Skip to main content

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.

CREATING THE LOOK

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).

LADY MACBETH'S CORONATION GOWN


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
by https://hantverkat.wordpress.com/

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

Comments

  1. The viking costume is made by this Swedish blogger: https://hantverkat.wordpress.com/

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

      Delete

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Burning Question: What's wrong with Belle's gown?

Since the first promotional pictures of Disney's new Live-Action remake of Beauty and the Beast hit the internet, there has been a lot of discussion around Belle's iconic ball gown. And, even months after its release in cinemas, there still continues to be a lot of buzz around it. Why? Mainly, because a lot of people feel that it is just doesn't look that good.
The thing is, Belle's animated yellow ball gown is, at this point, an iconic staple of animated cinema. Everybody knows it and everybody loves it. And, as a result, everybody can see the new one and say "this is not the costume I know". Therefore, everyone can compare it down to the smallest detail and see that it just doesn't quite look right.
Today, our goal will be to try and dissect the design in order to answer the burning question everyone has been asking themselves: what's so wrong with the "new" dress? Or, to put it bluntly, why is it so incredibly underwhelming?

This might n…

All hail the Prop in... The Hollow Crown. Part I

If there is an element of the Art Department often overlooked by audiences when regarding filmmaking, it's the Prop.
             PROP (noun) (IN FILM/THEATRE)
An object used by the actors performing in a play or film:

The only props used in the show are a table, a chair, and a glass of water.

But why are we speaking about the prop when this is a Costume Design focused blog? It is true that the prop can be something as far removed from costume as a chair or a plate. But it also can be something that easily and naturally intersects with the Costume Design: a piece of jewelry, a shield or a handbag.
It's in those cases when a great prop design can bring a lot of narrative meaning in a similar fashion as Costume Design itself. And it's those cases that we are going to be looking at in here. We are going to dedicate this series to spread the virtues of the prop and to analyze through specific cases how a good prop can complement the meaning behind the story and even come to stan…

Disney's Cinderella(s) and the evolution of the "princess" aesthetics

Every girl, at some point in life, has wanted to be a princess. It has become undeniable that the concept of the "princess" is, for better or worst, inseparable from girlhood. We live in a "princesses" obsessed era, and we have for a long time now. And a lot has been said about it, with loud people yelling over the internet about the positive and negative aspects of it. So it was about time for us to join the yelling contest, I guess.
If we're going to talk about princesses, the logical place to go is to the Global Mogul Conglomerate that has led the trend and, in many ways, defined it: Disney. They have, undeniably, redefined the fairytale and have turned the term "princess" into a best selling Licensed Entertainment Character Merchandise.

The thing is, even though princesses have been part of the fairy tale canon for a very long time, they didn't become the central figure until Walt Disney placed them there.
In the tales that the Grimm Brothers…

The Huntsman: Winter's War. Untangling the mess. Part II

As we heavily remarked in our last article (click here to read), the Costume Design for the monstrosity that was The Huntsman: Winter's War wasn't really as good as everyone was claiming it to be. And because we are sort of unrelenting in our grudges and hates, we are going to continue hammering down this idea, this time focussing on the true stars of this movie: the two Evil Sister Queens.
So, without further ado, let's get into the madness. IV. FREYA, THE ICE QUEEN That tonal dissonance that we pointed out in the huntsmen characters becomes a cacophony the moment we consider the two Queens in this movie: Ravenna (because how could they do this movie without bringing back the only successful character in the last movie?) and her sister, Freya, who basically becomes Elsa from Frozen.
Before starting, I feel like I need to clarify that my main quarrel about both their designs has nothing to do with if they are pretty or not, which most of them are. But prettiness is not wh…

Marie Antoinette: Working with an historical basis

A couple of months ago, we talked extensively about the narrative aspect of the designs for the 2006's movie; Marie Antoinette (see here). But that's only one half of the story. This movie is, after all, a period piece, so let's have a look at how they translated that period into the costumes.

MARIE ANTOINETTE: WORKING WITH AN HISTORICAL BASIS Period accurate pieces are actually the hardest to get by; that is because clothing in past centuries was way more complex and expensive that our 21st century standards. Because of this, most costume designers end up being constricted by their allotted budgets and have to make compromises with the accuracy. This was not the case with this movie.
Sofia Coppola's Marie Anotinette had a rather large budget, which allowed renowned designer Milena Canonero the freedom to create period-accurate pieces (the inaccuracies were only added for narrative purposes not budget constrictions). Because of this, Canonero decided to work of actual …