It’s the inverse of our usual Oh the Bad Movies You’ll Watch conundrum, which is typically “fabulous story, boring costumes.” Anonymous (2011) has one of the stupidest, most preposterous, and frankly annoying stories in historical film, but the costumes are gorgeous and show a decent level of historical accuracy. I don’t know which problem is worse, just that sometimes (often? always?), it’s like hunting for unicorns to find frock flicks with good stories and good costumes!
The film is an insanely fictional tale suggesting that 16th-century courtier Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans), actually wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, plus has an affair and bastard son with Queen Elizabeth I (played as a old woman by Vanessa Redgrave and as a young woman by Redgrave’s daughter Joely Richardson). Oh, and de Vere himself is one of Elizabeth’s many bastard children (eww). Anyway, at least the visuals are fabulous, so screencapping isn’t such a pain, and I’m going to ignore the irritating story and focus on the clothes, specifically, the women’s gowns because that’s how I roll.
Costumes in Anonymous
Although she had done little period work before and was mostly known for German movies and TV, costume designer Lisy Christl was nominated for an Oscar for Anonymous. Not only were this film’s Elizabethan court costumes opulent, they were well researched. The Hollywood Reporter even got Christl to name-check one of our favorite books:
“‘For every dress in the film, there’s the original portrait in the background,’ says Christl, who also relied on Janet Arnold’s 2001 book Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d as a guide. After months of research, Christl spent five months hunting flea markets and costume shops for vintage fabrics. To hold down costs, she even scavenged bits of fine embroidery from wonderful old Indian saris, scarves, and Romanian aprons to help decorate the 20 resplendent gowns she made for the queen.”
That’s the way to do things! Research and scavenge, that’s how I do it too. And particularly for the older Queen Elizabeth, Christl nailed the look. She visited the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Westminster Abbey archives to research costumes for Anonymous, and this work shows up on screen. Obviously, she was working within a limited budget and timeframe, so she cut some corners, but she didn’t sacrifice basic accuracy.
As Christl told Interview Magazine, she aimed for details appropriate to period:
“For example, black, red, green, and blue were the colors for the nobles, and there was a very simple reason: to dye these colors was very expensive. The next thing was the fabric worn by the noble people, because silk was very expensive. You couldn’t buy fabric around the corner, and silk was shipped from all over the world. So these details already give a kind of a frame where you can move and where you can’t. So this was kind of a starting point to jump into this Elizabethan England.”
Also, her team did as much as they could to work with the materials they could afford. She said in the New York Daily News, “Not a single yard of fabric went into the costume making without the dying, boiling, washing, distressing, waxing process.” These elaborate surface treatments look more sumptuous in the brooding candlelight used throughout the film. Director of photography Anna Foerster described how she and the film’s director Roland Emmerich wanted the movie to look like a historical painting, such as one by Johannes Vermeer: “With the new developments in digital cinematography, we could really take advantage of candlelight and firelight. For a period piece, using available light — candles, fireplaces, whatever comes in from outside — makes it real.”
Anonymous is by no means perfect in costumes, and what’s good about the costumes doesn’t make up for a supremely annoying plot. In fact, it’s really just the later 1590s gowns worn by Redgrave that are amazing and show the most accurate work. But the earlier gowns are still pretty and not in a WTFrock fashion or even a stripped-down basic look (a la Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth, 1998, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, 2007). Let’s run through the costumes in the film, both for the young Elizabeth and the older Elizabeth. The film jumps back and forth in their timeline, but I’m going to go chronologically by costume period.
Young Queen Elizabeth, Blue Brocade Gown
Lisy Christl’s sketch & mood board for the blue gown includes a medieval madonna with the blue gown color & a Bronzino portrait.
Here’s that portrait — 1551, Maria de Medici by Agnolo Bronzino. While this is Italian, at least the period is correct.
The gown sleeves aren’t a very good interpretation of the large, turnback sleeves worn during Mary I’s reign. Also, the guy on the right shouldn’t be wearing a big ol’ ruff. (But the chick on the far left looks kind of like me, lol!)
This painting — 1547, portrait of Elizabeth I when she was princess, attributed to William Scrots — might have been a better example for Christl’s board.
And there’s the whole ‘hair down means she’s young’ cliche. But I’m distracted by that gorgeous fabric so…
Young Queen Elizabeth, Orange Satin Gown
Then there’s this gown, that’s just kind of an “E” for effort. Also, someone ordered all the ruffs for the film at the same size, not realizing that ruffs grew from tiny to humongous over the course of QEI’s lifetime.
Young Queen Elizabeth, Orange Damask Doublet
Doublet-style gown, probably (we don’t really see the bottom half). Love the fabric & collar.
Young Queen Elizabeth, Smock
HATE this. Is that elastic around the neck? Even if it’s a drawstring, it looks cheeziod. Gag.
Look — here’s a smock from Patterns of Fashion 4 by Janet Arnold. Note the collar. Also the sleeve construction. Now let’s move on.
Young Queen Elizabeth, Red Velvet Court Gown
QEI sitting in state, waaaaaaay in the background while de Vere gets married.
Promo shot of that outfit — classic “Elizabethan court gown” using upcycled sari materials (which totally works!).
Along the general lines of this 1560s portrait of Elizabeth I by Steven Van Der Meulen.
Young Queen Elizabeth, Dark Blue Kirtle
I appreciate that during this intimate (but not sex) scene, she’s wearing a kirtle as “casual / undress” wear.
However, I’m still bothered by that smock. #NoElasticNoDrawstringsPlease
Young Queen Elizabeth, Black Satin Gown
If you guessed this was my favorite dress in the whole movie, you are awfully close!!! I do love the hell out of it, but another does manage to top it. This is pretty fucking exquisite though!
Anne de Vere, Stripe Doublet
The only other woman to get an outfit worth commenting on is Edward de Vere’s wife in this one scene.
She’s unhappy, but she’s SO STRIPEY & SO GOOD!!!
So could Anna de Vere’s doublet be historically accurate? Sure. Trim was often applied in a stripe pattern, & black & white was a popular combo. For example, Nazareth Newton, Lady Paget, 1578.
Also, Lettice Knollys, by Nicholas Hilliard, 1590-95.
Old Queen Elizabeth, White Gown
An impressionistic version of the many 1580s-90s white gowns with giant standing ruffs that QEI wore. Can’t actually tell if it’s white or silver or a pastel.
Modern use of appliques and gems to resemble the intricacies of period lace.
Old Queen Elizabeth, Pale Blue-Lavender Gown
Almost full-length view. I believe the folds in her lap are where the top part of the skirt is pinned up forming a ruffle — this would often be done over a wheel farthingale, although by the way she’s sitting, I don’t know if she’s wearing one.
1595, Portrait of a Lady by the circle of Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Note the skirt pinned up into a ruffle.
Looks like appliques across the front of the bodice.
Overheating, she’s unfastening her bodice by unlacing one side, although it could be done with pins in the period.
That removes the front panel and exposes the center-front lacing.
Old Queen Elizabeth, Stays
Blackwork smock, reed-boned stays with hand-bound eyelets, AWWW YES.
Left, man’s shirt c. 1580-1590. Right, woman’s shirt c. 1610. Fashion Museum of Bath, U.K.
Stays made for the effigy of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1603, Westminster Abbey.
Old Queen Elizabeth, Green Kirtle
A simple outfit for a more intimate scene, but it’s still done well (and unlike the young QEI, no weird drawstring-style smock).
Old Queen Elizabeth, Black Gown & White Ruff
She starts wearing a lot of black gowns at this point in the movie, and while they are distinctive, it’s hard to describe them differently, so bear with me.
Kind of going for the ‘Sieve Portrait’ classic black gown look.
1583, Elizabeth I, “Sieve Portrait” by Quentin Metsys the Younger.
Old Queen Elizabeth, Black Gown & Red Ruff
Simple black doublet gown, black veiling over her hair.
But the red ruff set is a no-go. There’s historical evidence for pastel-tinted ruffs (colors were added to the starch and could be washed out), I haven’t heard or seen of ruffs being made of anything but white linen and lace. I like the look, but please show me documentation!
Old Queen Elizabeth, Black Gown & White Ribboned Sleeves
Yeah, the peacock feather headdress is wacky (though not entirely unrealistic). But the dress is gorgeous and does bear some resemblance to period styles. Not sure about the little bows, but then, the Armada Portrait gown has big ol’ bows, so IDK. It’s hard to say exactly how the affect was created.
1592, Portrait of Mary Rogers, Lady Harrington, by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. I’ve been wondering for a long time if this portrait has been floating around Hollywood, et. al., as costume inspiration. Because, even before Anonymous, there was…
Vivien Leigh as a 16th-century courtier in Fire Over England (1937) wearing this dress designed by René Hubert. Anyone else seeing the inspiration, or is it just me?
Old Queen Elizabeth, Black Gown & White Embroidered Sleeves
And finally, here’s my favorite gown in the whole movie. It’s huge, it’s black and white, it’s got the right (if bizarre) shape for the 1590s, & it makes a good stab at the right embellishment.
I lightened up this image to show the canted back little hump that shows she’s likely wearing a wheel farthingale.
And there’s that pinned-up skirt ruffle, showing in the back.
And from the front, the long flat line of the bodice and the giant sleeves with embroidery and sheer oversleeves. I adore this style, and it shows up in a lot of portraits, yet so few recreations onscreen.
1580, portrait of Frances Kingsmill, Mrs. John Croker, by George Gower. The bodice looks very similar to that in Anonymous.
1580s, Mary Cornwallis, Countess of Bath, by George Gower. Again, similar bodice.
1587, unknown girl by John Bettes the Younger. Really giant embroidery motifs!
1590, Elizabeth I, portrait at Jesus College of Oxford. Yup, even QEI wore this style, so it’s appropriate.
Have you suffered through Anonymous just for the costumes?