How ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ Costume Design Evokes a Subtle Sensuality

The fashion in “Mary, Queen of Scots” evokes a subtle sensuality.

The upcoming film — which features Saoirse Ronan as the titular character — delves into Mary’s life, including her attempts to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and her eventual execution.

FN had the chance to speak with the drama’s costume designer, Alexandra Byrne, at an intimate luncheon hosted by Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising’s Museum in Los Angeles on Nov. 5, where the Oscar-winning designer discussed adding a contemporary touch to the courtly style of the 1500s.

For anglophiles and period film lovers, don’t expect yet another big screen queen in another frock. Byrne took creative license in crafting the looks to create credible fashion of the time; the film is no documentary.”

The decision to use denim, part of the reason was for the costumes to have a modernity,” Byrne explained, noting that the denim she used was different from denim in the traditional contemporary “jeans” sense.

“The corset I’m using is not Elizabethan. It’s entirely invented. The Elizabethan style had a very flat front and it’s not very sexy or feminine to the period today,” Byrne explained.

And the clothes don’t always stay on in the film, which lends to moments where shoes hidden under skirt hems get revealed. “Mary does a lot of undressing,” she noted, “so we get some shoes then.”

“[Women] weren’t afraid of lifting their skirt, and they did ride. We took our references from portraits.”

Mary sports footwear in red, a color that is symbolic of her Catholicism. “Even within the Protestant court in Scotland, she has some dark red shoes on,” Byrne said. “She was incredibly aware of the power of her appearance.”

Even in her final moments, when she was beheaded in 1587, Mary is seen making a cutting statement of her own.

“She walks out to the execution block in the black dress,” which was inspired by a portrait. “She then reveals a red chemise underneath,” adding that Ronan was barefoot for this scene to display a sense of vulnerability.

Men’s footwear styles are not left out, as seen in frequent riding sequences throughout the film — which is also inspired by the period’s artwork.

“There are beautiful portraits of these fitted boots on the leg, with emphasis on… the areas they liked to display,” Byrne explained. “I used a modern elastic-sided jogger boot and then we built gaters to go over them — different shapes and styles.”

With a budget Bryne describes as “acute,” she was conservative in spending money on footwear.

“If there’s going to be a foot close-up, then I’ll address it specifically, but you can spend a lot of money making beautiful shoes and they are not going to be seen. I felt as much as I would’e loved to do it in a different way, for this film, it worked in the way I did.”

“Mary, Queen of Scots” debuts Dec. 7 in theaters.

Byrne won an Oscar for her work on “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007), which starred Cate Blanchett as the queen.

The FIDM Museum is currently fundraising to purchase a rare Napoleonic court gown and train — learn more and donate here.

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