TBT: Much Ado About Nothing (1993)


Romantic and sun-drenched, Kenneth Branagh’s 1993 adaption of Much Ado About Nothing was filmed entirely at the hillside Villa Vignamaggio in Tuscany, Italy. This was his last film with then-spouse Emma Thompson (before he cheated on her with Helena Bonham Carter during filming of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, ugh). This Shakespeare movie became one of the most financially successful film versions of the Bard’s work ever, perhaps because Branagh aimed to make it “relatable” to a broad audience.

Emma Thompson & Kenneth Branagh

Now, fear not, he didn’t dumb down the 16th-century language and make the two sets of lovers Benedick and Beatrice and Claudio and Hero talk in 20th-century slang, thank goodness. But he did strip away a lot of specific historical references in setting and costume in a conscious effort to make the film appear a bit more timeless, even fantasy, than a historical period. According to the Baltimore Sun, Branagh said:

“I wanted this film to reflect how relevant and contemporary Shakespeare is today, and as much as possible I wanted the costumes to be rather vague.”

The costume designer was Oscar-winner Phyllis Dalton, who had worked on several other of Branagh’s films. This ended up being her final work. She told the L.A. Times:

“You were maybe expecting to see it in the Shakespearean period? No, Ken Branagh has a lot of quite strong ideas on the way things should look.”

With all the action taking place in a sunny Tuscan villa, the costumes are appropriately lightweight, without the many layers found in 16th-century garb or trailing skirts of medieval robes. The central male characters are all gentlemen soldiers returning from a successful battle, so they’re dressed in military-style jackets from an indiscriminate period. The main female characters are mostly in pale, flowing dresses from no one specific era. And the hair and makeup are totally modern. It’s a little crazy, but it kind of works.

Let’s go through the costumes and try to count all the historical eras they reference, just for fun, shall we?

Our heroines, Hero (Kate Beckinsale) and Beatrice (Emma Thompson), wear full smocks or chemises, full skirts, and corset-like bodices that either lace or button up the front and have peplums at the back and for formal accessions include tied-on sleeves. The colors are all in shades of white / cream / pale yellow. It’s a very renfaire fantasy look that hints at historical styles without hitting any specific dates.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Their everyday outfits — Beatrice’s bodice buttons, Hero’s laces. The buttons in the front have an 18th- or 19th-century feel, while the laced front could be medieval through anything!

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Hero’s “formal” bodice buttons up & has tied-on sleeves in a rather Italian Renaissance fashion, plus the fabric might be a slubby silk.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)
Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

All of Hero’s & Beatrice’s bodices have this style of pleated peplum at the center back, which looks rather 18th-century to me.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

The only time Beatrice wears sleeves is at Hero’s wedding, so it must be a “formal” look.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Yet Hero herself ditches the sleeves at her wedding. Her father, Leonato (Richard Briers), is in essentially 18th-c. middling-class garb.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

The back of Hero’s wedding bodice has 18th-c. lines.

The other women dress in similar styles, with even fewer details.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Ursula (Phyllida Law) has a jacket in the same general cut as Hero & Beatrice’s bodices, but with set-in sleeves.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Cartridge-pleating on this lady’s skirt.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Just a pile of clothes at the baths!

Our heroes, the soldiers, get a tiny bit of variety in their outfits. They start in uniform jackets with leather pants, then they have a variety of waistcoats depending on the formality of the event (still worn with leather pants though).

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

The good guys wear blue with the guy in charge, Don Pedro (Denzel Washington), wearing tanned leather & the rest of his posse wearing suede. The bad guys, like Don John (Keanu Reeves) wear black leather.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Suede, really. It kind of looks like denim or velvet, but it’s leather. The cut of the uniform jackets is sometime from the 19th century to the present.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

This scene always grossed me out — why would anyone get an oily massage while still wearing leather pants??? Strip down to a towel, for frock’s sake!

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

For “formal” but not uniform occasions (like the masked party), each soldier has a damask waistcoat. Most of them, like on Benedick (Kenneth Branagh) are double-breasted in a Victorian style.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Don Pedro in a very Victorian double-breasted waistcoat and cravat.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Even baddie Don John gets a Victorian waistcoat.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Count Claudio (Robert Sean Leonard) stands out a little with a lighter color and a single-breasted waistcoat, although the style is still 19th century. Compare with Leonato behind him in 18th-century fashion.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Benedick even obsesses over which cravat to wear.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

For casualwear, the soldiers have these pale linen, single-breasted waistcoasts.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

While all three are in lightweight garb, the two soldiers waistcoats are cut in a slightly later period than that of Antonio (Brian Blessed), which is more 18th century.

The older men — Hero’s father and uncle,Dogberry and his crew, plus peasants in the background — wear essentially 18th-century clothing. This is the most consistent clothing period in the whole movie, so it kind of sticks out.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

The first shot of Leonato (Richard Briers) shows him in light linen and breeches, all in 18th-century styles.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

In the same scene, Antonio (Brian Blessed) is shown wearing fall-front breeches.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

They both change into their “formal” outfits to greet the soldiers. Antonio’s double-breasted but longer cut waistcoat is reminiscent of the tail end of the 18th century, while Leonato has a typical mid-18th-century frock coat and waistcoat, all adorned with plenty of buttons.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Dogberry’s constabulary men are kitted out in 18th-century gear.

But really, it’s just a renfaire party, isn’t it?

Much Ado About Nothing (1993) Much Ado About Nothing (1993)



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.”

12 Responses

  1. Barbara

    Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, men were deceivers ever ...

    Oh I love this movie so much. I had been working at the SoCal faire for a few years by the summer this came out, and I still remember the day a group of faire friends and I all piled into the theater to see it. We were just mesmerized. I think it may be the only time I’ve ever loved Michael Keaton in anything (or at least been able to take him seriously as an actor) – Dogberry became the inspiration for a lot of friends’ improv after that. I never really thought about the costumes much, though, and I guess that’s the point – they really do get out of the way and just let the story be told.

    (Sorry, but I love the scene with Don John all oiled up, especially when he jumps up and starts angrily chewing on his lines. :) Keanu was my big crush through the 90’s, and the unspoken ‘dude’ through that whole scene was so camp.)

  2. Kate D

    I adore this movie. I’m amazed I didn’t notice these costume details when I’ve seen the movie so many times, but as Barbara said, I guess that was the point!

    Much Ado is my favorite Shakespeare play, and it may have something to do with seeing this movie at the right age! (Though I like Nathan Fillion as Dogberry in Joss Whedon’s recent Much Ado much better than Michael Keaton’s Dogberry in this one.)

    I love Emma Thompson in this so much. She’s so sun drenched and teasing and hilarious and wonderful. And Benedick and that folding chair! This movie can make me laugh every time. Oh, I feel happy just thinking about it! Guess I’m due for a rewatch!

    • Gill

      I felt – and still feel – Keaton just didn’t ‘get’ Dogberry at all, one of the few glaring mistakes in direction in the whole film. Fillion was wonderful in the role, so pompous and conceited about his status and authority.

  3. Jacqui Gauld

    “Cartridge pleading on this lady’s skirt” – this lady is Imelda Staunton, and is excellent in every role she plays, either stage or screen. She’s probably best known as Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter films but I would recommend her as Vera Drake in the film of the same name.
    And as for Denzel W. in this, swoon time indeed! I love Shakespeare, either live or on-screen, am never really bothered by whatever costumes are worn, it’s the words that matter. I loved this film.

  4. Saraquill

    Thank you for pointing out the stuff you like in the costuming. I’m having trouble looking past one of my major peeves, underbust corsets. I’m a big fan of supported breasts.

  5. Diana

    Imelda Staunton’s character is Margaret, Hero’s (Kate Beckinsale’s) maid. She’s pretty scuffed-up in this film, but since part of the plot hinges on Claudio mistaking her for Hero in an, um, indiscreet moment, the near-interchangeable costumes are definetly an asset to the plot.

  6. Susan Pola Staples

    I love this version, but I did have problems with the non-period specific costumes. Then I saw Denzel in the tight leather pants and drooled and The saw Ken in the same. more drooling I think I needed more Kleenex, but I could do without the Claudio. The character is dense, stupid and I feel sorry for Hero.

    I love Emma Thompson in this. Ken and her pairing were hot.

  7. Maddy

    This is that film of which Anthony Lane memorably said, “there are times when what you really want from Shakespeare is Denzel Washington in leather pants.”

  8. Theresa Chedoen

    Denzel Washington in tight leather pants is one more sign that God loves us and wants us to be happy.

  9. Gill

    Love this film, one of Ken’s best. The costume detail analysis is really interesting; to me it said ‘out of time’, which works for the plat as far as I am concerned. I once directed it as a school play and put all the boys into tight trousers like that – they were peacocking all over the school in them.

    Minor point – you miscaptioned Leonato as Antonio in one picture. Both have beards, but Brian Blessed is the one who speaks LIKE THIS.