Alexandra Byrne excels at designing for historical dramas

From Emma. (2020).

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Alexandra Byrne has distinguished herself as one of the leading costume designers for period films. She is an expert at studying a historical time period and immersing herself in the clothing, photographs, and paintings of the time and designing in a way to combine those aesthetics with character development through costume. Byrne has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design five times (Hamlet, Elizabeth, Finding Neverland, and Mary Queen of Scots) and has won once for Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Her most recent work is the delectable costumes of Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. 

Byrne was raised in Stratford-upon-Avon in England, a city full of history. She studied architecture at Bristol University and theatre design with the English National Opera. She began her career working in theatre as a costume and set designer and that sense of theatricality often carries over into her work in film. She received a Tony Award nomination for Best Scenic Design for Some Americans Abroad in 1989. She is married to English actor Simon Shepherd.

The first period drama film that Byrne worked on was the BBC Persuasion in 1995, for which she won the British Academy Television Award for Costume Design. She has costumed many period films in the years since including The Phantom of the Opera and The Aeronauts. Byrne has worked with director Kenneth Branagh several times from their first collaboration on Hamlet to Sleuth and more recently Murder on the Orient Express

Aside from period films, she also has designed extensively for the Marvel Cinematic Universe including: Thor, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Doctor Strange. Just as she finds inspiration in the clothing of the time period for historically-based films, she has said that she finds inspiration in the comics for her superhero designs. 

Byrne’s second Oscar nomination was for her work on Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth in 1998, which starred Cate Blanchett as the young Queen Elizabeth I in the early years of her reign. Kapur encouraged Byrne to design based on emotion and character rather than strict historical accuracy. While the silhouettes of the costumes don’t adhere perfectly to real Tudor fashions, they are stunning pieces. The use of embroidery and fabrics like rich velvets, satins, and brocades make them stand out from the average period drama fare. 

Some of Byrne’s most stunning and much-praised work was done for the 2018 Mary Queen of Scots, directed by Josie Rourke and starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. The film features period clothing with an obviously modern twist, like anachronistic jewelry. It pairs well with the film’s casting of BIPOC actors in historically white roles, such as Gemma Chan portraying Bess of Hardwick. The costumes suit the actors remarkably well, striking a balance between modern appeal and a Tudor aesthetic. They also feel properly lived in, with Mary’s skirts often hemmed in mud as she rides horses and leads troops to battle. Both Mary and Elizabeth’s costumes combine masculine and feminine elements to assert their unique position as female rulers in a patriarchal world. The costumes also serve to reinforce the idea of Mary and Elizabeth as parallels, equals, and foils to each other. 

Autumn de Wilde’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma was released earlier this year starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn. Byrne’s gorgeous costumes contribute to the splendor and decadence of the film as a whole with sweeping scenery and lush production design. De Wilde has a background in fashion photography, so it’s not surprising that even in her directorial debut she is conscious of how costumes add to a story. The fashion of the film is beautiful for the women, especially the titular character’s elaborate hats and the use of patterns, but what’s more impressive is the variety and color in the men’s clothing. 

There’s even a scene in which the romantic hero Mr. Knightley is getting dressed, which shows what a man’s undergarments looked like at the time and the work that went into their outfits. We often see scenes like this of women in period dramas, so it’s refreshing to see one featuring a man. It also serves to remind the audience of the servants that work to make the lives of characters like Emma and Mr. Knightley possible. 

Byrne is an expert at assembling a color palette for a film and using the colors to match her characters. In Elizabeth, the ensemble sports rich colors with lots of reds, golds, blues, and purples that paint a picture of a lavish court. She uses a lot of blue on the queen herself, which contrasts well with her red hair, but puts Elizabeth in red when she is upset after the failed battle to show her anger. Meanwhile in Emma., the color palette is lighter to create a beautiful, idyllic world for this Regency rom-com to occur in. There are lots of lush pastels, creams, rich yellows, forest greens, and deep blues, all of which were in fashion during the time period. 

From Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007).

The colors used in Mary Queen of Scots are particularly important to the story. At the beginning and ending of the film, we see Mary in a red dress at her execution. While it’s certainly more flamboyant attire than she actually wore at her death, she did wear red, the Catholic color of martyrdom. And in the film, this idea is brought across clearly: she makes a bold statement even in her last moments, a characteristic that we will see over the course of the film. For most of the movie, Mary and Elizabeth are united in the dark muted colors that they wear that help them blend in with the black-garbed men of their courts. But each queen deviates away from the dark colors at pivotal moments: Mary wears light blue as she’s falling in love with Darnley and becoming more confident and a vibrant purple-blue as she announces her pregnancy. Meanwhile, at the end of the film when the two meet, Elizabeth wears a burnt orange color that’s nearly gold; by this point, she is the only reigning queen and in a position of power over her cousin, Mary. Mary Queen of Scots is perhaps Byrne’s best use of color to help build character arcs. 

Byrne has proven that she can both adhere to period accuracy or veer away from it in creative ways, depending on the project. She thoroughly researches the time period of each movie, using portraits and letters to ensure that when she isn’t adhering to period accuracy, she is doing so purposefully. She also sometimes makes changes to make the characters appear more attractive, such as not dressing the men in the “pumpkin breeches” that were popular in the Tudor period. 

In Elizabeth, she takes a lot of creative liberties with the silhouettes and styles on the advice of the director but still manages to capture the feeling of Tudor style. To the average viewer’s eye, the costumes wouldn’t be obviously inaccurate. She does a fantastic job of recreating the clothing in the portraits of Elizabeth at her coronation. The costumes of Mary Queen of Scots are a blend of Tudor style silhouettes and anachronistic jewelry and materials. As they were shooting in unpredictable Scottish weather and she wanted to show Mary’s strength, she made dresses out of denim. These costumes that blend the modern and the historical also match the tone of the film. 

On the other hand, Byrne also excels at creating historically accurate costumes as showcased in Emma. The costumes are almost remarkably true to the period, even at times sacrificing modern ideas of beauty for the sake of accuracy. It’s shocking to see a film set in the Regency era that actually uses true empire waistlines, high collars, and lots of ruffles, like were popular at the time. For Emma., Byrne consulted with Sir John Soane’s Museum in London to create pieces that would perfectly recreate the world of Regency England. 

All three movies also demonstrate Byrne’s ability to help advance character development with her costumes. In Elizabeth, we see Marie de Guise in armor that isn’t accurate but sets her up as the film’s antagonist. Elizabeth’s outfits grow more elaborate after she becomes queen and moves towards being more a symbol of the throne than a young woman. In Emma., clothing is used to show affluence as Emma is constantly seen in one lavish outfit after another. The costumes fit the characters remarkably well: Elton’s high collars are as borderline ridiculous as he is, Augusta Elton’s styles are insipid and a bit gauche, and Emma looks elegant but still youthful. 

In Mary Queen of Scots, there are many ways that Byrne uses the costumes to tell us more about the characters of Mary and Elizabeth. Mary wears a military armor-like dress into battle to accentuate her status as a hands-on, courageous leader. After Elizabeth’s bout with smallpox, her dresses are less eye-catching as she wishes to draw less attention to her appearance. Mary’s style in general is more rugged and austere than Elizabeth’s more decorative style as Elizabeth’s court is much more refined. Both women are seen in plain cream-colored shifts or nightgowns in their vulnerable moments: Elizabeth’s illness, Mary’s pregnancy and childbirth, and after Mary’s friend is killed in front of her. Byrne does a great job of highlighting both women’s similarities and differences through their styles of dress. 

There aren’t many costume designers who excel at designing for period films the way that Byrne does. Her ability to do her research well enough to make purposeful changes to historical accuracy, for the sake of character or aesthetic, rather than making them out of ignorance is commendable. Hopefully, she will be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for Emma. While other costume designers might be more well known, Byrne is one of the best costume designers working today. 

© Nicole Ackman (07/25/2020) FF2 Media

From Mary Queen of Scots (2018).

Photo Credits: Focus Features, Universal Pictures

Tags: alexandra byrne, costume design, Elizabeth, emma, mary queen of scotts

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Nicole Ackman is an FF2 Media Associate based in North Carolina, after living in London and New York. She graduated from Elon University with a Bachelors degree in History and Strategic Communication and from City University of London with a Masters degree in Culture, Policy, and Management. She is a theatre and film critic and is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. Her taste in film tends towards period dramas, movie musicals, and anything starring Saoirse Ronan. In addition to film, she is passionate about history, theatre, Disney parks, and classic novels by female writers.
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