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?
I refused to watch it for the non-indicative title and the class snobbery of “only a noble could write Literature(tm.)” The incest subplot furthered my non-desire to watch. Glad there was a silver lining to this mess.
I actually love this film. I thought it very thought provoking and, after doing a bit of research, discovered that there are quite a few people who believe that Edward wrote the plays, etc. The believers are called Oxfordians.
I knew I had heard about this film. Reading a book called Reel History. The author writes for The Guardian.
Here’s what they had to say about the movie. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/nov/03/anonymous-shakespeare-reel-history
I loved the Reel History articles on the Guardian and have that book. A gem. Enjoy…
My daughter and I watched this film together and laughed aloud many times. It’s beautiful but ridiculous. The movie did, however, give us a great code phrase: “going on progress.” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)
I absolutely loathe Anonymous. It is a mind-numingly stupid movie made by an awful director. Also to defend that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have written his plays is pretty snobbish, as it mainly sparks from being unable to accept that a middle class man could have talent. Their train-though goes as follows: “because his plays are perfect, they could only have been written by a perfect man”. It is literary creationism at its best.
These people also defend that because his plays feature kings and tennis and posh things, the writer MUST have been noble. But if that had been the case, he must surely have been the dumbest nobleman in England, for he wrote that Padua had a harbor, that Bohemia had a coastline and that wild lions roamed the forests of France… Mistakes that are understandable when you consider that Shakespeare never set a good outside England, but become outrageous if you claim a “divine” nobleman did.
Also, his will doesn’t mention plays because the playhouses owned the plays, not him.
To top it all off, an outsider to the theater company couldn’t have written it, as the playhouses had their own system that didn’t particularly resemble how theater companies work nowadays. Back in the 16th century, a playhouse wouldn’t just buy and stage a random play from outside the company. They would have a permanent writer on hire that would write particular plays that would fit the talents of the actors the company had on payroll. So the writer had to be familiar with the company, its actors and each individual talent. He couldn’t simply mail the play to the playhouse and be done with it.
That’s why some Shakespeare plays have several versions, as Shakespeare modified it when there was a change of cast (adding or subtracting characters or scenes).
Sorry for the rant, needed to get it out.
Yup, yup, yup. As a sometime literature academic, I consider this movie absolute drivel for all the points you listed & more. It’s only worth discussing for the costumes!
Read James Shapiro’s Contested Will to see the full explanation of why this movie’s theory is total crap!
Thanks for the recommendation! I will check it out!
Fabulous book. Especially since James Shapiro points out that the main error for Shakespeare (and much literature/art criticism to follow) was by an early 19th C biographer, Edmund Malone, who, desperate for biographical detail, turned to the plays. Since THE MAIN information at the time of what Elizabethan Court life was like was Shakespeare’s plays, we see that Malone creates a circle of error — as the plays are a proper representation of the Court, then how could a non-Court attendant (Shakespeare being not a posh aristo) have known these things?
The Looneys followed Malone’s trail (yes, the first Oxfordians rejoiced in the last name of Looney) — Shakespeare’s biography was such that he couldn’t know about Court life, so it must be someone else!
Finally,I had to read some of Oxford’s writings for graduate school. They stunk. Tell me why he published the good stuff under another name but published garbage under his own (yes, I’m passionate about this, and I had to deal with Looneyites at work).
To quote amazing Kyle Kalgren “It’s spelt “louney”. I am gravely dissapointed.”
This is probably Roland’s dumbest movie since 2012! But the costumes look stunning especially the ruffs!
And Emmerich made a lot of dumb movies, so that’s saying something, LOL.
Preaching to the choir.
I remember seeing it and thinking: ‘Costumes A-/B+ story f***ing horrid. Not only I gagged on the incest idea, but I firmly believe William Shakespeare wrote the plays and not the widely travelled Protestant Earl raised in the Burghley house and husband of Anne Cecil, Burghley’s daughter. One Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford.
Imagination is not class or religion specific.
Yes, Anti-Strafordians actually believe Queen Elizabeth had an inbred bastard heir to the Tudor line! Long Live horribly deformed inbred Prince Tudor! Also they believe Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare because there are no documents proving he did, Roland has it so Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare because he was a poor and poors can’t art good, so this Shakespeare takes credit for The earl of Oxford’s work, but it has to be this way because Nobles can’t poetry! Like I said this is petty dumb, and the costumes can’t really save a painful, annoyingly stupid, and gross story, like you said!
“Poors can’t art good” should be the slogan of Anti-Strafordians
A movie to watch with the sound off!
Ermagerd. I LOVE Will S, love a good frock flick or even a shonky one, love a quirky English film, love a late night indulge – but when this came onto the TV late at night, I endured about 20 minutes of it and found it SO BORING I went to bed. It was BORING BORING BORING. In the face of all these reasons to persevere, I could not. I never got as far as seeing much by way of gorgeous frocks. Too many boring men talking. erk.
I was unaware of this movie but now some day when I am stuck hemming a yuuuge Victorian skirt I will watch it. I know almost nothing about this period and appreciate the facts gleaned: saris can be appropriately used here, ruffs grew and grew, get those farthingales on and finally, to appropriate and then misquote Jane Austen–“Thanks for the information about the sleeves!” Appreciated the comparison of a modern day interpretation with the Vivien Leigh version–yes, they seemed to be looking at the same source(s). Reviews like this make reading and supporting Frock flicks so interesting. Thanks again.
OK, I love your summation of my article :D Totally made my day, thank you!
There’s a lovely Kipling story, “The Propagation of Knowledge,” in which the “alternative Shakespeare” idea plays a central role. You’ll find it in The Complete Stalky & Co. Sounds as if this movie was much less entertaining. (And from the stills above, I can’t buy either of those actresses as Queen Elizabeth.)
As for the notion that Queen Elizabeth had secretly borne a child (or children) one writer–unfortunately now I can’t remember the name–pointed out that that would have been an impossible feat. Because Elizabeth was never alone.
I guess she could have but it would have required the complicity of a huge group of people, and a clever use of fashions ( Catherine de Valois and Hortense Beauharnais bore illegitimate children, but indeed they weren’t ruling queens. And they had accomplices)
Omg I love looking at the costumes but also reading this comment section. :-) Anyone here ever read the Eyre Affair? I think it references a riot breaking out between different factions of who-wrote-Shakespeare’s-plays at one point. I firmly agree with those here who point out that talent isn’t limited to the upper class. :-)
Yes! I love that book (and I’m currently re-reading it)! I remember something about some Marlovians attacking a group of Baconians… very entertaining. The main character in the book is very knowledgeable about Shakespeare and in another scene in the book she has a little fun with the Baconian who comes knocking on her door, defending the author and pointedly asking the Baconian about Shakespeare’s will (which references his known theatre associates).
Anyhow, I’m intrigued with the Shakespeare authorship question, but not convinced of any one particular view.
Thank you all for a spirited and entertaining commentary! 😀
The Eyre Affair is one of my favorite books! So delightful! It’s a joy to find other Fforde readers!
I adamantly refuse to watch Anonymous so really appreciated this blog. Now I will never be tempted to watch the film just for the costumes having had the opportunity to see and appreciate them here. That last black dress is magnificent but bit disappointed that she always chose to costume Elizabeth in blue. I suspect that “Liz” preferred red. Those red gowns in the portraits are truely stunning. (Can’t beat a red dress…)
I’m kind of a completist when it comes to Elizabethan movies (much like Kendra is with 18th-c. ones), so I had to watch this when it came out. Torture, yes, but at least the costumes were worthy, & that’s all that’s stuck with me since, so y’all got a post out of it.
Please see to the red ruffs: Anton van Dyck – Marchesa Geronima Spinola,
Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, and
Marchesa Elena Grimaldi, National Gallery of Art, Washington. What do you think about that? Greetings from Berlin, Kiki
Interesting!!! It’s 20+ years later, & it’s a one off (they’re basically the same painting by the same artist) — one example doesn’t make a trend or make it common. Van Dyck did paint a lot of ‘impressionistic’ clothing (the romantic draperies that were supposed to make the sitters look ‘classic’ & ‘timeless), but painting one item in a different color seems like an odd choice. I wonder if there’s a specific significance to the red!
Yay! Finally, you are tackling my favourite historical dissaster of a movie! Brows Held High review of this is honestly the best thing in the world…
You’ve made me want to rewatch this abominable mess of a story! How dare you! Oh, but the costumes!!
I have no skin in the Shakespeare game, but watched it with a friend who loves his plays — and both of us quite enjoyed the film, despite all our initial objections. (I don’t mind alternate takes on history, but the incest thing was squicky.)
The thing with alternate takes on history, is that you have to be careful with the possible implications of the changes presented. In this case, the two changes they present, both have cringy implications that I doubt anybody though through:
1- By presenting middle-class Shakespeare as a dumb and crass man with no talent whilst attributing his plays to the divine Oxford create the dreadful implication that, as someone in the comments said: “poors can’t art good”. Which is dreadful.
2- By claiming that if the world had not rejected this divine and talented man (Oxford) for his passion for playwriting, the Tudor line would have continued, thus avoiding those pesky Scotts ever getting the throne and lead to an eventual constitutional monarchy… is simply… terrifying.
And what worries me the most, is that I doubt Emmerich even realized it.
The film did neither. Shakespeare portrayed as a dumb and crass MIDDLE class man doesn’t = “poors can’t art good”. If anything, it = “middle class people can’t art good”, but that wasn’t the message either. Portraying him in the film as dumb and crass was the perfect foil to the genius of Oxford, who was smart and able to write – DESPITE being rich, not because he was rich. The Tudor line bit you mentioned is puzzling. In the film, Oxford and Liz had an illegitimate child. Oxford’s not being able to be known as a writer and playwright had no bearing whatsoever on the illegitimate child not being recognized as heir to the throne.
I stuck it out through this movie because I am a Shakespeare movie completionist.
I’ve mostly wiped it from my brain, but I remember struggling to learn the characters’ names and follow some of the plot.
I enjoyed the costumes, but the plot was strange and unpleasant.
Granted, there were things in the film that seemed a bit far fetched, but the notion that the works of Shakespeare were written by someone else has been supported by many, including well known actors and scholars. Why did literate Shakespeare not leave any manuscripts or books in his will? Why were his children unable to read or write? Why was his funerary monument changed, first depicting him as a grain merchant, then years later as a writer? Why was almost no mention made of his passing? Why was his occupation, after years as a playwright, still officially. “wool and grain merchant”? The list goes on. Even actor Derek Jacobi is an Oxfordian. Nothing “stupid” about it.
But never by an historian specializing in the Elizabethan theatre. Simple fact: Writing plays was not declasse, no reason to hide one’s identity. And there goes the Oxfordian’s whole case. Shakespeare’s papers might well have belonged to his theater group. His children were daughters, and Susanna apparently was literate. Are you seriously claiming that a group of players and a well known writer, Ben Jonson, lied when they issued the First Folio?
How on eartE do you explain the late plays, referencing contemporary material, written after Oxford’s death? Rylance and Jacobi are superb actors, but totally clueless about this.
Why in God’s name did they have to pick the most useless, venal, and worthless of Elizabeth’s peers as the ‘real’ Shakespeare?