He wanted this film to look very different, much lighter, with a more feminine court. He spoke about the emotional journey and, instinctively, he saw Elizabeth wearing blue, the color of yearning."

But blue is neither an English nor a royal hue. That was Byrne's first clue that she would have to go in a totally different direction.

"It was quite a challenge. But it was great because I had to rethink, not just roll along from the first film to the second. This is a different story, and my job was to help tell it. It was inspiring to be pushed that hard."

Where did you get inspiration for the queen's costumes?

I looked at all kinds of images. Many from the Elizabethan period and many from modern fashion designers, such as Vivienne Westwood and Balenciaga. Did her portraits inspire you?

Oh, yes. I read letters written by visitors to her court extolling her extraordinary appearance. And I read books, including Roy Strong's "Gloriana" and "The Cult of Elizabeth: Elizabethan Portraiture and Pageantry," academic works that delve into the symbolism in her portraits.

She was incredibly aware of her appearance. She strategically performed the masterful PR stroke of replacing the Catholic Church's Virgin Mary with herself as the icon of Protestant England. Do you sketch costumes?

No, I gather up all the images and swatches of fabric and use them to create mood boards. If I do a drawing, then that is the costume you get. But with mood boards, it's more organic, more exciting and scarier. It's a bit like spinning plates! The first costume is terrifying, but after you get past that, it's instinctive and extraordinary. The danger is that you might just whiz off on a tangent, so you have to keep checking yourself. How did the costumes show the public and the private Elizabeth?

The scale of the skirt at the hem actually physically defines her space. You physically cannot get close to the queen. In her formal public scenes we used a flatter, harder corset shape. But in the more intimate, private scenes, it's a softer, more feminine bodice.

I also tried to use color to make her radiant within her court. I wanted her costumes to radiate in her court of subtle colors that bleed away to the color of stone so that she is the central radiant force. How important was blue?

Elizabeth is the immortal version of the color, and Bess is the mortal. Bess mirrors and echoes Elizabeth's gown color when they are in sync, until the relationship goes wrong and the colors change. What is your favorite gown in the film?

My personal favorite is the purple dress, which has four stages.

She wore it first after Mary's execution, when she is diminished and depleted. The dress then grows in scale as she grows stronger to face the coming war. When she is striding down the court, the dress is in its largest form. That was the first time I thought this might work.

Oh, I was so relieved. Even today when I see that scene, my shoulders still drop a bit! Tell me about that amazing suit of armor.

Historically, there is no reference of her wearing armor like that. But Cate felt instinctive about the armor. We wanted it to be an iconic image. In the vein of what we had been doing, it seemed the right solution. Obviously, it's a nod toward Joan of Arc.

How was Cate to work with?

She has a great sense of fashion and understands and inhabits her costumes. When she was striding down the aisle of that cathedral to meet the Spanish ambassador in that yellow dress, she is literally kicking that enormous hem with every step and whipping that dress around.

How did the male actors such as Clive Owen react to their bloomers and tights?

They were fazed by them at the beginning but after a fitting or two, they took them on.

All the men were difficult to keep still in fittings so you could pin what you needed to pin. They all wanted to strut and stride around.

Elizabeth Snead writes The Dish Rag blog at

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