Romantic and sun-drenched, Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaption of Much Ado About Nothing was filmed entirely at the hillside Villa Vignamaggio in Tuscany, Italy. This was his last film with then-spouse Emma Thompson (before he cheated on her with Helena Bonham Carter during filming of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, ugh). This Shakespeare movie became one of the most financially successful film versions of the Bard’s work ever, perhaps because Branagh aimed to make it “relatable” to a broad audience.
Now, fear not, he didn’t dumb down the 16th-century language and make the two sets of lovers Benedick and Beatrice and Claudio and Hero talk in 20th-century slang, thank goodness. But he did strip away a lot of specific historical references in setting and costume in a conscious effort to make the film appear a bit more timeless, even fantasy, than a historical period. According to the Baltimore Sun, Branagh said:
“I wanted this film to reflect how relevant and contemporary Shakespeare is today, and as much as possible I wanted the costumes to be rather vague.”
The costume designer was Oscar-winner Phyllis Dalton, who had worked on several other of Branagh’s films. This ended up being her final work. She told the L.A. Times:
“You were maybe expecting to see it in the Shakespearean period? No, Ken Branagh has a lot of quite strong ideas on the way things should look.”
With all the action taking place in a sunny Tuscan villa, the costumes are appropriately lightweight, without the many layers found in 16th-century garb or trailing skirts of medieval robes. The central male characters are all gentlemen soldiers returning from a successful battle, so they’re dressed in military-style jackets from an indiscriminate period. The main female characters are mostly in pale, flowing dresses from no one specific era. And the hair and makeup are totally modern. It’s a little crazy, but it kind of works.
Let’s go through the costumes and try to count all the historical eras they reference, just for fun, shall we?
Our heroines, Hero (Kate Beckinsale) and Beatrice (Emma Thompson), wear full smocks or chemises, full skirts, and corset-like bodices that either lace or button up the front and have peplums at the back and for formal accessions include tied-on sleeves. The colors are all in shades of white / cream / pale yellow. It’s a very renfaire fantasy look that hints at historical styles without hitting any specific dates.
The other women dress in similar styles, with even fewer details.
Our heroes, the soldiers, get a tiny bit of variety in their outfits. They start in uniform jackets with leather pants, then they have a variety of waistcoats depending on the formality of the event (still worn with leather pants though).
The older men — Hero’s father and uncle,Dogberry and his crew, plus peasants in the background — wear essentially 18th-century clothing. This is the most consistent clothing period in the whole movie, so it kind of sticks out.
But really, it’s just a renfaire party, isn’t it?