La Reine Margot, aka Queen Margot, was originally released in 1994. This French film tells the story of the wedding of Marguerite de Valois to Henri IV of France (then king of Navarre), and the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, both in 1572. Directed by Patrice Chéreau, it stars Isabelle Adjani as Margot and Vincent Perez as soldier La Môle. The costumes were designed by Moidele Bickel.
Although the film downplays the role of religion in the 16th century, gives Margot a modern sense of sexuality, and ignores the fact that the massacre was mostly carried out by common Parisians, it still hits the major plot points of the real history. Of course, it is an adaptation of the 1845 novel by Alexandre Dumas, and thus obviously not drawn from historical sources.
I hadn’t seen the film in years, because my memory was that it was long and tragic. I think the big problem (for me, and most American viewers) was that it was marketed as a romance. Now, while there’s definitely a romance theme in the film, it’s much more about Tragedy and History. Rewatching it, I was impressed at the quality of acting, the locations and set design, and actually, the costumes…
The film was also reproached for its anachronistic costumes which greatly contribute to the film’s beauty. It was a conscious choice on the part of Patrice Chéreau and Moidele Bickel, who took inspiration from paintings by Zurbaran, Rembrandt and Georges de la Tour, without worrying about the exact era. This choice was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for best costume design in 1995.
Costume wise, yep, it was very impressionistic. The women’s dresses were super pared down, usually in solid silks or printed “damask” silks, without much in the way of trim. Necklines were very off the shoulder, like, SERIOUSLY. And, most obviously, there was a serious lack of underwear — no shifts/chemises, no corsets (except for a few scenes showing characters in their undies).
The Look: Sixteenth-Century lite. Stretching the timeline and muting the period’s regal glitz, Bickel favors a streamlined theatricality. She employs humble fabrics, forgoes such elaborate flourishes as beading, and holds the starch in the accordion-pleated collars for mobility’s sake. Jewelry is limited to pearls. Her budget dictated the uncomplicated approach, but she says she would have kept it simple anyway. Fancy clothing would mean that “I wouldn’t be able to see the actor, and what interests me most is the actor’s work.”
Trivia: For Margot’s wedding day, Bickel substitutes her historically correct crown–a round, stiff number–with a delicate tiara of wired pearls and stones that would suit any modern romantic bride.
You Should Know: Most of the costumes were made of cotton sateen and linen. Margot’s lavish-looking “brocade” gowns and the opulent robes worn by Catholic bishops came from inexpensive fabrics printed with luxuriant patterns.
Quoted: “The period is not exact. The real period, the French Renaissance, I don’t like very much. I chose a fashion period which is a little more free, more Baroque,” Bickel says.
Inspiration: The paintings of Theodore Gericault, Jacopo da Pontormo and Francisco de Zurbaran for Margot’s dresses.
Sources: All of the principals’ costumes and 600 of the 800 extras’ costumes were custom-made in Paris.
All this being said, the filmmakers DID put both female and male characters into more formal (in a semi-period appropriate sense) wear. During the wedding scene, and the scene where Henri de Navarre converts to Catholicism, characters who spent most of the film with their neck and shoulders out (i.e., Margot and Charlotte) were shown wearing partlets and ruffs. The men were similarly dressed more formally for the initial wedding ceremony, after which their costumes become tighter, skimpier, and worn more casually.
Director Patrice Chéreau: Even if there is a pictorial dimension in the film, I tried never to make paintings. If there are any, it is in no way deliberate. With Moidele Bickel, the costume designer, we looked at many paintings: Zurbaran, for example, for the women’s dresses, or Rembrandt for the men, and Georges de la Tour. A great part of the film’s image comes from her work. For example, she is the one who imagined that the cover of La Môle’s book would be green, drawing her inspiration from the colors of the restored Sistine Chapel: one can see a green book in the hands of one of the Sybils… She was also the one who had the idea that the hunt would be turquoise and red, except for the King, who is in white.
Source: Press Kit
I hadn’t heard of all of these painters before, so, here’s some images from those listed as inspiration by the director and costume designer, Moidele Bickel. I can definitely see the women’s costumes in the Zurbaran images, although I’m not really seeing the Rembrandt connection for the men.
Here’s a gallery of images of the real people involved in the story, just for comparison:
The Costumes in Queen Margot
Margot’s Wedding Dress
Probably the most “Renaissance” in look, due to the high, covered neck with the flat whisk ruff. (I recently learned that this very late 16th, early 17th century flat lace ruffs were called “whisks.” I have no idea why!). Here you can see more clearly that the damask is printed. It’s very regal and imposing, and the red color is great in terms of the film’s symbolism. I actually think the crown is very pretty and not eye-catchingly anachronistic (don’t get me wrong, it’s anachronistic, but it doesn’t jump out and slap me).
The hugely long train and cape definitely give it a big, over the top impact. You know who’s the Top of the Top!
Margot’s Black Dress
A very pretty damask, which I now can see was printed. More so than any other costume, this one smacks of both “HELLO NURSE!” (i.e., hot!) and “WTF?” due to the complete boobosity on display. I’m not saying I dislike boobosity, just, it’s SO not Renaissance. It does, however, convey what I think the filmmakers were going for in the opening scenes — Margot is of super high rank and very open sexually. It’s interesting (not sure if it’s good or bad, just interesting) that she uses the train as a cloak when she’s out in the streets.
And, the hair. It’s certainly gorgeous! But it’s also very much unstyled. I get a “Snow White” vibe, how about you?
I like that her mask is a simple, black, half-mask which seems period appropriate.
Further Thoughts on Margot’s Hair
Actually, I like her hair in shots like this one. Okay, now, I’m not the least bit arguing that it’s period accurate. But it IS really pretty, and in the scenes where she’s got it jeweled up and disheveled, I think it conveys what the filmmakers are trying to convey — this lady is as aristocratic as you can get, but she’s also VERY DTF.
Margot’s Blood White Dress
A simple dress, with the white probably meant to demonstrate Margot’s renewed sense of ethics. And, of course, to look great with blood on it. It looks very Italian Renaissance. The weirdest thing are the random, floating shoulder straps. Unless the sleeves were meant to attach to them, they look weird, especially given the style of all the other lower-neckline dresses.
Margot’s Bartholomew’s Night Dress
Essentially, similar to her other dresses except sleeveless (which make sense, in an era of removable sleeves) and — GASP — worn over a shift! She also wears a very pretty, very obviously Victorian garnet necklace.
Margot’s Conversion Dress
This is the dress she wears to Henri’s conversion. It was hard to get a shot of it, because she’s generally shown in close up or moving quickly. It’s in a solid fabric, and looks very similar to her other dresses… EXCEPT for the high, V neckline, which makes it look very Victorian to me! She also wears it with a partlet and small ruff, and a pretty veil over her hair. Again, this is the whole “we dress up for church” thing.
Henriette de Nevers’s Gold Dress
Marguerite’s chief lady-in-waiting wears a gold damask dress in the “standard” (for the movie) style. Note that there’s an overskirt with an (accurate) center front opening, showing a solid underskirt. The back lacing on the bodice irritates me, although I’m not sure why.
I actually really love her hair. It reminds me of this 1590s French portrait, which I’d really like to make someday, mostly for the hair!
Henriette de Nevers’ Blue Dress
At the very end, Henriette wears a standard-for-this-film blue damask printed dress, with the addition of a bit of trim around the neckline. I think this was the only woman’s dress with trim, which makes it notable!
Catherine de Medici’s Wedding Dress
Big gold standing ruff, high plucked hairline, sickly and evil looking. Yeah, she’d poison you. This is the only time she’s shown wearing color. I really like the gold on the overdress collar turnbacks, which matches the undersleeves.
Catherine de Medici’s Black Dress
For the rest of the film, Catherine lurks about in a black dress with a high neckline, huge flat whisk ruff, and veil. The dress fabric almost reads as pleather, making her even more evil looking. However, looking at the exhibition photo, I think it’s in satin? In the film, the smooth bodice front definitely suggests armor.
Henri de Navarre
His clothes read the most period-accurate to me: Doublet, small pleated ruff, layers. Minus the usual movie trope of “Hey, I’m casual, I wear my shirt/doublet open! Just hangin’ out, here. Smokin’ behind the gym.”
Dressed for action (in more ways than one)! Vincent Perez’s job is to be manly and pretty. Oh, and to shag Margot in an alley. And to give us our European bit of full-frontal. His outfit is a good demonstration of what many of the male leads (minus Henri) wear — tight-fitting doublets that almost look like leather jackets, tight fitting pants with small, high trunkhose (you know, the puffy part). They read very late 1590s to me … but also very modern, since they’re almost never closed in front or pointed (attached) to the pants (the way they should have been).
The one weird thing about La Môle’s outfit is that when he’s shagging Margot in the alley, he wears a SUPER sheer shirt. Like, SHEER.
Love the silver satin and the long cloak. Miss a hat, but, you can’t be picky. Befitting the king, he gets the most regal, shiny outfits throughout the film. His silver lace collar is really pretty.
Duc d’Anjou and Duc de Guise
Sporting doublets and
ham pants trunkhose. Standard, with a slightly better silhouette in the wedding scene. After that, the boys tend to go tighter and skimpier, like La Môle. The Duc de Guise (in silver) has a gorgeous silver whisk ruff that he wears at the wedding.
Charlotte of Suave’s Blue Dress
She wears the usual (for this movie) slutty yet fancy dress. She starts off at the wedding with her hair up and a partlet:
She quickly ditches all that because, again, we’re just casual here.
Charlotte of Suave’s Green Dress
Then, during the massacre, it’s clear the budget definitely wore out, because she suddenly turns up in this SUPER WEIRD, bad SCA medievaloid dress. Green velvet skirt and sleeves, gold bodice with a weird dropped waist. It was very hard to get a shot, as she’s running.
She wears it to Henri’s conversion, again dressed up with a partlet and ruff:
Queen Margot Movie Costumes All in All
So when I wrote this post, about three weeks ago, here’s what I wrote as a summation:
I actually think the filmmakers achieved what they wanted to achieve costume-wise. No, the costumes weren’t historically accurate, beyond the vaguest sense of “ye oldey Renaissancey” wear (I mean, they weren’t wearing spandex, and they weren’t wearing Robin Hood outfits).
However, characters like Margot, Henriette, and Charlotte DID look aristocratic, sumptuous, and slutty. Meanwhile, Catherine de Medici looked appropriately imposing, scary, and morally diseased. The French male nobles looked aristocratic and relatively badass. And La Môle looked ready for action (a pun so good, I’ll use it twice!).
It’s hard to know how to judge films when you know that they are limited by budget. Part of me says, “If they’re saying that they would have done the costumes this way anyway, despite the budget, then we should nitpick them to hell.” But, there’s probably part of them that’s trying to sell us on this. It wouldn’t be good marketing to say, “We didn’t have a lot of money, and it shows!”
I don’t know. Where do you fall on the whole budget vs. authenticity debate? Obviously you don’t HAVE to spend oodles of money to make partlets and ruffs and buy a few bobby pins. However, doesn’t the film convey Renaissance, sumptuousness, etc.? What’s funny is I’m now arguing the opposite of what I was feeling about Ridicule. Apparently I don’t have the emotional attachment to the Renaissance that I do for the 18th century!
But now that Snark Week is over, I am SO COMPLETELY DONE with anything faux historical. Okay, this is better than Reign because at least they’re trying to create a “historical” setting. And I think the dresses in this bug me less than they normally would, because minus some underwear and some details, they look at a lot like Venetian styles of the 1550s-70s.
But I’ve been scarred by Snark Week. TOO MUCH CRAP! So I have to ask, why would a director hire a costume designer to design for an era that the designer doesn’t like? Why would a designer take a job for an era s/he doesn’t like? Okay, the answer to the second one is, work/money/fame/etc. But WHY MAKE THIS MOVIE, which is so completely about the history and the period, and then not give a crap about the fashions of the era? If you’re trying to invoke these historical people, how about showing them in the actual clothes they lived in? Unless you’re doing that whole Richard III thing where you’re resetting it into another era (or fantasy), then then … WHY???!!!!!
I love this movie and can’t help loving the costumes as well, despite being some kind of fantasy. i think it is because I feel they fit what the movie is trying to say, it isn’t there to please an audience who some producer think can’t handle authencity, like The Tudors and Reign.
On a complete sidenotes, in Sweden in the 19th century, peasant women used to wear their top skirt like a cape, like Margot, when it rained. Evidently it was sometimes weather proofed.
Yes, the costumes do work WITH the movie, don’t they? Interesting factoid about the skirt/cape thing!
The costumes in this film are brilliant! Expressive. narrative, sexy, controlled-with a strong, consistent point of view. The film is so all-of-a-piece , that the historical inaccuracy isn’t a problem. Just let the breathtakingness wash over you!! The Tudors, on the other hand…could only peek through my fingers.
I don’t sweat the inauthenticity of costumes in this movie, because the costumes are so effective in communicating character. And they’re so beautiful and authentically rich and regal looking!
Also, the 19th-c novel that this movie is based on was already “fan fiction” about the 16th-century — Dumas in 1845 wasn’t trying to write accurate history, but to conjure up a bygone heroic era in French history when people followed their passions and “lived large” in defiance of the rules, when people were willing to kill or die for their desires and ambitions. He wasn’t limited by facts about the actual 16th century, but used that period and those historical figures as a sort of theater for his own ideas about “look how awesome we French used to be, compared with our pallid bureaucratic bourgeois lives now”.
[Which, arguably, is what historical fiction is always doing: DISCUSS]
Yes! re: historical fiction. And, I can make more allowances for impressionistic costuming in historical-fiction-as-source than actual-history-as-source.
Still, I would take this over Reign by a mile. And Margot’s white bloodstained dress would be an epic Halloween costume. (I toyed with making it this year, though lack of time worked against me XD)
Also, Vincent Perez in this movie is oh myyyyyyyyyyyy… That man reached the peak of hotness here and in “Cyrano de Bergerac”
Isabelle Adjani’s strange hairstyles in this film were designed to cover the scars from her facelift which was done at a time when such procedures left scars in front of the ears. While I enjoyed this film for its utter silliness, it is one of the worst examples of contempt for actual history made in the late 20th century.
Okay, that’s super interesting!
I am afraid Adjani was still very young and did not go (yet) through facelift… ;-)
I just found your blog and have been binge-reading it for nigh on six hours now. I am enthralled and also impressed by your knowledge.
I agree with the commenter before me who pointed out that the source material of this movie hardly set it up for historical accuracy, but it’s fun and (as you mentioned) adequately emotionally portrays what it needs.