Mary Queen of Scots‘ Designer on Transforming Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan


From the get-go, it was clear that Mary Queen of Scots was not meant to be a historically accurate play-by-play of Queen Elizabeth’s reign during 16th century England. She and Mary, Queen of Scots, never actually met in real-life and corresponded strictly by letters, but in the third act of Josie Rourke’s film, premiering today, the monarchs have a clandestine conversation in-person that forever alters their relationship and the future of the throne. Elizabeth and Mary, played by Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan respectively, convene at a deserted home out in the wilderness in England, during which Mary pleads for Elizabeth’s protection against the rebels in Scotland who deposed her as queen. Although sympathetic to her cause, Elizabeth is purely devoted to her country and refuses to provide her any aid, instead telling Mary that she will be safe in England just as long as she doesn’t threaten her life.

For the monumental scene, costume designer Alexandra Byrne didn’t want the clothing to distract from the emotional levity between Elizabeth and Mary. Byrne was no stranger to designing period clothing, having done the wardrobes for Persuasion, Hamlet, Finding Neverland, The Phantom of the Opera, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age. It was the latter, in which Byrne outfitted Cate Blanchett as the last Tudor monarch, for which Byrne picked up the Oscar for Best Costume Design in 2007. This time around, Byrne says the difference in wardrobe between the two queens was meant to evoke their individual personalities and the different ways in which they ruled.

“I wanted the clothes to have an immediacy about the story about these two women,” she tells CR. “I didn’t want this to be an endless parade of here comes another queen in another frock. I was very interested in limiting the materials I used because I could manipulate a material to tell a story rather than execute these endless queenly robes. It was about finding the balance of how these two women meet, how they go into the meeting, and almost reverse-engineering their costumes. That scene is really about an understood progression in their story.”

Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen and daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, never took a husband and brought half a century of stability to a tumultuous England. Meanwhile, Mary, considered by the Catholics to be the true heir to the throne, ruled with her heart instead of her head, marrying three men in her lifetime, getting deposed and imprisoned during the rebellion in Scotland, and was eventually executed for conspiring against Elizabeth. By way of rumor, Elizabeth learns of Mary’s supposed beauty and realizes how much of a threat the younger queen is to the English throne. Later on in the film, Elizabeth contracts smallpox and survives, but the disease leaves her visage permanently scarred.

“You have to remember that they didn’t have any Instagram, they didn’t have mobile phones, they just had letters and reports from each other’s courts and Elizabeth was undermined by the reports of Mary’s charisma and beauty,” Byrne says. “And then [Elizabeth] gets smallpox, which she could’ve died from, and must have been an incredible loss of self-esteem. From that point forward, I put her in monochrome colors to show that she withdrew from the public eye.”

For the role of Elizabeth, Robbie reportedly underwent three-and-a-half hours in the makeup chair, slathering on pasty white foundation and having nose prosthetics applied in order to transform into the monarch (“It was very alienating. And I felt very lonely. It was an interesting social experiment,” Robbie said about her cast-mates not wanting to look her in the face.) Creating historically accurate renderings of Elizabeth proved to be difficult, because Byrne could only go off of unrealistic portraits from the Elizabethan period. Elizabeth’s beauty was very likely enhanced for her picture sittings and not reflective of the Queen’s actual appearance, but instead showed the control she wielded over her own depictions.

“Elizabeth knew the power of her image and controlled her likeness and that’s all we have to go from,” Bryne says. “By the time she came to the throne she understood strategy and the power of her image in order to replace the iconography of the Virgin Mary in Protestant England. We have reports of the white lead-based makeup and the mask she puts on and for the meeting between the two queens, that’s where she’s really summoning up the courage to meet Mary, who she feels lesser than in terms of beauty.”

Although Byrne tried to be as historically accurate as possible, there were budget and timing constraints to building the wardrobe for the film. For one, anything from the Elizabethan period would’ve been locked away in a museum somewhere and two, there wasn’t enough time to create gowns with fabrics that were actually reflective of the period. Byrne’s solution was to use denim and create several different petticoats for the queens that could be used time and time again.

“I wanted a fabric that gets better with wear and with dirt,” she says. “They didn’t have dry cleaners or laundry service and their clothes would’ve become molded to their bodies by sweating into them and getting wet. It’s a bit like taking our jeans off at night and it takes on a three dimensional shape and I wanted the clothes to have that modern association and to show to feel like they really belonged to the body.”

Color symbolism also had an important role to play in the film’s plot. When the audience first encounter Mary, she has just returned from France after the death of her first husband. She’s clad in all white, the French color of mourning, but also wearing indigo petticoats, meant to symbolize Scotland. As she wades out to the shoreline, the blue coloring begins to bleed into the white, signifying a return to her home roots.

Later on, during Mary’s execution scene, she drops her black dress to the floor just as she’s about to step onto the scaffold to unearth a crimson velvet petticoat, red sleeves, and a matching crimson bodice. She was thus wearing all red, the liturgical color of martyrdom in the Catholic Church. telling a story not with her words, but through the use of clothing.

“[Mary] wanted to the status of being a Catholic martyr and she wanted that to be the image of her execution,” Byrne says. “I tried to use as little red as possible throughout the film because I wanted the strength of that moment. We avoided red in other palettes because it was such a symbolic color for that scene.”

Ultimately, Byrne wanted to portray these two women as humanistically as possible, in which both Elizabeth and Mary had to overcome hurdles of being female monarchs at a time in which misogyny ran rampant. And although both queens attempted to take control in various ways, Elizabeth through her appearance and Mary through her strategic marriages, the film’s themes also contend that perhaps the two cousins could have been friends under different circumstances.

“[Elizabeth learned from an early age to be strategic. She was declared illegitimate, she was sexually compromised by her uncle, she was sent to the Tower of London. By the time she came to the throne she understood strategy and the power,” Byrne says. “For Mary, she’s in mourning. She’s lost her title, her lifestyle, her jewels, and her approach was very pragmatic. She was dealt a hand of cards and had to make it work.”


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