Why don’t male critics understand the frock film? Clothes in cinema are not just frivolous. Sometimes the fantasies they inspire are sheer escapism, but at others they’re inspirational, even subversive.
When Alexandra Byrne won the 2008 Oscar for Best Costume Design for Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth The Golden Age – a film roundly condemned by male reviewers for playing unnecessary tricks with history – it was a supreme vindication.
Far from making soap of statecraft, clothes are as much a character in 'Elizabeth' as any of the politicians and prelates. And once again playing the Virgin Queen, Cate Blanchett is the most brilliant clotheshorse. We see Elizabeth stage-managing her appearance for every role she needs to play. Through costume she can appear metaphorically bigger against the architecture.
Byrne creates stunning dresses for Blanchett that draw inspiration as much from modernity as the original time period. The Spanish fashion designer Balenciaga, who interpreted Elizabethan costumes in his 1950s couture, was a key design influence.
In all the great fashion films of recent times (Orlando, The Wings of A Dove, Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven, The Hours), clothes tell you about desire, about politics and psychology.
In fact Byrne says that when Shekhar talks about clothes, he never talks about them in a naturalistic sense. He talks about the emotion of the character or the emotion within the story, and that's the starting point.
Go back 60, 70 years and all the great ‘women’s pictures’, from All About Eve to The Women, use these signifiers to trigger fantasies of self-transformation and transcendence. Costumes and make up literally are the subtext of the film.
Kapur says he instinctively saw Elizabeth wearing the colour blue, which meant that it was immediately out of the comfort zone of the first film. It was Byrne’s task to find a way of making blue Elizabethan and English and royal.
In the first Elizabeth film, Blanchett's clothes express the loss of innocence. We watch her journey to power as she gives up free-flowing dresses for the rigid pomp of coronation. In the final frame, an alabaster-white queen, she literally wills herself to become a virgin again. (Kapur jokingly described it as “the Trainspotting version of the English costume drama”).
But in the sequel, The Golden Age, it’s more complex: clothes have to take her from mortal to divine. At first she appears in formal red and orange robes with an ornate ruff – embodying the job of being queen. It’s clothes as a PR exercise. When she has to sign the death warrant of Mary Queen of Scots; the palette changes to rich, discordant green.
But at the age of 52, Elizabeth faces a crisis as a woman. She cannot have the lover – Frances Drake – she craves. She must live through his voyeuristic courtship with her lady in waiting, Bess.
And so her clothes tell us everything about thwarted sexual desire. She starts dressing in unstructured blue, with rich embroidery, cleavage and veiled sleeves. Her wigs, which usually resemble a plumed bird on her head, are more natural.
But in the pivotal bath scene, her hair scraped in a turban, she ponders her naked body with grim despair. Flesh is literally fabric. As she ages, her availability to be married and form alliances with other countries ebbs away. Yes, Bess caresses the royal head and keeps the imperial body intimate company, but Elizabeth knows she is the hollow woman. “What is going to fill me?” she cries.
By the end of the film she understands she must rise above her human desires if she is to achieve her destined state. In full Joan of Arc armour and a flowing red wig she rouses her troops to victory. Finally we see her “framed” on the cliff top in a nightdress, hair unashamedly shorn: she has almost become a spirit.
It is woman as luminous icon – after all, Kapur opens the film with Elizabeth as a stained glass motif – but with all the sacrifices that implies.