Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne: The Frock Flicks Guide

22

Alexandra Byrne grew up in Stratford-Upon-Avon in the U.K., so it’s no surprise that she started working in theater and became a costume designer. But she’s also made a name for herself costuming films in the Marvel cinematic universe, which hints at the wild flamboyance of her work. She can create precise historical costumes, but she’s often worked with directors who seem to have their own “vision” for the costumes that’s more “relatable” like modern haute-couture than true historical fashion. Thus, we may end up snarking her work as much as praising it, and that seemed appropriate on this Friday before our next Snark Week! Consider this an amuse-bouche.

 

 

 

Persuasion (1995)

This was Byrne’s first historical project, & she knocked it out of the park with classic, yet not totally boring, Regency frocks for this Jane Austen adaption.

Pops of color with velvet spencer jackets & matching hats.

Contrasting piping & embroidery.

Even the basic white dress is jazzed up with a delicate scalloped hem.

Anne Elliot’s evening gown is subtle but sparkly.

With elaborate sleeve treatments.

Adorable teeny “tails” at the back of the bodice.

And a bright red dress for the Regency bad girl. (Photoshot/Getty Images)

 

 

 

Hamlet (1996)

Hamlet (1996)

Alexandra Byrne earned her first Oscar nomination this Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare adaption that’s set in a vaguely 1890s Danish court.

Hamlet (1996)

Queen Gertrude gets a beautiful wedding gown to emphasize how important (& weird!) her marriage to her dead husband’s brother is.

Ophelia (Kate Winslet) is dressed as a proper, innocent girl before everything goes to hell.

Hamlet (1996)

“Look at my flowers. There’s rosemary, that’s for remembering. Please remember, love. And there are pansies, they’re for thoughts.”

Hamlet (1996)

For the pivotal closet scene, Gertrude (Julie Christie) wears an elegant Fortuny-style gown.

Hamlet (1996)

The gown on display. It was created by the team of Patricia and Charles Lester.

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth (1998)

Snark Week - Elizabeth (1998)

This movie is where we start to see some of Byrne’s designs that play fast & loose with history. Of course, that’s likely due to the Indian director Shekhar Kapur, who also went wacky with the historical facts of QEI’s life in this flick.

Alexandra Byrne, Elizabeth (1998)

A slightly fanciful take on 1550s.

Alexandra Byrne, Elizabeth (1998)

The coronation gown is pretty damn good though.

Alexandra Byrne, Elizabeth (1998)

Looks right out of the portrait.

Joseph Fiennes - Elizabeth (1998)

A flash of Indian fabric on Leicester’s (Joseph Fiennes) cloak.

A much better take on 1550s!

Snark Week - Elizabeth (1998)

Why did they do this to Mary of Guise?!?

Fanny Ardant in Elizabeth (1998)

Including random armor?

Alexandra Byrne, Elizabeth (1998)

My favorite costume in this movie! It hits all the right historical marks, plus it’s cool AF.

Alexandra Byrne, Elizabeth (1998)

This, while pretty, hints at things to come in the sequel. The design is only semi-historical (this is supposed to be a riding outfit), & really it’s just a big dress in sumptuous fabrics.

elizabeth 1998

Interesting cross between the Armada portrait & the Ditchley portrait of QEI.

 

 

 

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)

Alexandra Byrne, Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001)

Does what it says on the tin.

Alexandra Byrne, Captain Corelli's Mandolin (2001)

Sorry, but it’s impossible to make Penélope Cruz look plain, no matter how you dress her in “simple” “country” WWII-era clothes. Nice try, though!

 

 

 

Finding Neverland (2004)

Finding Neverland (2004)

Johnny Depp as J.M. Barrie & the story behind the family who inspires Peter Pan. He first met the family in 1897 & socialized with them through the mother, Sylvia’s, death in 1910.

But the costumes are styled for the 1910s, as shown on Kate Winslet as Sylvia.

Alexandra Byrne, Finding Neverland (2004)

WIth some very light fantasy touches like…

Alexandra Byrne, Finding Neverland (2004)

This amazeballs dressing gown! I’m always stunned when a costume designer puts so much effort into things like an elaborate hem that are barely seen onscreen.

There’s one beautiful dinner gown too.

2004 Finding Neverland

Which I still can’t find good screencaps of, boo.

 

 

 

The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

2004 The Phantom of the Opera

It is a truth universally acknowledged that I hate Phantom of the Opera.

2004 The Phantom of the Opera

At least this one has some wild stage costumes!

Alexandra Byrne, The Phantom of the Opera (2004) Alexandra Byrne, The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
Alexandra Byrne, The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

Otherwise, it’s just these guys, as required by law.

 

 

 

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

I like the attempt at 1580s here — the elaborate wired veil is great & the fold-over skirt is period.

Elizabeth: the Golden Age (2007)

Looks awesome from the back too.

Alexandra Byrne, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

The costume on display.

Underneath, she even has a historically accurate effigy corset!

The general silhouette of the gowns is usually fine, but it’s the details, the embellishments, & the styling that are off in terms of historical accuracy.

Alexandra Byrne, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

This ice-blue gown is very pretty, but that sparkly embellishment down the center front isn’t something you’d typically see on a 16th-c. gown.

That giant sparkly embroidered bow on the center front — WTFrock?!? And this is basically a strapless gown with a sheer blue shrug.

Alexandra Byrne, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Gorgeous, but more Victorian in fit than Elizabethan.

Alexandra Byrne, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

This one has a more 16th-c. shape, but the styling is too modern. It’s that “trying to be relatable” or “renaissance haute couture” thing *eyeroll*

Alexandra Byrne, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

The costume on display, including the fishnet-y partlet & random jewelry.

Snark Week - Elizabeth the Golden Age (2007)

Even when the gowns are OK, the styling is so … strange.

Snark Week - Elizabeth the Golden Age (2007)

I just don’t know what the point is there.

Alexandra Byrne, Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Then there’s the armor. Yeah, I know, Cate looks fabulous in it! Maybe that’s why Alexandra Byrne won the Oscar that year? But sorry to burst everyone’s bubble & remind ya, this ain’t historically accurate.

Snark Week - Elizabeth the Golden Age (2007)

What this movie does to MQoS — both in plot & costume — is criminal.

Mary Queen of Scots in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

The grecian chemise for her execution is just silly — & we’ll see it again.

 

 

 

The Garden of Eden (2008)

2008 The Garden of Eden

A small, not terribly successful flick set in the 1920s.

Alexandra Byrne, The Garden of Eden (2008)

Kind of cute?

Alexandra Byrne, The Garden of Eden (2008)

Would like to see more of this outfit, but couldn’t find pix!

 

 

 

300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

2014 300- Rise of an Empire

Just barely a frock flick, this is nominally set in ancient Greece.

2014 300- Rise of an Empire

But the costumes are very fantasy-inspired.

Alexandra Byrne, 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

Or like this.

 

 

 

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Bryne joined Branagh again, now for a stylish ’30s murder-mystery.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Slinky bias cut.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Great colors.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Smart day wear.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Elegant lounging wear.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Judi Dench as the posh Russian aristocrat got the most OTT outfits, as she should!

Judi Dench, Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Hat! Jewels! Fur! Imperious glare!

 

 

 

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

OK, here’s where I have some serious beef with Alexandra Byrne. And the director & everyone involved with this film.

Snark Week - Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

C’mon, denim? PUL-LEEZE.

Snark Week - Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

So.Much.Denim.

Snark Week - Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

It’s not a good look.

Snark Week - Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Then there’s the kicky shrugs that are NOT 16th-c. partlets.

Snark Week - Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Hilariously oversized man-bags.

Snark Week - Mary Queen of Scots (2018)

Weird attempts at renaissance undergarments.

Mary Queen of Scots (2018) - execution gif

I busted out laughing in the theater when this happened. The tear-away dress! And then the red chemise underneath is the same as in Elizabeth The Golden Age!

 

 

 

The Aeronauts (2019)

Felicity Jones, The Aeronauts (2019)

This Victorian adventure flick has several period-correct gowns.

Phoebe Fox, The Aeronauts (2019)
Felicity Jones, The Aeronauts (2019)

One decently period stage costume.

Felicity Jones, The Aeronauts (2019)

A plausibly period “flying” suit.

Eddie Redmayne, The Aeronauts (2019)

And a guy in a nice suit.

 

 

 

Emma. (2020)

Alexandra Byrne, Emma (2020)

Byrne returned to Regency for her most recent historical work & knocked it out of the park with designs that leaned heavily into historical repros but also reflected each character’s personality & arc. Yes, it can be done without sacrificing accuracy!

Alexandra Byrne, Emma (2020)

This elaborate spencer jacket is right out of a museum or fashion plate.

Alexandra Byrne, Emma (2020)

Emma’s ‘strawberry dress’ is a repro of an extant gown at the V&A Museum.

There are plenty of little white Regency dresses, but they’re not boring.

2020 Emma

The level of detail & embellishment is wonderful.

2020 Emma
2020 Emma

That seaming!

Alexandra Byrne, Emma (2020)

Delicate yellow & green.

2020 Emma

Excellent cut on his coat, & her white gown is beautifully fitted.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s your favorite historical costume design by Alexandra Byrne? Can you forgive her for the flicks that play fast and loose with history?

22 Responses

  1. mmcquown

    To my knowledge, nobody’s ever tried to do the whole of the novel of the Phantom, which would take a mini-series; there’s so much more to it. Been at least 3 movies, but I have no faves from this designer.

    Reply
  2. Aleko

    That purple gown in The Golden Age is 100% an aniline dye colour. It just couldn’t have existed before the second half of the 19th century (when it was molto trendy).

    Reply
    • M.E. Lawrence

      I was just about to say, “16th century? Get away with you!” So very Victorian, that color.

      Reply
  3. Orian Hutton

    I love the costumes in ‘Emma’, but do have problems with the possible accuracy to the book. Just don’t think Mr Knightley’s shirt collar would be so high; he is known for being rather country casual and not much bothered by appearances. And would Emma, who has never been out of Highbury, have quite such fashionable clothing despite being wealthy. Her clothing would most likely be made by someone in the village or her home, not a fashionable London dressmaker? Still, her dresses are lovely and don’t I just wish I had some of them.

    Reply
    • Gill

      Emma’s sister lived in London, so could well have sent her fabrics and illustrations from La Belle Assemblée for her dressmaker to copy. But I just love those costumes too much to gripe.

      Reply
      • Aleko

        I think it’s fair to say that she definitely would have. The Austens’ family correspondence is full of requests for people living in / going to Town to send / bring back fabrics and fashion info. It’s in her novels too – remember in P&P when the Gardiners come from London to visit, and Mrs B is so glad to hear what Mrs G tells her about ‘long sleeves’? And such requests crop up so absolutely routinely in 18th-century correspondence that it’s clear that this was taken for granted as a normal social duty: if you took a trip to London, or came on a visit from London, it was expected from you. Also, a foreign visitor to England in the late 18th century – sorry, I forget his name or where in Europe he came from – was struck by the speed with which fashion information spread from the capital into the countryside: whenever any innovation that was relatively cheap and quick to make, such as a new style of cap, was introduced in London, within only a few weeks you would see it being worn in the provinces. That could only have happened with a permanently-active ‘bush telegraph’ of fashion info between them.

        Reply
  4. Roxana

    The MQS consumes are truly horrible, being neither authentic nor pretty. I can overlook casting an Asian actress but giving her a fancy Chinese style ‘do is beyond the pale.

    Reply
    • Kathleen Norvell

      I pretty much hated everything about MQoS. The costumes were awful — who thought denim would be a good idea? — the history sucked (Elizabeth & Mary never met), I did not like the weird casting. If you’re going to present it as a histrical film, at least TRY to get it right. Otherwise call it “Susan and Judy” or somehting like that.

      Reply
      • Aleko

        That is absolutely my reaction to Shekhar Kapur’s two Elizabeth movies, too. If they had only been presented as ‘dramas about an imaginary Renaissance queen, some aspects of whose story just might remind you of, and illuminate, the life of a real Renaissance queen we all know’ (the cinematic equivalent of most of Guy Gavriel Kay’s fiction), I’d have loved them.

        Reply
        • Lily Lotus Rose

          Aleko, you will FOREVER have FIVE GOLD STARS for mentioning Guy Gavriel Kay! Amen!!! And besides just mentioning that, I take your point.

          Reply
    • Rya

      I’m sorry but the comments about Gemma Chan being cast in MQS are, frankly, racist. She is not a Chinese actress. She is an English actress. One of her parents is Chinese. Why is it any weirder to cast her as an English noblewoman than it is to cast an Irish actress as the most recognizable Scottish queen in history, or an Australian as the most well-known English queen? Because we’re quite happy to imagine that all so-called ‘white’ people look the same whereas a hint of ‘other’ ancestry shatters historical illusions? The costumes in the film were hideous but I applaud it for having the courage to cast Gemma despite the flack they knew they’d get (and did) for casting anyone of colour, while knowing that people won’t mind a bit that the literal queen of Scots isn’t played by a Scotswoman (yet inexplicably has a Scots accent even though Mary grew up in France… but whatever).

      Reply
      • Roxana

        I would have been perfectly happy to suspend disbelief and accept Gemma Chan as Bess of Hardwick if she’d been dressed as Bess of Hardwick!

        Reply
  5. Constance

    The main point of watching historical dramas for me is too see exactly how people looked, what they wore, how their hair was done, how they walked, danced, etc…I want it to be literal and accurate lol, maybe with fancier trim. But Hollywood can’t let go of the “fantasy” aspect even in so-called bio pics…which during the Golden Age were often more fiction than not. They would sooner show a big name actress stark naked than without make-up and teased hair. So annoying to see bouffants in period films…nearly as bad as flowing beachy waves on female of all ages…my gripe for today lol.

    Reply
  6. Saraquill

    The actually period outfits are gorgeous. They’re not enough to make me overlook the “denim is relatable” travesty.

    Reply
  7. florenceandtheai

    I know the costumes in QE1 are crazyballs. I still love them for their sheer lushness.

    Regency is not my favorite (empire waistlines are not flattering on fa-boob-ulous me) but I appreciated the variety in Emma. And I want all of the hats! I did notice the limp ramen noodle curls on Emma (after reading the review here) and giggled, but they didn’t affect my enjoyment of the film.

    Reply
  8. SarahV

    Wow – Alexandra Byrne was involved in SO MANY OF MY FAVORITE MOVIES!!!!! I shall forgive Elizabeth the Golden Age and MQoS, because I love ‘the Regency Bad Girl” dress (#lifegoals), and everything Minnie Driver wears in Phantom is Tacky Tacky Fabulousness, plus Emmy Rossum’s debut gown replete with diamond starbursts in her hair a la Empress Sissi is divine.

    That Hamlet is one my favorite versions and I must say, looking at those pictures, has there ever been a woman who aged as gorgeously as Julie Christie?

    Reply
  9. Nzie

    I didn’t know she’d done that Hamlet; it’s been quite a while since I saw it, but I do remember some, and “vague 1890s” is an era I tend to like (particularly at either end when the sleeves aren’t too big). AB is is clearly a talented designer, and can make some fantastic historically accurate pieces and great character things. I don’t know a quarter of what you all do but I saw that red dress in Emma and knew I’d seen it. But then MQoS is just off and wild. So it makes me think about the conversations behind the scenes. Of course it could be fun to just run with something as a designer and not really go all historically accurate, but I am much more forgiving of that in live performances. Film really presents as a ‘real’ thing in most cases, so in those cases I really want them to be real

    Other than that, I have a soft spot for Finder Neverland, and Kate Winslet looks amazing in it. (Is ca. 1910 her era? It seems to work great for her.)

    Reply
  10. Lily Lotus Rose

    Ok, I think I’ve been visiting this site for about 2 1/2 years now, and it only took that long for y’all to do a post in which I’ve seen most of the reviewed works!! I cannot speak to historical accuracy (I come to this site to learn about that), but I can say that this costume designer’s works are SO BEAUITFUL and that I’ve always visually enjoyed what I’ve seen by her. (Don’t boo me over MQoS–I haven’t seen that one–on purpose!) Can we also admit that regarding her historical dramas, she has been extremely blessed with GORGEOUS canvases. I don’t think I’ve seen a post on this site that has been consistently populated by gorgeous actors (male and female) in almost EVERY screencap! There are so many beautiful costumes here that I really can’t choose a favorite. And in answer to your second question, yes, I can forgive her for the costumes that play fast and loose with history. Thanks for this amuse-bouche. Can’t wait for Snark Week!

    Reply
  11. Roxana

    If a historical costume can’t be accurate it can at least be beautiful. If it’s neither accurate nor beautiful (MQS) it has no excuse for existing!

    Reply
  12. Kathy Gustafson

    Emma is pure costume porn. It’s nice that the gowns are accurate but the details and workmanship are just effing exquisite. Doesn’t hurt that that Anya Taylor-Joy has the body and posture to show them to best effect.

    Reply
  13. Joni

    I’ve always found the stills from ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ to be vaguely unsettling. I’ve just figured out it’s because they all have FLDS hair. vomits

    Reply

Leave a Reply to Rya Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.