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.
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.
Those dot thingies all over her dress are kinda crazy, but then I thought they reminded me of something…
Not exactly the same, but the inspiration is there.
This black gown gets more inspiration from the following century, and ensembles like this one:
The film gives Elizabeth double sets of ruffs with many outfits, which was not a frequently pictured extravagance, but it did happen.
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.
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!
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.
For her famed Tilbury speech, Elizabeth dons the requisite armor, and we also get to see the gown without the breastplate.
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.
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:
Then back to side-width and a 1610s style.
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:
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…
Her other doublet outfit is a smidge more accurate in shape.
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…
She has some generically ’30s-does-Elizabethan outfits too.
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:
Similar cross-hatch pattern, though done in jewels.
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!
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.
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.
Have you seen Fire Over England? Where does it rank as an early costume film for you?