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Elizabethan Fashions and Times

(From the Miramax Press Kit for Shakespeare in Love...
Thanks to Anne!)


The Elizabethan era was also a highly fashion conscious age, a time when sumptuous fabrics, new dyes and exuberant dress prevailed. Clothing was a primary indicator of wealth in those days so the more dramatic and opulent the costume, the better. Shakespeare himself was no stranger to fashion, using costume to greater effect than any dramatist before him.

The fashions of the day emphasized gallantry and beauty. For women, the hourglass shape was key. Wide shoulders at the bodice whittled down to a narrow cinched waist, then opened up to a belled skirt; the bosom was tightly lifted at the plunging neckline. For men, the silhouette was square, bolstered by an abundance of padding. Vents and slashes--attractive due to their relationship with sword battle--were common. Boots, breeches, a jerkin vest, a doublet and an adorned hat made for a dashing outfit.

Director John Madden knew that to really bring the Renaissance spirit of Shakespeare's times to life, the costumes and makeup would be vital. Thus, he chose two Academy Award nominees to take on the enormous task: costume designer Sandy Powell and hair and make-up designer Lisa Westcott.

Powell, who had designed in this period for Sally Potter's "Orlando," was thrilled to return to one of her favorite eras. "I was longing to throw myself into this time again," she admits. "It is really such a juicy period with these huge and rather crazy sculptural costumes." Like Martin Childs, she immersed herself in research, but enjoyed the freedom afforded by the lack of information. "My aim was not to create absolutely historically accurate costumes, but to use a bit of artistic license and as the script is so fresh and light I felt there was room for the imagination, whilst always keeping it convincing," she states.

Perhaps the most extraordinary costumes Powell was to create were for Queen Elizabeth, played with an intense presence that actually outdoes even her fashions by Judi Dench. Though her dresses and headwear appear almost surreally ostentatious--lumed with such finery as peacock feathers--Powell explains that this is one of those situations where fact is stranger than fantasy. "Queen Elizabeth apparently had over a thousand dresses--all hugely flamboyant and over-the-top--she basically carried all her wealth on her frocks, so they were literally piled high with jewels," she says. "She is also over 60 in this film, so I'm just presuming she has gone a little bit nuts. She was such an outrageous historical figure, we allowed ourselves to go completely mad."

The Queen's makeup is similarly extraordinary. Lisa Westcott explains that as "the Queen is quite old in the film she would have terrible skin--probably from mercury poisoning--so it was covered in makeup and her hair was undoubtedly falling out, so she always wore a wig. Apparently she had over 80 wigs, all different colors and her hairline would have receded from the front, giving her that rather severe look." Lisa and her team spent 4 hours daily with Judi Dench to prepare her makeup and finery. But the work paid off--the first day Dench appeared on the stage, the entire production went dead silent in hush. She was awe-inspiring--as Elizabeth is said to have always been in her time.

The Queen set the fashion of the time, so those around her in court copied her style. "Whatever the Queen did," says Lisa Westcott, "became de rigeur with the other ladies. Even in her old age, she was a real trend-setter. Many of the women in the film are therefore also seen wearing wigs of similar shape."

For Gwyneth Paltrow's Lady Viola, there were two challenges: not only did she have to look stunningly feminine as Viola but she also had to spend much of her time disguised as a boy. Luckily she had a costume designer who is no stranger to the world of gender-bending from her work on "Orlando," "The Crying Game" and the recent "Velvet Goldmine." "I began with Viola as a boy," says Sandy Powell, "because I was worried about getting that to be convincing. This period is actually quite easy to hide a girl's figure because it is so solid and struct6ured and the clasic male silhouette of the period is actually quite feminine, as it accentuates the hips. Even though we're not trying to trick the audience into believing this is a boy, we wanted to be convincing enough that the other characters are fooled." The effect of the classically beautiful GP in doublet and hose, complete with moustache and a wig of cropped hair, was startling even to Powell. "I was surprised how once she was in her costume, without her long hair, how really boyish she could look," she admits.

Even though Viola de Lesseps is from a wealthy family, her costumes, in keeping with her temperament, are not in any way gaudy or over-the-top. Sandy Powell comments that "compared to other frocks of the period, Viola's are relatively simple. That is just what suits Gwyneth; she looks beautiful in the softer colors and we've scaled down things like the amount of heavy jewelery on her dress. She still looks grand but never brash."

When Will sees Viola for the first time at the dance, he falls instantly in love with this simple elegance and she in turn falls for his. At this moment it matters less that this is the man responsible for the greatest plays and love poetry of all time, and more that he is a man whose feelings have caught him unawares. It was this vulnerable side of his character that the costume designer focused on. "It did not help at all for me to think of this character as William Shakespeare, the great playwright," she says. "In a sense the whole film humanizes this great figure and so I wanted to design a costume that makes Joe look good and makes him entirely convincing as a romantic lead. I'm very pleased with the result." Adds Lisa Westcott: "I obviously didn't want him to look like the classic Shakespeare image with the little forky beard and boy hair. The Will of the film is a young lad who chops his own hair, he's a struggling playwright, living a pretty hard life."

This theme of hardship and the difficulties of living at this time also informs a great deal of the work of the designers. Lisa Westcott puts it into perspective, explaining that "even the Queen would have only had about four baths a year. People were basically very dirty and had pretty bad teeth. Life was tough then, there were lots of bugs around, there was no heating and no penicillin--life expectancy was pretty short."


Elizabethan England was a bustling, newly urban age of sumptuous excesses and crowded city streets, of both lavish design and ramshackle neighborhoods. To capture the vibrancy and visual excitement of the day, John Madden brought in a team of highly skilled and creative designers.

Production designer Martin Childs was given the task of recreating Elizabethan London, an incredible opportunity to work with his imagination in full flight. "Not only did this film give us the opportunity to build the Rose Theatre, but also all the buildings in London that surrounded it," Childs explains. "There is so little left of this period and the only Elizabethan architecture that remains is the odd building surrounded by ones from the Georgian and Victorian period. I knew we would have to build most of Elizabethan London from scratch, so from a design point of view it offered great scope."

He set to work on creating a naturalistic world that could contain the incredible tale of romance at hand--ot a painstakingly accurate recreation of 16th century London, but an imaginative capturing of its essence. He comments, "I had this mantra going in my head all the time that this is not a documentary, we are allowed to use our imaginations fully. The look we aimed for is somewhere that you believe people actually lived and worked. We wanted to show things almost incidentally, so there are other trades, other interests going on outside the specific world of the theatre and our storyline." Childs and Madden spent weeks and weeks playing around with models built perfectly to scale before they came up with a picture of London that seemed worthy of setting in stone.

The filmmakers' vision of London in 1593 came to life on a plot of land behind Shepperton studios, which had until recently been a garden nursery. A construction crew of 115 men in only 8 weeks constructed 17 buildings including 2 theatres, a series of meandering alleyways, a brothel, a tavern, a whole market place and, of course, the young William Shakespeare's London pad. The backlot became an alternate world of meandering streets, hidden alleyways, nooks and crannies.

Equally central to the story was the erecting of the two theatres vying for Shakespeare's new--but as yet unwritten--play. First there is the Rose Theatre, owned by Philip Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush), a once robust place now foundering due to clusures forced by the plague. Elsewhere in London is the Curtain Theatre where the Chamberlain's Men perform. Most important to Martin Childs was creating a definite contrast between the two. Theatre design was an important element of Elizabethan drama, although no two theatres followed exactly the same design. Research on what the original Rose Theatre looked like was scant, so Childs once again delved into his imagination. "I'd do as much research as I could then throw that to the side and go with my imagination, following my instincts about what looked right and believable for the film. Retrospectively, I've discovered that a lot of the places where I was playing fast and loose were actually fairly historically accurate!"

Childs explains the look he chose for the Rose: "A lot of the feel comes from the fact that there is no roof and that links it with the earth and sky. I was very keen to make it look as though the weather had got to it as they would not have been constantly repainting it. We also kept the Rose Theatre quite undecorated, but with a little bit of grandeur on the stage." Considerable records of the Curtain Theatre still exist so Childs was able to follow his research--constructing a heavily decorated, elaborate theatre where Queen Elizabeth I was a regular patron.

Although the vast majority of SIL was shot at Shepperton on stages or backlots, some authentic locations were utilized. These include Broughton Castle in the Oxfordshire countryside manor which stands in for Lady Viola's stately home; Hatfield ahouse, an English country estate which was transformed into the Queen's Greenwich Palace; The Great Hall at Middle Temple for the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall Palace where "Two Gentlemen of Verona" is performed before the Queen; and several London riverside locations in the Bankside area.

Two of the most important dramatic scenes in the film were shot on location--the meadow where Viola declares her love for Will and the final scene in which an imagined Viola finds herself washed upon the shore of land. Finding the right location for these scenes was vital and proved one of the biggest challenges for the designer and the location department. They settled on a meadow and beach on the Holkham Estate on the North Norfolk coast which boasts one of the most unspoiled and spectacular beaches in the country. With a foreshore approximately 5 miles long it appears to go on forever. On the day of filming the sun shone brightly, the air was crisp and the wind flung itself along the shores, creating a wild and truly magical place--a fitting spot for a brave and beautiful young heroine to end up.

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