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Macbeth and the Scottish problem

The Scottish Highlands were a very isolated territory for a very long time and, therefore, were considered the backwater of Europe. That's why there is so little documentary evidence regarding fashion in the medieval highlands.

Most of the pictorial representations of the time are done centuries later, so there's really little reference or base with which to work. Even in later periods, documentation, especially for women's clothing, is sketchy at best.

So, how do you design the costumes for a movie set in the medieval Highlands?

That's the dilemma that Jacqueline Durran, the costume designer for Macbeth (2015, Justin Kurzel) had to face.

Macbeth comes out in cinemas this 25th of December, but I was lucky 
enough to watch it early (this past October) at the Sitges Film Festival.
Because it hasn't had a wide release yet, and I don't want to spoil the 
movie for anyone, in this article I won't focus as much on narrative
(as I usually do) and will solely deal with designs and influences.


Durran is known for a loose treatment of historical fashion in his designs (she's also worked in 2005's Pride and Prejudice, 2007's Atonement and 2012's Anna Karenina) but, in this case, she was forced into that.

The movie never specifies when the story happens, but the setting indicates a very early medieval period; 10th century or early 11th century. So how do you dress "historical" characters in a time period and place where you have no record of how they dressed? Basically, invent and deduce.

To do that, you need to find something with which to start. In this case, with the cultures that integrated Scotland at the time.

The designs for Macbeth take inspiration from Scandinavian cultures (you have to take into account that Viking raids and invasions were regular around that period), from Celtic cultures, from English culture (the geographical contact is a key factor to take into account) and the Roman influence on it. All these influences were literally blended together and created something new and very fresh.

In this design are found most of the influences mentioned above: the face paint is taken from Celtic cultures, the leather jacket that serves as armor has Roman and English influences and the cloth band that marks his rank has Viking origins.

This could be done with every single one of Durran's designs, but because there are so many costumes and character throughout the movie, we will be  focussing solely on the coronation gown worn by Lady Macbeth (beautifully played by Marion Cotillard).


For me, this is the design that best encapsulates the look and feel of the designs in the movie. It's a gorgeous white wool dress with a small tail and a full-shouldered pauldron. it's decorated with hanging pearls and the look is finished off with a pearl-encrusted headband with a translucent veil that covers her face.

The first and most clear influence on the dress is the Viking influence. The body of the dress is clearly based on the 10th century (and prior) Viking dress known as hangerock. It's also called a Viking apron. This is a reconstruction of a hangerock.

DISCLAIMER: This picture is owned

As you can see, the shape is pretty similar, and so is the strand of pearls held up by brooches. And both Durran's design and the Viking apron use wool, which makes sense considering that both the Highlands and Norway share a considerable cold climate. 

There are several differences, though. Mainly; it's not an overdress (which the hangerock is); it's a full dress, and so it has sleeves. The other main structural difference is the fact that the coronation dress has a tail. This, I guess, is more for dramatic reasons than anything else.

The other most significant change lies in the color scheme. The design uses white, while the traditional Scandinavian dress almost always used more vibrant colors: greens, dark mauves, browns... This color change is more of a symbolic choice than a historic influence. At the time people dyed their clothes to show their wealth, because the process was extremely expensive, so a queen wouldn't be using a white dress. In my opinion, this color choice is meant to create a contrast between how she really is and how she wishes to be seen.

The design relies heavily on the use of pearls. As seen in the picture above, she doesn't only wear them on her chest, she also wears her at her hands and on her headdress. This element of the design is taken from Byzantine culture.

Empress Theodora

But what has Byzantium to do with Scotland? Well, England was occupied for a long time by Rome, and some of their fashion took hold there, the same fashion that would later be used in Constantinople (Byzantium). Some of this must have seeped into Scottish fashion at some point by sheer geographical contact.

The similarity between the two headdresses is easy to spot. The dangling strands of pearls framing the face and the pearl headband are definitely inspired by Byzantine fashion. And the full shouldered pauldron seems to be taken from Byzantine fashion as well.

The main difference lies in the face veil. Most of European medieval cultures did not use veils to cover their faces. Veils were used, but to cover the head, not the face.

Philippa of Lancaster
(14th century)
Margaret of Provence
 (13th century)

This was the usual way veils were worn; either to cover the back of the head or around the face to cover the neck and ears. I've been unable to find any documented evidence of any European medieval fashion that used face veils.

The image that this veil conjured in my mind was not medieval, but English romanticism.

Velied Vestal Virgin by Raffaelle Monti (1847)

This is an iconic statue of the 19th century that depicts a highly romanticized take on the Greek vestals. To me, the use of the veil, the texture and the feel is pretty similar to the one in Durran's design.

Monti's statue

Durran's design

The way it obscures the face, but at the same time creates an effect of delicacy and beauty is quite unique.

But why would you throw such an influence into the mix when all the others are very much historic? The reasoning is more symbolic and narrative than historical. Lady Macbeth veils the truth of their crime behind a facade of wholesomeness and dignity in order to be crowned. A visual way of showing this is by literally having her wear a veil that obscures her face on her coronation.

The last element of the design is the make up itself; a very soft blue band painted across the eyes. This, though it feels as very modern make up, is directly inspired by celtic make up.

Blue make-up was commonly used by many Celtic cultures, and so the usage here is only logical; medieval Scotland, especially the highlands, was built on these myriad of Celtic cultures.

Keira Knightley as a Celt in King Arthur

The blue face paintings are a constant in Celtic representation in movies, but Macbeth's take is more a nod to it, than a through and through representation.

All of these influences and inspirations are blended to create a stunning result; a mix of cultures and histories as well as an incredible aesthetic vision. It's impossible to say if it's accurate (even though it's probably not) but, the thing is, you could dress Lady Macbeth in anything and it would be impossible to say if it was historically accurate.

Out, damned spot! Out, I say! One–two— 
why then ’tis time to do't. Hell is murky. Fie, my lord, fie! 
A soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, 
when none can call our power to account? Yet who would 
have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?
Lady Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 1


  1. The viking costume is made by this Swedish blogger:

    1. Thanks! It's already been added to the disclaimer of the pictures


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