In cataloging Queen Elizabeth I on film and in TV, I realized we didn’t have proper reviews for some of the biggies, and it’s become my mission to fix that. We’ve mentioned and given short reviews to Helen Mirren‘s turn as Elizabeth I (2005) but since this two-part miniseries has some amazing costumes and solid acting, it’s time for a deep-dive.
This two-part miniseries gives an almost four-hour slice of QEI’s life, starting in 1579, about 20 years into her reign. The queen is 46 here, and the series continues until her death at age 70 — part two opening in 1589. I’m just going to point out that Helen Mirren was 60 when this premiered, so this the opposite problem of Glenda Jackson, in her mid-30s, portraying the queen from age 16 to 70 in Elizabeth R (1971). Mirren is a bit old at the start, and there is little to no discernible aging over the course of the series. Also, the fashions don’t show the passage of time very well, so the biggest problem with this series is that, for someone unfamiliar with the actual history, it may seem like a bunch of stuff all happened within a decade, at most, of QEI’s death.
Still, Mirren is a fine actor and the costumes, designed by Mike O’Neill, are richly detailed, so the combo really does make for an engaging and realistic-feeling biopic. The story is just accessible enough, focusing on Elizabeth’s emotional life while also reminding viewers that she’s a political figure in a complicated era, and the historical basics are there. The obvious sin of Elizabeth meeting Mary Queen of Scots happens, but it’s not as trashy as certain recent flicks (how could anything be?), and there’s no obvious sex between Elizabeth and Leicester like certain other flicks (no matter how much we’d like to see it with Jeremy Irons, heh). As Helen Mirren said in one interview, they did value the historical details:
“I find that historical detail is so much more interesting than anything we can invent nowadays. I mean, they lived life on such an extreme level. My only sadness was that we couldn’t get more historical detail into it, because you could really start investigating the extraordinary nature of their lives. For us the historical detail was very important. We come from a country that wants to pay attention in general to those things, and if there are a couple of things that we got deliberately wrong historically that was a very deliberate, and very thought about and argued over issue.
Like the issue of Elizabeth meeting Mary Queen of Scots which it’s ninety-nine point nine percent she didn’t. If she did, she did it in incredibly secrecy, which is what we sort of intimate. But it’s very unlikely that she ever met Mary Queen of Scots face to face. But they had a very protracted correspondence with each other. So, to dramatize that Nigel felt that you had to actually see it. But everything else, the historical detail is pretty accurate.”
Watch it and enjoy the hell out of Mirren and Irons chewing up the most excellent scenery!
Costumes in Elizabeth I
I’m going to run through as many of Helen Mirren’s costumes as I find interesting and could get decent screencaps of. This may not be in chronological order as shown in the miniseries because the same gowns are repeated at various times. Which, fine, sure, that’s often a great way to show that these are just clothes in a character’s wardrobe that can be worn again with different accessories for different occasions. But when it’s wearing the same clothes over the course of two decades — and two decades when fashions changed dramatically and this character is one of the most fashionable and richest people in the world — well, it’s a bit off.
There are a couple distinct themes in Mike O’Neill’s designs for QEI. He made several 1560s-1570s English renaissance gowns as usually seen on the queen, and he created at least one genuine wheel-farthingale 1590s gown (though there should be more). But what he made a ton of, as we noted in our 16th-Century Costume in TV & Film: Worst & Best video, are coat-dress style outfits for Elizabeth. These are what The Tudor Tailor book calls English fitted gowns because they were so common in 16th-c. England among both middling-class and upper-class women. So let’s look a these first.
Having made one of these gowns and just loving the heck out of the style, I’ve looked at a ton of 16th-c. images of English fitted gowns. The general style is a one-piece, sleeved gown made all in the same fabric, fastening up the front from neck to hem. The fitted gown tended to have a waist seam which allowed the skirts to be full, but it might be cut all in one piece from shoulder to hem. It’s worn over another gown, called a kirtle, and the top fitted gown’s skirt could be open to show the contrasting fabric of the kirtle. Both gowns were worn over a high-necked smock / shirt, and it was fashionable to wear a ruff with the ensemble.
These first two images are of middle-class women, and the drawing clearly shows the simple clean lines of the gown. The high collar can be turned back to be worn with a high ruff (which is sewn or pinned into a partlet or smock). Also note the gown’s sleeves that may have a slight puff at the top and can also be short and worn with highly embroidered sleeves underneath.
In portraits of upper-class women, these gowns have the same shape, but tons more decoration. The shorter puffed sleeve with decorated under-sleeve becomes very popular, probably because it’s good way to show off decoration and wealth.
These next three are very similar in the cut of the gown. Just different under-sleeves — the first two are embroidered and the third is velvet.
Here’s one that’s super fancy. It’s still an English fitted gown style, but in matching fabric as the gown worn underneath.
And finally, here’s a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. She’s wearing a loose gown rather than a fitted one — the difference being that the loose gown has no waist definition and flows straight down, loosely!, from shoulder to hem. It was a popular fashion in the 1550s across Europe and called by various names, such as ropa in Spain and zimmara in Italy. There are a couple portraits of QEI in loose gowns, so it’s the closest I could find. While it doesn’t appear to have a defined waist, the sleeves and collar are similar to the fitted gowns above.
Now let’s compare with some costumes in Elizabeth I, the miniseries.
OK, some things these fitted gowns get right: the general overall shape. I may quibble about the princess seams and a smidge too much bust curve when the quintessential Elizabethan shape is conical. But the gowns have the basic shape correct. They are also decorated for the gawds! Aww yiss! This is something I adore about this series — it really commits to the luxury of the Elizabethan court. Films that strip that back or skimp on it are ignoring an essential element of the period.
I also appreciate how the fitted gowns are always worn over something. I can’t tell if it’s a full kirtle, but we often see a contrasting under-skirt, plus there’s always an under-collar. Layering is period! However, she’s the Queen of England and she would be wearing ruffs, not just turn-back collars. I get that modern TV wants to “open up” the actor’s face, but ruffs are the most iconic part of 16th-c. costume. She does wear them later, and it’s not good. Put a pin in that.
But my bigger quibble is the sleeves — in this show, the tend to be poufy in the wrong way. When an English fitted gown’s sleeve is poufy, it should be a distinctly rounded puff at the shoulder, then straight, and the sleeve is structured, not soft or floppy.
Example of a not-very Elizabethan sleeve:
Compare with the sleeves of this gown:
Finally, there are a couple English fitted gowns that really nail the historical look, but they’re only worn in short scenes.
Well what about loose gowns? In the mid-to-late 16th century, they were very similar to fitted gowns, but wouldn’t have a waist seam, so they flowed straight from shoulder to hem. Like a fitted gown, they would be worn over a kirtle and with a ruff.
Well, that’s the style the queen wears most frequently in this series. What else is there? Another strong theme of the costume design in Elizabeth I is surface decoration, as I’ve mentioned, and specifically embroidery. While some of this appears to be machine-embroidered fabric, a great deal of these costumes have been hand-embellished further with spangles, jewels, and, yes, fine hand-embroidery.
Historically, embroidery was very popular in 16th-c. fashion, and many embroidered women’s jackets and coifs survive in museums. The designs are often reminiscent of English gardens with scrollwork or vines decorated in flowers, vegetables, and insects, but also symbols like rainbows and body parts. Some examples:
Michele Carragher was the principal costume embroiderer for the series, and she had previously worked with Mike O’Neill, as she told Enchanted Living Magazine:
“My first venture into the professional world of filmmaking was when I worked as a costume assistant on a low-budget feature film, which was unpaid of course, working every hour under the sun … But most important for me on this job, I was very fortunate to meet and work for Mike O’Neill, the costume designer on this film. Mike was a very experienced designer who had worked on many award-winning period dramas, and after this initial job I was able to work with him on many other future projects. He became a great mentor, imparting onto me his vast knowledge of the costume-design process.”
This was her big break in the film and TV business:
“That was the first time I acted as a principle costume embroiderer, mainly working on the costumes worn by Dame Helen Mirren, who played the leading role. I really enjoyed working on this project, as the Elizabethan era is such a great period of history to work on, with lots of rich encrusted decoration.”
She’s since worked on Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011), Peaky Blinders (2014), Queen of the Desert (2015), The Crown (2016), and most notably (though not historical, of course) Game of Thrones (2011-2019).
The costume in Elizabeth I that best shows off Carragher’s stitching is this fitted gown covered in floral and bug embroidery.
This is a somewhat simplified version of the historical fashion but it still evokes the period beautifully. More details can be seen in Michele Carragher’s promo shots:
Another gown displaying Carragher’s embroidery is a riff on the Queen Elizabeth Rainbow Portrait. While this production doesn’t have any direct historical portrait reproduction costumes, there are a few ensembles that evoke the overall look of a famous QEI portrait.
While this work is hard to catch onscreen, it does seem inspired by the Rainbow Portrait when you see Michele Carragher’s promo shots:
There are also gowns that Carragher embroidered and embellished like this:
And Michele Carragher’s promo shots show all the details:
That green gown was worn in several scenes across both episodes. A similar gown is this yellow one that Elizabeth wears throughout the series, featuring Carragher’s embroidery and surface treatments. This gown is unique in that it’s always worn without proper sleeves (none of the tied-on sleeves like the green gown) — only soft, sheer sleeves that look like a smock or chemise are shown.
The decoration is lovely, as show in Michele Carragher’s promo shot:
While those two gowns were frequently onscreen, this pale embroidered gown only shows up in the first episode.
I had to match it up with Michele Carragher’s promo shots though:
Other gowns that aren’t cited by Carragher still have plenty of embellishments. These include another English fitted gown:
Perhaps my favorite gown is a different black one — it’s shape, style, and accessories feel historically accurate, plus it’s totally my style, heh.
This orange gown is beautifully embellished, plus it’s worn different ways throughout the series.
And while the wheel farthingale was fashionable in the 1590s and several portraits of QEI show her wearing the style, there’s only a couple instances of wheel farthingales in Elizabeth I. The Rainbow Portrait-ish gown above, plus this white gown that gives a slight nod to the Ditchley Portrait.
Then there’s one of the least fancy gowns, but quite historically accurate in my opinion — what she wears for the Tilbury speech. The gown itself is another riff on a portrait, this time on the Darnley Portrait.
As she goes to make the speech, she puts on the breastplate, which is referred to in contemporary accounts. In my article on women wearing armor in historical movies, I ranked this portrayal as the most historically accurate of all the Queen Elizabeth Tilbury speeches onscreen with regards to costume.
Underneath these gowns, it seems Helen Mirren is wearing historically accurate stays, since they’re shown in a few intimate scenes with Jeremy Irons.
But I have to talk about the floating ruff situation. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: a ruff is not a necklace. Historically, it would be attached (usually pinned) to a shirt, smock, or partlet. Yes, I know theatrically it’s super-easy to make ruffs as a one-piece necklace-like garment. Doesn’t make it right though.
I think I’ve traced the problem back to one place. It’s that ol’ Rainbow Portrait again! That just may be the only 16th-century English evidence of a ruff looking like a necklace. A lot about this painting is allegorical (the queen is holding a rainbow, her hair is down, there are eyes and ears on her cloak, etc.), so the ruff inaccuracy could be artistic license. Or there could be a very lightly painted sheer partlet in there that’s not visible in these digital versions. Or there was one crazy time the queen’s ruff-makers made a ruff with a super-narrow collar that doesn’t show when worn and looks different than all the other ruffs they’d made. Who knows?
Even if this is legit, it’s not common. So there’s not a lot of historical reason for ruffs to float through this or any other production. Like this:
Ah well, even the finest of productions aren’t perfect!
What do you think about Elizabeth I with Helen Mirren?