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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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Here’s Pilar Lopez in a similar outfit from Mad Love:
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.
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:
What do you think? Does adding a little Scarlett O’Hara improve Queen Isabella’s look?