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FAST FASHION FACT CHECK: Shakespeare in Love

Updated: Jun 27, 2022

In his 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, John Madden tells the story of a museless William Shakespeare and the love story that follows between him and a fictional Viola De Lesseps. Played by Gwenyth Paltrow, Viola is a wealthy and sheltered young girl living in Elizabethan England searching for poetry, adventure, and above all, love; William, a tortured poet looking to be inspired by that very thing. Out of their affair comes one of the most beautiful love stories of all, Romeo and Juliet, creating a film that tells a story with intense color, spirit, and expression by many forces. One of the most powerful vehicles for this expression and story-telling in Shakespeare in Love for the character Viola are her costumes.

John Madden was chosen by Miramax to direct this movie after an entirely different cast, crew, and studio let the idea go. Julia Roberts was initially supposed to play the role of Viola de Lesseps. But, after Madden took over, he brought on Gwenyth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes to play her love interest, Shakespeare. Other stars include Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, and Judi Dench.

Tilda Swinton in Orlando

One of the most difficult aspects of the plot as it pertained to costuming was the question of gender-bending. A key point of the plot is that in order to meet Shakespeare, Viola dressed up like a boy and auditioned for one of his plays due to gender rules in acting at the time. And, because of her work in Orlando, a period piece with a lot of gender-bending fashion, Sandy Powell was brought in to do costume design. Powell is an acclaimed designer who not only excels at Elizabethan costuming, but personally loves it too. Her work in Orlando with male costuming in the Elizabethan era proved she was up for the challenge of gender bending and creating garments that are as decadent and artistic as the era itself.

Viola wears many costumes that reflect this elegance and decadence of the era, but none quite like her gold dress while she has an audience with Queen Elizabeth (played by Judi Dench.) In the scene, Viola speaks with the queen about whether or not love can truly be portrayed through plays, as we see Viola walking a thin line by disagreeing with the queen and saying that they in fact can. Viola looks ethereal and angelic in this scene, speaking lightly and softly, and glowing just ever so slightly under the candle lights of court. This part of the movie really highlights just how prominent Queen Elizabeth’s opinion and word was in 1500’s England.

And, as for 1500’s England, the costumes reflect the sentiment: the Elizabethan era is regarded by historians as the golden age of English history. It was a time of peace, prosperity, and most of all, a time in which the arts flourished. Music, poetry, and plays became integral parts of British culture. The queen frequented the playhouse, so the rest of England found the arts and creativity to be legitimate as well as interesting.

Gowns for women in the Elizabethan era were generally complex. It consisted of sleeves, a bodice, a ruff (collar), a skirt, and an underskirt, all separate pieces that had to be pinned together each time the dress was worn. All elements could be taken apart and put back together with different pieces from other dresses.

Undergarments were always worn with gowns in this era, because a gown is essentially a bodice and skirt attached with other various sleeves and pearls. In Viola’s scene, she is completely dressed and ready at court, so the audience can’t see her undergarments. But, to wear a gown of that extravagance, Viola would first need a smock or shift and stocking to keep her odors and sweat off of the expensive clothing and shoes. Then, depending on how “busty” she is considered for the dress, she would almost always need a corset on top of the shift. After this, she would put on her farthingale (like a hoop-skirt), a bumroll to add more volume, and a petticoat, and only then can she get dressed in her actual gown. In this costume, it is unclear if she is wearing every traditional layer underneath, however, in several dressing and undressing scenes, many of these pieces can be spotted.

The gown itself is made up of multiple different elements. Viola wears the bodice (corset and underpinnings), the sleeves, the skirt (kirtle and forepart), and the decorative lace collar. All of these pieces would be separately stitched together by one of Viola’s maids on her body. In this scene, she also wears a gold and pearl necklace, gold earrings, and a jewel-studded headpiece with a tiara attached.

At the time, this look of embellished gold and pearls would have been received well by the queen, at the very least. Queen Elizabeth loved her court in decadent colors, especially gold, and adorned herself in pearls as often as she could. Queen Elizabeth, being a woman who was more concerned with beautiful things than beautiful men, very much liked the beauty standard as it was attached to purity and aristocracy: smooth pale skin, red lips, bright eyes and hair, and opulent jewelry and gowns. Viola, in this scene, acts as a canvas for the costume, with hair and makeup not standing out as much. She is not as pale as one would expect her to be, with no white makeup on like many ladies of the court did at the time to emulate the queen, but is still fair in complexion. Her hair is toned down but accurate, as the ideal hair to have at the time was curly and light like the queen’s, and if tied up, tied up in a heart shaped frame around the face. She is kept relatively neutral makeup wise, most likely for the sake of accuracy.

Undoubtedly, Viola’s whole costume in this scene has immaculate attention to detail, as well as care to historical accuracy. The cut, shape, and components of this gown are very close to what one would see in a lady of the court’s portrait at the time. Since this is all Sandy Powell has to work from, and not necessarily actual garments that they are able to touch, feel, and see from time, she did an outstanding job bringing the opulence of Queen Elizabeth I’s court fashion to life. So, overall, I would say that Powell paid extremely close attention to not only how she thought the garments ought to look, but also how they had to look for historical reasons. There are a few discrepancies however, one being the collar or ruff.

Powell said in an interview with The Guardian that “the collar on Gwyneth's dress was made from art deco silver lace from the 1920s, because there was no way I was going to find a piece of Elizabethan lace. Besides, I thought it looked good on the costume.” This highlights one of the main, multi-faceted issues that arises with period pieces: first, the inability to actually obtain materials that would have been used at the time, and second, designer’s preference.

While a designer may be able to get whatever it is they have in mind for a period piece to come to life and look correct, it is impossible for a garment for a movie set in the 1500’s to be one hundred percent accurate. Some of the materials that designers would have used then for gowns are either too expensive, rare, or just not made anymore altogether. So designers must use their instincts and find alternatives. Further, garments of that size and quality are almost never hand-stitched like they would have been then, they are machine sewn with overall less attention to detail because of innovation. This accounts for some historical inaccuracies just out of sheer necessity. But, designers must also be conscious of how audiences today will receive the fashions of then, and how a garment will look on screen. For a gown like Viola’s, it is important that different materials are used to make the fabric and color pop on camera to ultimately capture the audience’s attention, and make the protagonist beautiful and likable. At the end of the day, this is the costume designer’s job.

And, hopefully, the designer will have made such a splash that those who watched the movie will want to dress exactly like their new favorite character. We see this happening with recent television hit Bridgerton, and the resurgence in popularity of corset dresses and empire waistlines. The humor surrounding Elizabethan style as compared to Regency style in England is that the structural components of women’s fashion have remained almost the same until female fashion broke free from this mold in most ways (pants, bras instead of corsets, etc.) But, corset tops, puffy sleeves, and the opulent, romantic aesthetic have stayed very much in fashion on the runway since the emergence of designers like John Galiano, Alexander McQueen, and Vivienne Westwood, who all really love incorporating these themes and pieces into their collections. It’s hard to tell if Viola’s costuming in this film provided more inspiration to designers for period-inspired garments, or if the designer's renditions of these classic pieces are just the evolution of fashion. It raises the idea that fashion is not only cyclical, but rooted in the disruption of our current standards. It is the deconstruction and rebuilding of fashion eras like the Elizabethan epoch that make elevated collections like McQueen’s possible.

Lady Diana Cecil (1614) and Alexander McQueen FW Collection (2013)


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