TBT: Fire Over England (1937)


One of the most extravagant early films about Queen Elizabeth I’s reign is Fire Over England (1937). This is a gorgeous production that plays fast and loose with the story of the Spanish Armada by adding a love story between fictional characters played by actual lovers Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. They try to steal the show from Flora Robson’s QEI but don’t, IMO, because she’s a bad-ass in giant ruffs and over-the-top gowns designed by Rene Hubert.

Like many ’30s frock flicks, the costumes have a veneer of historical accuracy layered in with as much fanciful trim, bling, decoration, padding, and shiny bits possible. Some of these costume tropes show up in later Elizabethan-era movies, perpetuating costume fantasies, even if the actual costumes aren’t recycled. But it sure does look fabulous on film and especially in black and white!


Queen Elizabeth’s Costumes in Fire Over England

The film is set in 1588, on the eve of the Spanish Armada, so Queen Elizabeth wears exaggerated wheel-farthingale-ish shaped gowns and huge ruffs, both pleated and flat lace-and-wire contraptions. Though often, her fashions come closer to early 17th century than late 16th in shape.

I have to point out that the flat part of the skirt atop the farthingale is not a separate peplum — it’s supposed to be a giant pleat where the skirt is pinned up and folded under itself. This is clearly visible when you look at period paintings, and yes, it’s one of the most batshit insane things done in fashion (right up there with the 1830s giganto sleeves ;-). So for Hollywood costume designers to repeatedly interpret this as a peplum is, well, understandable, but I have to point it out as wrong.

Also, that curled hair, I think this a case contemporary hairstyles TOTALLY influencing period hair. Since Kendra apparently doesn’t care about the 16th century and skipped over it in her treatment of how 1930s hair affected period films, let me point out that portraits of QEI show tightly curled hair, yes, but not these tight rows of set curls. The hair curling that was done in the mid- to late-16th century was called “fryzzed” and looked rather like the name implied (here’s an excellent modern recreation). It was achieved through rag-curling wet hair or setting with hot tongs, neither of which provide a smooth, even row of curls. Later in QEI’s life, she wore hairpieces and even full wigs as hair fashions got bigger and more elaborate. So the curl style showed a frizzed wave pattern across a somewhat flat surface (this is most noticeable in the Armada Portrait, 1588); not individual curls set in rows side by side.

Queen Elizabeth I hairstyles

Queen Elizabeth I hairstyles, left to right: the Phoenix portrait, 1575; the Armada portrait, 1588; the Ditchley portrait, 1592. All curly, but not in set rolls.

1938 hairstyling

Compare with these examples from a 1938 hairstyling book. Which look more like Fire Over England?

Once this movie used the more ’30s curled wig, many others did too. Yup, Bette Davis, we see you. Well, it could be worse!

That said, I do like the costumes. They remind me strongly of historical images, even if they, themselves, are not historically accurate. Maybe I tend to give black-and-white movies more of a pass at accuracy than more recent color costume dramas, I dunno. I also enjoy the spectacle more, so sue me.

Because how can you not appreciate all this???

Fire Over England (1937) - Flora Robson - dots gown -Leslie Banks

Sure, this looks a little wacky, but…

Those dot thingies all over her dress are kinda crazy, but then I thought they reminded me of something…

1590 - Jesus College portrait of Queen Elizabeth by Nicholas Hilliard

1590 – Jesus College portrait of Queen Elizabeth by Nicholas Hilliard

Not exactly the same, but the inspiration is there.

QEI gets allll the standing ruffs, such as a black and white one to go with a lux black velvet gown.

Fire Over England (1937) - Flora Robson - black gown

This black gown gets more inspiration from the following century, and ensembles like this one:

1613 - Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, by the studio of Michiel Jansz. van Miereveldt

1613 – Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, by the studio of Michiel Jansz. van Miereveldt

The film gives Elizabeth double sets of ruffs with many outfits, which was not a frequently pictured extravagance, but it did happen.

Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth I

Two ruffs are better than one, yo.

Fire Over England (1937) - Flora Robson - blk swirl gown 2 ruffs

I think the gown is a sheer black flocked pattern over a solid color. Interesting affect, very 1930s method to achieve some depth and texture that would be characteristic of Elizabethan textiles.

Fire Over England (1937) - Flora Robson - blk swirl gown

The Elizabethan design loses something in the skirt though.

Fire Over England (1937) - Flora Robson - blk swirl gown 2 ruffs

Mirror view shows both the HUGE stacked ruffs and the tight rows of curled hair, mirroring each other.

The only period image I could find of Elizabeth herself wearing two ruffs is this miniature where she has a short linen ruff and a much longer one edged in wide lace.

1590 - Queen Elizabeth, miniature by Hilliard

1590 – Queen Elizabeth, miniature by Hilliard

There’s a slightly earlier portrait showing a well-to-do young lady wearing double ruffs of the same size, which is similar to what’s shown in the film. Not very common!

1583 - English portrait of a lady age 21

1583 – English portrait of a lady age 21

Other outfits worn by Queen Elizabeth in this movie follow typical movie-Elizabethan styles. One thing that stands out is how ’30s and ’40s films use a pannier silhouette (same as 18th-century, think Marie-Antoinette) for Elizabethan. The hip width is very prominent, instead of what should be a small cone shape. You’d think even a basic bell-shape hoop would have been used, as tends to happen in later films.

Fire Over England (1937) - Flora Robson - pale gown slashed

Very blingy.

Same gown as above, pannier skirt shape visible.

For her famed Tilbury speech, Elizabeth dons the requisite armor, and we also get to see the gown without the breastplate.

Fire Over England (1937) - Flora Robson - stripe gown w/armor

Going out to meet the troops.

Fire Over England (1937) - Flora Robson - stripe gown - Vivien Leigh

The stripe bands and buttons give this gown a militaristic flair that was common in the late 18th century and later in women’s clothing. It’s ever so faintly reminiscent of QEI’s Darnley portrait, but IDK…

This gown is less panniered-looking and has kind of a cone shape with back fullness, which is more accurate. Weird that the silhouette varies from dress to dress.

Fire Over England (1937) - Flora Robson - floral slashed gown - Laurence Olivier

Another double ruff.

I know it’s a stretch, but the shape of the gown and that floral sprig on the bodice remind me of this QEI portrait:

1580-85 - the Welbeck or Wanstead portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder

1580-85 – the Welbeck or Wanstead portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder

Fire Over England (1937) - Flora Robson - 2 ruffs - Vivien Leigh

This is supposed to be Elizabeth without her wig, but it looks so wiggy, ugh.

Then back to side-width and a 1610s style.

Fire Over England (1937) - Flora Robson -doublet

Out and about with the people.

This doublet again seems later period for QEI, mostly because of the excessive collar, cuffs, and skirting, and all the trim reminiscent of outfits like this:

1618 - Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton

1618 – Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton


Vivien Leigh’s Costumes in Fire Over England

Her fictional character’s name is Cynthia, but nobody knows who that is. Let’s stick with Vivien Leigh. This film was her breakout role and helped her get the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, although I don’t find that she was doing anything special here.

The costumes Leigh wears are gorgeous but tend to veer off into a pretty pretty princess version of Elizabethan. Plus, her hair is straight-up 1930s with little to no attempt at a period style.

Let’s start with her more historical costumes…

Fire Over England (1937) - Vivien Leigh - doublet

Great hat and ruff, decent doublet and sleeves (aside from the obvious princess seams).

Fire Over England (1937) - Vivien Leigh - doublet

The shape is more 18th century than 16th, and the peplum emphasizes that.

Her other doublet outfit is a smidge more accurate in shape.

Fire Over England (1937) - Vivien Leigh - doublet

Rounder cone-shaped skirts are more Elizabethan. Visor-y attempt at a French hood is standard for the ’30s but at least it has a veil and her hair is up.

Since she’s the ingenue and romantic interest, Leigh gets a lot of youthful imagery on her outfits to contrast with the old Queen Elizabeth. Several gowns feature prominent blooming rose and leaf motifs, such as…

Fire Over England (1937) - Vivien Leigh - rose gown

Very fanciful with ribbon and bow trim.

Fire Over England (1937) - Vivien Leigh - rose gown

And a huge rose on the bodice.

Fire Over England (1937) - Vivien Leigh - leaf gown

Not-so-subtle rose on her her head, leaf pattern on her sleeves, glitter everywhere.

Fire Over England (1937) - Vivien Leigh - leaf gown

A picture of youth and beauty, right?

Fire Over England (1937) - Vivien Leigh - slashed sleeves

This gown is decked out with flowers at the bodice and shoulders, plus there’s flowers on her head.

She has some generically ’30s-does-Elizabethan outfits too.

Fire Over England (1937) - Vivien Leigh - swirl sleeves

With 1930s makeup, ‘natch.

Then there’s my favorite gown, this insane cross-hatched pattern gown. It’s ridiculous in all the details — the skirt is both wide pannier shape with back fullness like a bustle; it appears that the skirt is split in multiple panels for no reason; in addition to shoulder rolls, there’s elaborate 3D trim on the bodice, accented with tassels and floral bits. It’s just crazy weird, and I love it so!

I wondered if there was any possible historical connection, and while I doubt costume designer Rene Hubert was directly inspired, I did dig up these faint relations:

1550s - portrait of Catherine d'Medici

1550s – portrait of Catherine d’Medici

Similar cross-hatch pattern, though done in jewels.

1592 - portrait of Mary Rogers, Lady Harrington

1592 – portrait of Mary Rogers, Lady Harrington

Closer in period and pattern is likely done as an applied trim, plus similar color scheme, although it’s only sleeves and a stomacher. So yeah, you could back-date it and claim some vague element of historical accuracy, but honestly, this is just a pretty movie costume. And that’s OK too!

Vivien Leigh, Fire Over England (1937)

Lookit all the stuff on that bodice!!!


Other Costumes in Fire Over England

The main female leads get all my attention because they look so grand on film! That’s how we roll. There’s also Tamara Desni who plays Elena, an Englishwoman at the Spanish court. She doesn’t get much of a wardrobe, just an unfortunate Cone of Shame ruff, which I feel we’ve featured on a Snark Week meme.

Fire Over England (1937) - Laurence Olivier & Tamara Desni

+5 for the cutwork on Laurence Olivier’s suit. -3 for Tamara Desni’s cone ruff.

The men’s costumes are good, though it’s hard to see as much of the shininess in black and white on them as on the women (they just don’t cut a fine figure). Leslie Banks is an unexciting Dudley, and Olivier mostly wears a ratty open shirt except for the black suit, above.

Leslie Banks in Fire Over England (1937)

Dudley is a dud here.

Fire Over England (1937) - Raymond Massey

Raymond Massey as King Philip II of Spain in contractually obligated black.


Have you seen Fire Over England? Where does it rank as an early costume film for you?


About the author

Trystan L. Bass

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A self-described ElderGoth, Trystan has been haunting the internet since the early 1990s. Always passionate about costume, from everyday office wear to outrageous twisted historical creations, she has maintained some of the earliest online costuming-focused resources on the web. Her costuming adventures are chronicled on her website, TrystanCraft. She also ran a popular fashion blog, This Is CorpGoth, dedicated to her “office drag.”

7 Responses

  1. ctrent29

    I wish I had paid more attention to the film’s costumes. Unfortunately, I was too busy being bored and realizing that Laurence Olivier was unsuited for swashbuckler films.

  2. Frannie Germeshausen

    Had to look up Flora Robson’s Tilbury speech. She’s super bad-ass on a horse.

  3. Deborah Parkes

    I have this film, Vivien and Laurence are just beautiful looking. They also fell in love with each other whilst making the film.

  4. Susan Pola Staples

    I remember how incredibly Dame Flora was able to be the center of attention despite the fact that she wasn’t the incandescent beauty of Vivien Leigh or as pretty as Lord Larry. It reminded me of Dame Judi’s Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love and also Dame Judi stole the show.

    She was also brilliant as the Dowager Empress of China in 55 Days in Peking and she was the only reason to watch it. Well, David Niven was also a reason.

  5. Katie O.

    This was fascinating! I might have to check this out.

    I’m curious as to how you differentiate between historically inaccurate costumes that you like, and those you don’t. Do you judge them by intention (if there was an effort made, however misguided?) Or by prettiness?