Mara Jade
by Mara Jade

Theirs is an epic fight for power, made more impactful with the fact that both protagonists are women in a time where traditionally, the men wield all the power. That’s what makes Mary Queen of Scots more impressive. Mary (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) are cousins torn apart by their roles and duties, surrounded by men envious and hungry for their power.

Mary Queen of Scots

To ensure that the pair do their fight in style, veteran costume designer Alexandra Byrne, who did the costuming of Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (starring Cate Blanchett) was enlisted. Byrne won an Academy for her work on The Golden Age, and thrives on being historically accurate in her costumes yet putting her own creative spin.

Creating something new from nothing new

Byrne was drawn to the film because she naturally gravitates to the period and the story. She shared, “I read the script, which I found entirely amazing. I saw the story as being about these two women holding onto power in a very predatory male world, a story that definitely felt worth telling. Since I’d already worked in this period twice before, I knew the history, the clothes (and what it takes to make them), and what stock is available in the costume houses.”

She also instinctively knew how she wanted to dress the two female leads, mixing her artistic vision and practical sense. Another major draw was that she found nothing suitable in the costume houses, which drove her to want to create something new.

Making it different

The first thing Byrne set out to do is inject a bit of sexiness into the costumes of these powerful women, even though the actual Elizabethan period is anything but sexy. She was determined to not make a dress that looks just like any Elizabethan dress, but at the same time, mindful that the film would be shot in wind, rain and mud. “I decided to limit the materials. I wanted a fabric that would work with dirt and wear. Elizabethans sweated into their outfits. When it rained, their clothes dried on their bodies,” she explained. “I wanted something like your favourite pair of jeans—which led me to denim. We made a test doublet, a man's jacket, in denim, which unfortunately turned out horrible, looking very costume in capital letters. So I went back and broke down denim as a material. We have so many preconceptions that I had to see it anew in the Elizabethan period.”

Research is King

Byrne wanted to stay true to the period, despite choosing modern fabrics like denim. She did extensive research through paintings and portraits of the noble family. She also learned a lot from the letters that different ambassadors sent in their reports to their courts with detailed descriptions of what people were wearing.

Design fit for the Queens

To illustrate the different backgrounds of both Mary and Elizabeth, Byrne knew she had to design two vastly contrasting set of costumes. Elizabeth’s costumes are a lot more varied, depending on the occasion. She was a strategic queen that knew how to navigate power and manipulate publicity to her advantage. In short, she has more “power gowns”.

Mary, on the other hand, is far more humble. After all, she returned to Scotland a widow, without wealth, title, jewels and her lifestyle. Her clothing was a lot grittier, and the decoration was mud, rain and dirt. She also got to wear denim trousers, because of her circumstances.

The result speaks for itself. Byrne was nominated once again for her work on Mary Queen of Scots at the 91st Academy Award but ultimately lost to the team from Black Panther.