Alexandra Byrne Interview: ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ costume designer
Alexandra Byrne is one of the top period costume designers in the world, winning an Oscar for “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007). But when she joined “Mary Queen of Scots,” she took an entirely different approach.
“If I’m going to be a purist, [‘Mary’s’ costumes are] totally historically inaccurate,” Byrne said at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Costume Designers panel, moderated by this author (watch the exclusive video above). “But I think the freedom to make those decisions comes from knowing the period sufficiently to know what it should’ve been to make informed decisions to underline the story and what to tell.”
“Mary” chronicles the well-known saga of cousins Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie), which ended with the former’s execution under the latter’s orders in 1567. With two queens at the center of the story, Byrne didn’t want the costumes to be of “another queen in another frock.” So rather than using old-fashioned frilly lace and ruffles, she created modern-looking yet period-specific costumes by incorporating denim.
“I think there are five portraiture moments that are not denim. Everything else is denim for many reasons,” the primary one being a small budget, she said. “I was also interested in this story in limiting the number of fabrics I used. I didn’t know I’d come down to one, but I wanted to limit the fabrics so that I was manipulating a fabric to tell the story. … They didn’t have dry cleaners, so I wanted them to feel lived in. I wanted the dirt in the pattern to be part of the decoration. So I needed a fabric that get better with wear.”
Still, Byrne, who was also Oscar-nominated for “Hamlet” (1996), “Elizabeth” (1998) and “Finding Neverland” (2004), couldn’t solely rest on her denim, er, laurels. After some experimentation with a toile for Ronan, she had a “breakthrough moment.” “We made a fitting shape Elizabethan to my re-conceived ideas, but then we put a modern shirt cuff on the end of the sleeve and that was a kind of breakthrough moment where I thought, ‘Oh now I understand that actually every costume has got to be a balance of ‘do we put orange top stitching? Do we use rivets?’ What’s the modernity that we bring to it?” she said.
The “modernity and accessibility” of denim also remolded the image of Elizabethan men. “Elizabethan men are not sexy in britches and tights,” Byrne noted. “[They were] quite complicated jeans that are crotch-centric. For Elizabethan men, it was all about leg and the crotch.”
And what was the reaction of the actors when they saw that they were going to be wearing denim in a period drama? “Most of the men would come to the fittings thinking, ‘Oh, god, here we go, tights. Let’s just get through it,’” Byrne shared. “There were a lot of fittings, but what was really great was that there was a kind of swagger and crotch awareness that the men had. They came out feeling really great and they were sort of strutting.”