By Anna Wyckoff | January 29, 2021
Mary Queen of Scots
Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne is well versed in the Elizabethan period with movies such as Elizabeth and Elizabeth Golden Age, for which she won an Academy Award, in her oeuvre. Her recent film, Mary Queen of Scots, furthered this exploration. When asked about the differences between researching then and now, Byrne responded, “I remember how hard it was to find those images and now we have this endless universe of research available to us, which is quite astounding.” Her budget was modest and her prep time only 15 weeks, so it took her wealth of experience and considerable strategizing to create a detailed period look. “I started with a lump of knowledge,” she explains, “I loved the script and had a very instinctive response to it. Probably, I was allowed to have that feeling because of having this base knowledge, as opposed to wondering, ‘Where do I start?’” Byrne knew from the beginning she wanted to tell the story of two queens in a male world full of political and sexual predators.
Byrne arrived at the idea of using denim, thinking that simplifying her tools would enable her to better tell the story. Also, she wanted to imbue the period, famous for alienating audiences with curious costumes, with a degree of utility, approachability, and sexiness. However, she had pause when she had her first doublet made in denim. It wasn’t until the piece was completely aged that she knew her central motif would work.
“Their stories are so different, I didn’t want this to be a film about frocks,” she says. “But it is a film about two Queens, so it’s about how you get the right note. Mary (Saoirse Ronan) was a queen in France. Now she is in a country with no stable government, she has no standing army, and her lords are feuding. So it’s a bit like walking on quicksand. Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) was imprisoned in the Tower of London then was released and became Queen. She was astute and strategic, she had a wealthy country, a standing army, and brilliant, brilliant politicians around her.”
The pivotal (and imagined) scene where Mary and Elizabeth meet required careful consideration. Byrne didn’t want the clothing to be distracting. “It was really about finding the language and the palette and reverse engineering.” She felt Elizabeth wanted to look her best for Mary and the strong visual of the hair required integration, so she arrived at the color orange and over-dyed the denim. For Mary, Byrne wanted the dirt to be her decoration to show her commitment to living in Scotland. Thus, her garments are rust-stained from her armor. She also had Mary’s gown resist-printed so the Scottish coat of arms is revealed as mud is spattered up her dress.
Occasionally, Byrne chose to break away from denim for portraiture looks in order to ground the piece in identifiable historical moments for the audience. She notes, “As a designer, I do like to research because I’m in control of the choices I’m making and knowing what I’m going to do is correct. Although it’s not a purely historical film I think you have to create a completely credible world.”