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How to: Mary Queen of Scots

What Stands Behind the Costume Creation for a Historical Drama – “Mary Queen of Scots”

How exciting it is to go to the cinema to watch just released historical drama with our favourite and – what is more important – talented actors who can eliminate their personality and fully transform themselves in a completely new person. By living another life to the fullest is the most important task for an actor in order to make the movie occasions and personalities realistic and memorable in the audience’s mind, and also to reveal their talent that can be appreciated by critics, and that could bring them significant awards – even Oscar, hah.

But the major problem of all historical dramas is inaccuracy and unreliability of the real historical facts. It can relate to anything that is connected to a production of the film starting from the script and to a bad interpretation of looks and costumes of the past epochs we have perceptions of only by history books, old drawings and museum exhibitions. Should I mention a «Braveheart» starring Mel Gibson, when a 90% of the story described in the film appeared to be total fiction, even it showed us about a national Scottish hero William Wallace? That’s why the primary work of the costume designer consists in transmitting a true image of how people looked like and dressed up during this determined times, especially when it comes to a historical drama that needs to be shown precisely and accurately.

The costume designers play their own wizarding roles which help us to travel back in time and appreciate the variety of designs of the past centuries, to dive deeper into the atmosphere of the past and admire the actors’ brilliant play (if it’s really played professionally and talented). This is why the costume designer’s work appears to be more difficult than it would seem before who isn’t dedicated to a process of the whole film production process.

Today we will examine the story behind the creation of costumes and hairstyles for a «Mary Queen of Scotts» drama, starring astonishing and super talented Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan.

Alexandra Byrne is an English costume designer, she was raised in British Stratford-upon-Avon that was well-known in world history as a William Shakespeare’s motherland and where the Royal Shakespeare Company is based. During the times of her childhood and adolescence – as Alexandra told – she was spending a lot of time at Shakespearean stagings that, apparently, affected her taste and predestined her future lifework. Much of her career has focused on creating costumes for historical period dramas dedicated to British history: «Elisabeth» and «Elizabeth: The Golden Age» starring Cate Blanchette as Queen Elisabeth in both. «Elizabeth: The Golden Age», by the way, made her an Oscar nominee and brought her the cherished statuette. But in order to understand a real sense of the «Mary, Queen of Scotts» costumes, it’s necessary to know one more important fact about Alexandra Byrne. In the past years she took up comics world: she created costumes for Thor, Iron man, Black Widow and other Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies such as «Thor» and «Avengers». That’s why in the «Mary Queen of Scotts» her passion to luxuriant historical films perfectly blends with a skill to work with modernity.

This film tells us a story about the bloody confrontation between two cousins – the queen of England, Elisabeth, and the queen of Scotland, Mary Stewart. Margot Robbie plays Elisabeth who ruled England throughout 45 years: in the world history, she is mostly known as a «virgin’ queen due to she had never been married. Saoirse Ronan plays Mary Stewart – the queen who was recognised as a queen even in her infancy.

When Alexandra Byrne started evolving costumes, she kept one fundamental idea in her mind: firstly, to display not so much of a story but of heroines’ characters, and, secondly, to mix together the past with the modernity, adding a little bit of «sexuality» to Elizabethan period. That’s why almost all of the queens’ costumes we might notice made of denim fabric as an ultimate material used for historian dresses. Also, the decision to use this kind of material was caused by a location where the filming took place – In Scotland where it’s often rainy and the weather is always bad. «I wanted a fabric that would get on well with water and wind. I wanted something comfortable and flexible, the same as your favourite jeans.»

The clothes for both of the queens isn’t a fashion issue – it is rather a strategy and a political position. Especially, Elisabeth – she had very strict expectations about the garments she wore. «She controlled the power of her appearance and even used her image as a substitution of the iconography of Virgin Mary in the Protestant England,» Alexandra Byrne says. In some scenes, we see Elisabeth in fiery red dresses that literally scream about her determined character, but after she contracted smallpox, her image becomes more monochrome and severe.

Margot Robbie confessed that her costumes helped her not only to understand her heroine but also get used to the role in a more emotional way. For example, while working at Elisabet’s costumes, Alexandra Byrne was reading myths about sea monsters, in which the folk of those centuries used to believe. The metaphorical figures of this «animals» are transformed into prints on Elisabet’s dresses, every picture held its own emotion, and Margo Robbie admits that after dressing up every new costume, she literally shuddered – this about how much of an emotional load it carried itself.

Though the royal wardrobe which was torn by the main heroines became the principal object that deserves much more attention than any others, Byrne also paid a lot of attention to men’s costumes making it look way more contemporary. «I wanted to make XVI’s century men look sexy, and the fabric they wore appeared to become much better than before,» Byrne said. «As much as our favourite jeans, clothes of 16’s century had to be changed eventually. Most actors are nervous enough about Elizabethan clothes. Before meeting with me everyone expected to face pantyhoses, camisoles and breeches. And it was pleasant to see how warming the welcomed a denim fabric.»

The accurate attention to details spread on everyone who a viewer might see on the big screen including an enormous number of secondary actors. «All the extra’s costumes were different,» Byrne says. «In the middle of the 16’s century, the courtiers had no uniform, and I didn’t want them to look equally. Each queen has at least 25 courtiers nearby, and all of them have different dresses. We worked with factories in Poland, England and India simultaneously for costumes creation.»

As for hairstyles, the modern dressed gave vent to the imagination for a hairstylist and a makeup artist, Jenny Shircore. Both queens’ hairstyles look very modern, especially when it comes to Mary – she wears high buns. All the male characters were also satisfied and pleased: most of the Scottish characters had to appear more attractive and more consonant to their wild environment, meanwhile, the English courtyard looks more well-groomed and polished than their Scottish partners.