SNARK WEEK: WTF Is Queen Isabella Wearing in 1492: Conquest of Paradise?


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1492: Conquest of Paradise was a big deal when it came out in 1992, due to the anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. I never saw it back in the day (Gerard Depardieu has always annoyed me), but I recently got a wild hair to watch it — mostly because I am interested in cinematic depictions of colonialism. Depardieu was annoying as Columbus, mostly because he’s Depardieu (I can’t even define it, he’s in the same category as Geoffrey Rush — they annoy me by existing) but also because he’s Columbus, an Italian, wandering around in Spain and the Caribbean with a French accent. WTF?

But even more WTF, I thought, is Sigourney Weaver as Queen Isabella of Castile’s wardrobe. She’s only in a few (key) scenes, but whenever she is, I was mesmerized by her sparkly gold 1980s Barbie/Scarlett O’Hara interpretation:

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

Kendra’s read on 1492‘s Queen Isabella costumes. Yes, I owned that Barbie, bitches.

Now, I’m no expert in Spanish fashion of the Renaissance, and certainly not of the 15th century. So I decided to ping someone who is —Kate Newton, Mestressa Beatriz Aluares de la Oya in the SCA — and you know what? They weren’t totally smoking crack! Maybe just a little glue sniffing…

Here’s what Kate says:

A note before I start: these costumes make Baby Jesus cry. They are so close to decent, and then they take a sudden detour into crazy cotillion land.

This gown:

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

I am pretty sure this gown wants to be the gown on the right in this painting. This is Salome carrying the head of John the Baptist in Benabarre’s Retable of John the Baptist from 1470-1480. It’s likely that Isabella would have worn something like this as a young woman — the farthingale gown (verdugado) was enormously fashionable in Spain in the late 15th-early 16th century.

Pedro García de Benabarre, Retable of St. John the Baptist, 1470-80

Pedro García de Benabarre, Retable of St. John the Baptist, 1470-80.

The fabric is even a decent attempt, and the wide-laced stomacher is a pretty good reproduction of the stomacher on the woman in red to the left.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

However, two problems: hair and neckline. While Spanish women were known for wearing their hair “loose,” this usually meant “not tightly under a cap” instead of “completely uncovered.” In the source image, you can see a lot of hair peeking out the front of her cap and brad (cofia y tranzado). In some later images, women are clearly wearing their hair unconfined under a hood, but you rarely see an adult married woman with her hair completely down. Even the Virgin covers her head in Spain.

1992 1492- Conquest of Paradise

Kendra also questions the HAIR TIARA. WITH FLOWERS.

1992 1492- Conquest of Paradise

And the random back lacing…

1992 1492- Conquest of Paradise

And cotillion-bustle-style train attachment. Maybe I’m wrong, but that low hip placement looks weird to me. And that is one wiiiiiide farthingale. -Kendra

Also, that neckline. I’m beginning to think this is a “thing” with Sigourney Weaver, since if I recall correctly, several of her dresses do this in Snow White: A Tale of Terror a couple of years later. And don’t get me wrong — she has great collarbones. But the closest look to this that I could find in Spain is this image from 1400:

Luis Borrassá, Retablo de la Virgen y San Jorge, 1400.

Luis Borrassá, Retablo de la Virgen y San Jorge, 1400.

This is the equivalent of putting Elizabeth I in a gothic fitted dress. Stop.

This next dress has pretty much the same problem with the neckline. And the hair. Put a damn cap on over that head. Isabella was known for her piety and modesty, and there are no images of her without some sort of cap, hood, or veil on.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

It’s interesting because it looks like they’re trying to reproduce the habito, one of Isabella’s favorite garments. The major difference is that the habito tended to have a narrow, square neckline, and it wasn’t a garment that one tended to wear if one was planning an audience of some sort.

This is a period image of an habito:

Master of the Retable of the Reyes Católicos, The Marriage at Cana, 1496-97

Master of the Retable of the Reyes Católicos, The Marriage at Cana, 1496-97.

It’s also possible they were trying to reproduce Isabella’s burial monument, in which case, they didn’t do a terrible job, except for the neckline.

Statue of Isabella of Castile by Bigarny.

Statue of Isabella of Castile by Bigarny.

The funny thing is, the lady in waiting is spot-on. She is wearing a rollo (doughnut-shaped turban) on her head, her camisa (chemise) is higher-necked and edged in embroidery, and the neck of her saya (gown) is a nice deep square. You can see that the front of the saya is wide-laced over a stomacher, which is a touch old-fashioned but probably not unreasonable for someone of a lower but still noble social standing.

1992 1492- Conquest of Paradise

Kendra says: So typical, make the background characters historically accurate and put the lead actress in some sci-fi outfit!

And then there is the church-service-in-celebration-of-Columbus’s return clothing. Hm. I can’t find any images that look similar, except for screenshots of Mad Love from 10 years later. However, the written descriptions of their coronation clothing could certainly be interpreted this way. The all-over heraldry is nothing new — several of the excavated noble burials at Las Huelgas Monastery have people dressed in layers and layers of heraldic clothing, and my guess is these garments are supposed to represent the union of Castile and Aragon. So as symbolism, I can’t complain too much.

1992 1492- Conquest of Paradise 1992 1492- Conquest of Paradise

Here’s Pilar Lopez in a similar outfit from Mad Love:

2001 Mad Love aka Juana la Loca

Mad Love (2001)

I will nitpick and say that the hood she’s wearing is more appropriate for her daughter Juana several decades later, but the multiple layers of veils is something that Isabella wore in at least a couple of paintings.

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)
Juan de Flandes, Isabella I of Castile, Queen of Castile y Leon, 1496-1503, Palacio Real de Madrid

Juan de Flandes, Isabella I of Castile, Queen of Castile y Leon, 1496-1503, Palacio Real de Madrid.

So, there you have it. Clearly the costume designers — Charles Knode and Barbara Rutter — worked from actual historical sources! But, they also got a little festive.

In case you’re interested, here’s a few more images of Sigourney from the film:

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

In her final scene, Sigourney wears this version of her first dress. You can see the back in the featured image at the top of the post.

1992 1492- Conquest of Paradise

Look, here she is in a promo still wearing something on her head AND her shoulders covered! Crazytown!

1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)

This looks like the habito, but worn over a farthingale with a very geometric underskirt.


What do you think? Does adding a little Scarlett O’Hara improve Queen Isabella’s look?


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13 Responses

  1. Charity

    There needs to be way more movies about Isabella. Just saying.

    Have you seen ISOBEL? Be interested in your take on those costumes!

      • Clara

        There is an explanation there though: The budget was really tight and a lot had to be rented (yeah Spanish tv cannot boast of great budgets, in fact this series was almost cancelled before it was released. ) Still I think they did a better job at the costuming than “The Tudors”, but that is my opinion.
        And it might seem slow at first (That’s because prime time series’ episodes here are longer than in the USA), but trust me, it picks up after the first two episodes. (And really, there are some performances that are really worth the 20 extra minutes per episode)
        The sequel, “Carlos Rey Emperador” had way more budget for costumes and it shows (shoes instead of boots, codpieces that actually show, costumes that are exant reproductions from paintings, and a long etcetera, even if it also has its downsides). But then, we couldn’t have had that without “Isabel”, which has been pretty much a breakthrough in Historical fiction for TV here (one that I am really thankful for!)
        (Basically this is my way of saying that we had to start somewhere)

        • Sarah Lorraine

          “Isabel” is on my to-watch list, so don’t worry, we’ll get to it eventually! All the stills I’ve seen from the series look 50% cheesy rented costumes and 50% surprisingly good. Like this outfit:

          Really showcases how weird Spanish fashion was in the 15th century, which I personally think is great. There was no attempt to sex it up… Isabella was incredibly pious, plus there’s that great Moorish influence that is coming through… I’m actually pretty impressed.

  2. Adam Lid

    Not a deal-breaker in my opinion, the costumes pretty much ring true although the train on that first dress is a bit strange. And yeah, the hair needs to be a bit more under control (I guess it’s that chicks in flowing locks thing…).

    Not a bad movie although some of the clothes didn’t make sense. And this was definitely not one of Gerard Depardieu’s better movies.

  3. Susan Pola

    What struck me when I watched this movie years ago, was the fact that we really need a miniseries on Isabella la Catolica and Ferdinand of Aragon.

    The costumes were rich, but off a bit. I knew that the head should be covered, but the dresses themselves were not quite right. Thanks for pointing out the errors. I hate back lacing as much as the next FrockFlicker, but the hair loose was more annoying.

  4. Michelle Aguilar

    It’s been over a year – I would really love to see what the Spanish costuming experts have to say on the ‘Isabel’ miniseries. Also, the Assassin’s Creed take on Spain would be great too.

  5. satoristar

    I am interested in Spanish fashion of Isabella of Castille’s period, but I am having trouble finding anything that really is credible. I don’t know if I should be looking at early Tudor, which the Spanish supposedly influenced, or something else. Info is scant wherever I look. A little help and advice would be nice.