Power Outfits: Alexandra Byrne Dresses Mary Queen of Scots

A Q&A with the Academy Award®-winning costume designer

In Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots (in select theaters this Friday), Saoirse Ronan plays the title character, the defiant monarch who leads her turbulent land in the shadow of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). While the story of Mary and Elizabeth has been told many times, screenwriter Beau Willimon uses John Guy's history to bring new light to her achievements. Here Mary is a capable, complex leader seeking to forge a new alliance with London. For this new take on a historic tale, the characters needed a drastic makeover. The filmmakers reached out to costume designer Alexandra Byrne, who, previously dressed the film Elizabeth and its sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age (for which she won an Academy Award®). For Byrne, the Elizabethan period is the perfect period for a designer: Well known enough for her to be “historically accurate, but far enough back in time that you cannot know everything so there can be a greater creative interpretation.”

Byrne’s award-winning mix of studious research and unfettered creativity has both recreated 16th century royal courts and imagined the fantastic worlds of superheroes (in films like Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Doctor Strange). We spoke with Byrne about the politics of fashion, how to make Elizabethan men sexy, and why the story of these two women in Mary Queen of Scots feels so contemporary.

Get tickets to see Mary Queen of Scots today.

The official trailer for Mary Queen of Scots

How did you get involved designing the costumes for Mary Queen of Scots?

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. From the start, I had a very instinctual sense of how I wanted to dress this film. It’s rare for artistic vision and practical sense to come together so easily in designing for a film. Knowing firsthand that there was nothing new in the costume houses since I’d last worked in this period pushed me to want to create something new.

Hair and makeup designer Jenny Shircore (left) and costume designer Alexandra Byrne (right) dress Margot Robbie to be Queen Elizabeth.

What did you see as the creative challenges presented by Mary Queen of Scots?

Number one is that I wanted to make the costumes sexy for this period. Actual Elizabethan is not sexy to me. It really isn’t. And since I was going to make everything new, challenge two was working within our budget and timeline. We were going to be shooting in wind, rain, and mud, so my lost and damaged report could’ve bankrupted the film. What I didn’t want was a revolving door of “here comes another queen in another frock.” 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. I wanted something like your favorite 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. 

How did you research the costumes of the period?

Through paintings, but portraits of the period only portray the nobility and are often very symbolic. When I was doing Elizabeth: The Golden Age, there was a question about whether some of the clothes shown in paintings actually existed. Did Elizabeth really wear a fabric embroidered with eyes and ears as is shown in the Rainbow Portrait? Also we learned a lot from letters from different ambassadors reporting back to their courts about what people were wearing.

Margot Robbie dresses strategically as Queen Elizabeth I in Mary Queen of Scots

In approaching the costumes for Mary and Elizabeth, how did you design their clothes to tell us about them?

Their costumes reflect their different worlds and how they came to the throne. Elizabeth learned to be strategic and navigate power from an early age. She manipulated her publicity, creating in the new Protestant nation a cult around her image that replaced the iconography of the Virgin Mary. As such, Elizabeth dresses very strategically for every occasion. Mary’s journey was quite different. She returned to Scotland a widow, having lost her title, her jewels, and her lifestyle. At the time, Scotland was very poor with no standing army. She depended on the Scottish lords, who were very attached to their clans and very invested in doing things for their own gain. When she lands on the Scottish coast, you can see the indigo of her petticoat bleeding through—that becomes the color of Scotland. There is kind of a journey through her outfits. I used the mud, rain, and dirt as decoration on her clothes.

Lord Maitland (Ian Hart), Lord Darnley (Jack Lowden), Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), and Earl of Moray (James McArdle) dressed in denim in Mary Queen of Scots.

In the film, Mary is a very active and dynamic leader. How did you dress her for that?

First the denim worked really well for her outfits. We made a fitting toile for her, but with a modern short cuff on the end of an Elizabethan sleeve. That changed the dynamic of the costume completely, making it clear to me that every costume would be a balance of the modern and Elizabethan. We gave her a lot of variety, allowing her to wear men’s denim trousers.

Elizabeth’s appearance changes after she contracts smallpox. How did that change her outfits?

While we start off with Elizabeth as this beautiful English queen who dresses strategically, she was slightly intimidated by Mary's charisma and beauty. Once she was marred with pox scars, Elizabeth goes under the radar. I took her colors into a more monochrome and desaturated direction. But just before she meets Mary she changes. She pushes herself to make a strong appearance, even having a new wig made.

On the set of Mary Queen of Scots, an older Elizabeth (Margot Robbie) is dressed with a more monochromatic look.

In addition to working on period films, you’ve created outfits for Marvel films. What’s the connection between dressing royalty and superheroes?

It is the same design process, except that your research material is comic books rather than historical archives. Doing the Marvel movies, I learned so much about building complex, practical, movement-based costumes. Going from film to film, I've created a bank of knowledge, which I can access as I move between these different worlds. The end result may be very different, but the work process is the same. When I had to make tights to make Elizabethan guys look sexy riding a horse, I knew where to put the crotch.

For you, where does attention to historical accuracy end and creative interpretation begin?

I have to be informed about the decisions I'm making, but in the end, I am not making a documentary. In reality, for example, the two queens never met. But my job is to help tell the story but in an informed way. The research frees me up to make more instinctive choices.

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