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Elizabeth I is a lucky charm on Oscar night. Two films that portray the monarch, 1998’s Shakespeare in Love and 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age, have won Academy Awards for costume design.
Now the opulent garb of the Virgin Queen — played by Joely Richardson as a young woman and by her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, later in life — takes center stage in Anonymous, also nominated for an Oscar for costume design. The Roland Emmerich historical thriller, with an estimated $30 million budget, delves into the controversy over what William Shakespeare really wrote.
For German costume designer Lisy Christl, 47, the Oscar nom “came out of the blue.” When she got the call, she says, “I was totally surprised, in the street. It is a wunderbares feeling.” The designer, who won a German Film Award for the 2009 historical drama John Rabe, had wanted to do a film set in the Elizabethan era since a childhood visit to a London museum. “I stood in front of those wonderful paintings, and I thought, ‘Oh my God,’ ” she says.
Queen Elizabeth’s portraiture, her era’s version of a Vogue cover, left an extensive record of her wardrobe. “For every dress in the film, there’s the original portrait in the background,” says Christl, who also relied on Janet Arnold‘s 2001 book Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d as a guide. After months of research, Christl spent five months hunting flea markets and costume shops for vintage fabrics. To hold down costs, she even scavenged bits of fine embroidery from wonderful old Indian saris and Romanian aprons to help decorate the 20 resplendent gowns she made for the queen.
Then came the real work: the boiling, distressing, dyeing, painting, powdering and waxing of fabrics to render the decayed elegance of the 16th century court. With so much handiwork involved, there were no doubles made, which created a bit of an olfactory situation with the men’s outfits. “It’s not possible to wash costumes like this — they are unique. The actors had to wear them from beginning to end,” explains Christl.
Christl’s favorite — a gown with enormous chiffon sleeves worn by Redgrave — is a take on the circa-1588 Armada Portrait (pictured above). By that time in her reign, Queen Elizabeth’s dresses had increased dramatically in size as a visual expression of her power. Says Christl, “Vanessa jokingly asked me, ‘Do you think the sleeves are big enough?'” Redgrave wears the dress in an emotional scene with the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans), her former lover. “Even in such a big dress, she’s sad and fragile. She’s Elizabeth at that moment. A costume can be so empty if the actor cannot fill it,” says Christl. “Vanessa can.”
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